With the 2016-17 NHL season right around the corner, it’s time to conduct previews across SB Nation. While there are many questions facing the Winnipeg Jets this year, here are three of particular interest.
1. Can Patrik Laine live up to expectations?
It depends on how realistic one is. Alexander Ovechkin’s rookie season is not realistic. Nikolaj Ehlers’ rookie season is.
This isn’t to say Laine lacks the talent and ability to surpass Ehlers’ 15 goal, 38 point season. But keep in mind that the 18-year-old Finn is making his North American debut at hockey’s highest professional level. While he may have dominated the Liiga last year, an NHL adjustment period should be both natural and expected.
In addition, the Jets are in a position where they can share the offensive load. Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, Bryan Little, Mathieu Perreault and the aforementioned Ehlers will help to provide scoring across the top-nine (Winnipeg has the depth to ice four scoring lines, but let’s not go off the deep end). Even Kyle Connor, who was largely overshadowed by Laine until this preseason, is likely part of 2016-17's forward corps answer.
The point is, Laine does not have to be Atlas, the weight of the world on his shoulders. He needs to be one piece among many, something eminently achievable this year (especially on what was an anemic 2015-16 power play, where the standard is rather low). A 30+ goal expectation will likely be fair sooner rather than later, but for this year, being provided Ehlers-like opportunity while growing increasingly comfortable with Winnipeg Jets hockey is a fine bar to set.
2. Is it time to give the keys to Connor Hellebuyck?
The answer is yes, and for two reasons: Ondrej Pavelec, and Connor Hellebuyck himself.
Barring a miraculous career renaissance, the book is written on what Ondrej Pavelec is at the NHL level. It’s entitled "Below Average Starting Goaltender: The Winnipeg Jets Obsession with Ondrej Pavelec". With the sole exception of 2014-15, Pav has never cracked .915%. His last five seasons? .906%, .905%, .901%, .920% and in 2015-16, .904%. One of these things is not like the others.
Even if he faded somewhat as time progressed, Connor Hellebuyck still had a strong beginning to his NHL career last year. While Pavelec posted the aforementioned .904 Sv%, and Michael Hutchinson an also less than stellar .907%, Helle came in at .918%. And as has been remarked before, Hellebuyck "faded" all the way to the second highest even-strength save percentage among goalies with at least 15 games played.
The Winnipeg Jets face a situation where Hellebuyck has dominated at the AHL level. He has very little left to prove with the Moose, and if anything, his presence takes away from the development time of fellow exciting prospect Eric Comrie. It doesn’t matter if Pavelec pitched a pre-season shutout against the Calgary Flames; his 371 career regular season games carry slightly more weight.
With Michael Hutchinson, one can make a reasonable case for needing more time to evaluate. This argument doesn’t hold water with either Hellebuyck or Pavelec.
It’s time to begin seeing if Hellebuyck sinks or swims at the NHL level. But given his waiver-exempt status, sending Hellebuyck back to the Moose is the easy answer, even if it isn’t the right one.
3. Will Winnipeg's defence survive without Jacob Trouba?
No one is (or should) be arguing that Winnipeg’s defence is better without Jacob Trouba. It’s not. It’s also not automatically doomed.
In the past, Dustin Byfuglien has shown the ability to carry basically any d-partner not named Mark Stuart, elevating the games of players such as Ben Chiarot and Grant Clitsome. There’s no reason to think he can’t do so again, whether it’s beside Ben Chiarot once more, or perhaps 21-year-old Josh Morrissey.
Speaking of the 2013 first round selection, the Winnipeg Jets have been putting Morrissey through his paces this pre-season. With 82:58 total time on ice, he has played more than any other Jet (Brian Strait comes second with 70:24 TOI. Breathe, people). The results have been largely positive, with Morrissey displaying a sound, smart two-way game which appears NHL-ready (exactly where Morrissey best slots in is a different matter).
Of course, this might all be shouting into the wind if old personnel habits die hard. But self-inflicted lineup pain is different from a lack of options, and given the options at Winnipeg’s disposal, there’s no reason barring injury that the d-corps shouldn’t get by.
What say you? Where is your bar set for Patrik Laine in 2016-17? What message does it send if the Winnipeg Jets trot out a Pavelec/Hutchinson tandem once more? And should we all just throw in the towel if Brian Strait bumps Josh Morrissey from the NHL roster? Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and as always, thanks for reading!