With the 2015-16 season in the rear-view mirror, it's time to look ahead at what the Winnipeg Jets roster could shape up to be by time next fall rolls around. The 2016-17 season could be an interesting year, as it is another step in the draft and development model which the Jets have followed. There will be lots of competition at training camp, with a number of younger players fighting for spots on Winnipeg's roster.
Whether you embraced the tank for Auston Matthews or cheered for wins even in the latter part of the year, seeing some of Winnipeg's young talent shine at the NHL level provided optimism as to what the future could entail. Many of the Jets coveted prospects received their fair share of action late into the season. It should be noted that Winnipeg did suffer significant injuries, and so we likely won't see a roster resembling the one which closed out the season.
What might the Winnipeg Jets roster look like when fully healthy? First let's examine the forwards:
Thorburn- Lowry- Burmistrov
There's no question over who's on this team's top line. Ehlers-Scheifele-Wheeler finished the year on fire and it's all but guaranteed they'll be Winnipeg's first line next season. Scheifele and Wheeler had career years and Ehlers' rookie season showed much promise, especially when alongside those two.
The second line is where things get interesting, which is to say where the competition really starts. Bryan Little will most certainly serve as pivot down the middle, but nothing is set in stone regarding who will skate on his wings.
Putting rookie Kyle Connor on the second line is a pretty bold prediction considering we haven't seen how he will fare against NHL competition. He could very well need some AHL seasoning before making the jump to the NHL. But while this may be a premature thing to say, it appears his talent could translate to the NHL level right away. Connor's speed and scoring ability ripped up the NCAA in his freshman season. He was too good for college hockey and it's not crazy to think he could bring his talents to the Jets top-six immediately.
Patience is key when evaluating talent. It is of course normal to get excited about the likes of Nic Petan, Joel Armia Marko Dano and others. But it's hard for those players to really carve out their niche with veterans like Drew Stafford and Mathieu Perreault clogging up spots. Kevin Cheveldayoff & Co. will have to determine if they want some of their prospects to make the full-time leap to the NHL in a reduced role or head down to the Moose, receiving much more ice time and opportunity to improve their respective games.
While someone like Nic Petan showed spurts of ability to compete and make an impact at the NHL level, his small stature may not be well-suited to a bottom-six checking role. Because of this, he could be sent back to the farm to develop further and help him become a top-six talent.
In the last stretch of the season, Andrew Copp was given more opportunity. Copp received more ice time and a chance to play alongside linemates that could create offence. He thrived in that opportunity, showing he can take on a larger role. Along with that, a down year for Adam Lowry doesn't help him secure his spot on the third line. It'll be a true battle between the two, but don't be surprised if Copp edges out Lowry for more ice time.
While one would hope the Jets cut the Chris Thorburn cord, chances are they won't. But it would be better for someone like Chris Thorburn to play 3-4 minutes a night on the fourth line, rather than have an up-and-coming prospect serve that same role and miss out on valuable TOI in the AHL.
Next year's training camp is going to have lots of young competition up front and that's a positive. Competition should make the Jets prized prospects better overall, challenging the entire roster to up their game.
One would hope the Jets fix up their left-side defence and it doesn't end up looking like the above. This projection is operating under the assumption that Winnipeg doesn't get rid of Enstrom and his lucrative cap hit, and that the Jets don't make any trades on the back-end. If the defensive core stays intact, this is possibly what the makeup will look like.
Trouba and Byfuglien was an effective pairing when together. It benefited both of their games, especially Trouba. Putting Trouba with Stuart, or Byfuglien with Chiarot isn't good for their respective games. Having Trouba and Byfuglien playing top minutes alongside each other is best for everyone.
Two Kelowna Rockets alums will shape the second pairing for the Jets. Playing Morrissey with someone like Myers is a better way of integrating him to the NHL game than skating on the team's third pairing with a Mark Stuart or Ben Chiarot, a player who will bring him down.
If Enstrom isn't traded or bought out, given how Mark Stuart somehow appears to not be going anywhere, they'll round out the third pairing.
Last season, it was evident who the Jets best goaltender was. When Connor Hellebuyck was in-between the pipes for Winnipeg, he transformed into a brick wall at times. While the team playing in front of him might not have helped most nights, Hellebuyck still found ways to win games and further his case as the Jets number one next season.
This likely marks the end for Michael Hutchinson. While Hutchinson had an impressive 2014-15 campaign, he failed to carry that momentum into the 2015-2016 season and had a very poor year overall.
Hellebuyck has to be one of the two goalies with Winnipeg next year, leaving the Jets to choose Hutchinson or Pavelec to play behind him. It will be Pavelec, thanks to his hard to move contract and being the least terrible options between himself and Hutchinson. Hutch is an RFA and if he were to be retained, it'd have to be on a two-way deal because it's unlikely there is a spot for him with the big club, or any NHL club for that matter.
Having a veteran such as Hutchinson down with the Moose behind prospect Eric Comrie wouldn't be a terrible idea, though who knows if Hutchinson would stay with the Jets organization if it's not in the NHL.
In short, I'd say there are three main points when looking at the next season's possible lineup:
- There will be significantly increased competition, especially at forward.
- On a related note, it really is time for Winnipeg to rid itself of Peluso and Thorburn. While Peluso is quite likely gone to the Moose, Thorburn's contract and the organization's love for guys who are "good in the room" might keep him in the fold.
- This team could be competitive.
What are your thoughts, feelings and predictions? Be sure to share them in the comments section below!