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Free Agent Fallout: Looking at the Winnipeg Jets forward corps

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The narrative was already well-known to Winnipeg Jets fans: how the team had a glut of forwards going into 2016-17. Exciting prospects in Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine, coupled with preexisting youngsters and veterans alike, meant an inevitable numbers crunch come training camp. Not a bad headache to have mind you, but enough to play havoc with speculated line combinations.

And then on July 1st, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff added forwards Shawn Matthias and Quinton Howden.

This isn't to complain about either signing. In Matthias, Winnipeg paid fair market value for a skilled penalty killer and depth scorer, while Howden is exactly the kind of no-risk, found money contract organizations should ink more of. But they make a difficult task of projection nigh impossible.

With that said, let's give it a shot. The first task is to divide names into two simple, distinct camps: players who will certainly or almost certainly be on the roster, and those huddled masses on the bubble.

Come hell or high water

Let's dispense with the big names first. Bryan Little, Blake Wheeler and Nikolaj Ehlers are here. Mark Scheifele remains an RFA, but expectations are his contract is a matter of when, not if. Chevy didn't sign Shawn Matthias to not be on the NHL roster, and Mathieu Perreault is now a fixture long-term, much less next season.

One can imagine Drew Stafford or Alexander Burmistrov being moved at the right price, but until that happens, they're in the lineup. Stafford was unsurprisingly mediocre defensively, but 21 goals and a contract worth $4.35 million AAV likely cements his spot. Though he played 81 games and averaged 16:10 TOI,  Burmi did not have a good 2015-16 from either a points or possession standpoint. One feather in his cap is the dynamic trio he formed alongside Perreault and Marko Dano, though Perreault has a tendency of doing just that (the only linemates he was unable to carry were Ehlers and Thorburn). Speaking of whom, Chris Thorburn is here whether you like it or not, and it would take a catastrophe of expectations for Patrik Laine to be anywhere but in the Jets lineup.

It's a factor we'll soon discuss in further detail, but waiver eligibility has a role to play in all this. Having said that, the only player it may effectively guarantee a spot is Adam Lowry. 2015-16 was a notable step back for the 23-year-old, but he's still a valuable homegrown talent, one at significant risk of being lost on waivers. Also, rather than the added size of Laine and Matthias making Lowry expendable, his continued presence may instead complement the direction.

The names highlighted are, in my opinion, the extent of those guaranteed or near-guaranteed an NHL roster spot. Together, they already constitute eleven of the fourteen available slots (thirteen if Winnipeg decides to run with eight defencemen). Before starting into the bubble players, how might these eleven fill out a lineup (assuming of course the health of those involved)?

Three things are easy to pencil in: the trio of Ehlers-Scheifele-Wheeler, Bryan Little at 2C and Chris Thorburn in the bottom-six. From there, the significant question marks begin. Are Lowry, Matthias and Perreault centres or wingers? Does anyone seriously believe that $4.35 million dollar man Drew Stafford won't play in the top-nine? And how does one balance this with Laine's own top-nine spot (not to mention, on which wing does he play)?

This is also when what "feels" more likely and my own personal preference begin to diverge. There's a thought that new addition Shawn Matthias frees Mathieu Perreault to remain on the wing. Matthias hasn't been a good centreman arguably since 2011-12, whereas Perreault had a 51.6% faceoff win percentage in 2014-15 and 52.7% the season before that. This is the crux of two different visions:

Projection A

Ehlers-Scheifele-Wheeler
Perreault-Little-Laine
Stafford-Matthias-Burmi
TBD-Lowry-Thorburn

If Perreault is destined for the wing, he and Little together would provide phenomenal veteran linemates for Patrik Laine in his rookie season. The young Finn may be a budding superstar, but surrounding him with strong two-way players will help allow for inevitable mistakes.

Stafford, Matthias, Burmistrov and Lowry can be sliced and diced multiple ways. Perhaps it becomes Lowry-Matthias-Stafford, in what might be known as the "Possession Disaster" line. Last season saw Stafford-Lowry-Burmi spend prolonged time together as a third line; this simply swaps out Lowry for Mattias.

Projection B

Ehlers-Scheifele-Wheeler
Laine-Little-TBD
Matthias-Perreault-Stafford
Lowry-Burmi-Thorburn

The top-six is largely unchanged, though Laine gets to begin on his more-familiar left wing and there is a 2RW slot to fill. The third line is a true veterans line, and while Matthias and Stafford aren't exactly fancy stat juggernauts, hopefully Perreault might drag them to some semblance of decency. More so than in Projection A, if three scoring lines was the goal, mission accomplished.

This of course leaves out the possibility of Lowry or Burmi serving as healthy scratch (not Thor though, never Thor).

The Bubble

For point of emphasis, let's list all those bubble players likely to be in the training camp conversation:

  • Joel Armia (RFA)
  • Kyle Connor
  • Andrew Copp
  • Marko Dano
  • Chase De Leo
  • Quinton Howden
  • Scott Kosmachuk
  • Brendan Lemieux
  • J.C. Lipon (RFA)
  • Nic Petan
  • Anthony Peluso
  • Brandon Tanev (RFA)

Twelve names for three (perhaps even two) spots. Again, competition is a good problem to have, but it also means the potential of losing players for nothing. Adam Lowry is not the only Winnipeg forward eligible for waivers come 2016-17. As per CapFriendly, Joel Armia, Quinton Howden, JC Lipon and Anthony Peluso all need to clear before any reassignment to the Moose.

Some names come off the list more easily than others. Considering the hot mess which was the Manitoba Moose, Chase De Leo and Nic Petan had solid AHL rookie seasons. With Winnipeg's abundance of forward depth, this is something to build upon further, not cause for automatic advancement to the big club. Especially if there's a stronger team around them, the potential is there for both to tear through the A next year.

If he were a year older, it may have been Brendan Lemieux rather than Petan beginning the 2015-16 season on the fourth line. Again citing the now-present depth, unless Lemieux blows the doors off, one would expect him to begin his pro career with the Moose. Hardly a bad thing, as he'll be afforded offensive opportunities likely unavailable on the Jets.

In a rather small sample size of eight games, Scott Kosmachuk was a possession catastrophe. Granted, he spent most of his time on a line with Lowry and Thorburn, but his mediocre showing remains. He too might benefit from another season of AHL development.

Quinton HowdenBrandon Tanev, Anthony Peluso and J.C. Lipon make for an interesting grouping. In terms of playing style, Tanev's CV reads as remarkably similar to Howden's. A problem for Tanev is Howden's significant edge in pro experience, having 92 NHL GP and 149 AHL GP versus Tanev's 3 and 0, respectively. Howden is a more proven NHL commodity in possession of upside and 1st round pedigree, whereas Tanev is entering his first full pro season after leaving Providence College. Time in the AHL would hardly be an indictment for the latter.

Waiver eligible or not, Winnipeg's accumulated depth should spell an end to the Anthony Peluso era. After 14 points, 142 NHL GP and 209 PIM, Jets fans have seen what Peluso can do. His role as a tough guy is largely covered by fellow forwards Chris Thorburn and Adam Lowry (especially if Lowry is now a fourth liner), and Peluso is a non-factor on special teams, unlike Howden or Tanev. The Jets organization doesn't exactly have an aversion to spending one-way money in the AHL; Peluso would simply be this year's Thomas Raffl.

J.C. Lipon may split the difference between Howden and Peluso. He's got some of that tough guy grit, while three seasons in the A have shown offensive ability at the pro level. If Winnipeg feels the need for more sandpaper, it wouldn't be surprising to see him pip folks for a roster spot. With that said, given the names still remaining, there's a possibility all four may be Moose-bound.

Discounting J.C. Lipon, we're left with five names for three spots: Joel Armia, Kyle Connor, Andrew Copp, Marko Dano and Quinton Howden. Now the numbers crunch truly begins, and it's arguably centred around two questions: are the Winnipeg Jets willing to lose Joel Armia on waivers, and does Kyle Connor make the team?

First however, let's discuss the case of Andrew Copp.  His is a fascinating one to ponder, given how Copp spent all of 2015-16 with the Jets, playing in 77 games. But the additions of Laine and Matthias place downwards pressure on the depth chart, and Copp's 08:00 ATOI made him Winnipeg's least utilized regular forward last season. Given his waiver exempt status, he may be at even greater risk of AHL reassignment than Peluso.

Similar to players previously mentioned, this is hardly a horrible end for Copp. He was fine during his NHL debut, but showed tantalizing glimpses of greater offensive ability. Playing top-nine or perhaps even top-six minutes alongside Lemieux, Petan, De Leo, etc. may better showcase what Copp can bring to the table.

Speaking of players who were "fine", is there a better word for describing Joel Armia? From a Corsi For% perspective, he was neither better nor worse than the average of his teammates, while his 5v5 points per 60 came in at just over Chris Thorburn levels of productivity. Depending on your point of view, this may make him completely disposable or the perfect depth filler. The 6'3", 205 lb project presents a tantalizing skill set, one which may never come together as hoped when he was drafted 16th overall in 2011. Still, it's easy to imagine a team such as Arizona plucking him off waivers, whereas with the Jets, Armia might provide genuine press box competition for a spot in the lineup.

If Kyle Connor or Joel Armia do not make the team, it opens the door to one of Peluso, Howden, Lipon or Copp. But last season showed a willingness to employ multiple rookies in the lineup, and it's easy to imagine Connor being a 2016-17 Ehlers of some sort. As for Joel Armia, he may have showed just enough NHL potential for the organization to be wary of losing him for nothing.

Long ago, two lineup projections were thrown out there. Let's revisit them, complete with revisions:

Projection A

Ehlers-Scheifele-Wheeler
Perreault-Little-Laine
Stafford-Matthias-Connor
Dano-Lowry-Thorburn
Armia/Burmistrov

The idea of sticking Kyle Connor with Drew Stafford and Shawn Matthias is mildly abhorrent. But while Bryan Little could likely handle two rookie wingers in Laine and Connor, the more likely scenario is their being spread across lines. It's a third line that should score, even if their opponents may do even worse. And yes, that is Connor on the right wing, as he was during Winnipeg's development camp (where he skated alongside LW Lemieux and C Mason Appleton). Swap Stafford and Connor as seen fit; neither is married to one side or the other.

Marko Dano is in the lineup because that's where Marko Dano belongs. While his point production has room for improvement, the 21-year-old was a stellar possession performer and shoots the puck at quite the clip. Dano brings both a skill set and positional versatility that can move all about the lineup, more so than names such as Howden, Peluso, Lipon or even Armia.

Burmistrov brings a similar level of versatility, but if Connor is on the Jets roster, it's hard to see Burmi's place in the lineup. He and Armia both represent genuine competition from the press box; if a Stafford, Lowry, Dano, etc. aren't performing, there are two legitimate NHL options waiting to take their place. In addition, neither player is so young or highly regarded that prolonged stays in the press box would bring about fire and brimstone.

As has been noted multiple times, the possibility remains that one of Howden, Peluso or Lipon might bump Armia onto the waiver wire and reassignment. The same is technically true of Dano (minus the waivers part), but while the Slovak might prove a tremendous boost to the Moose, his demotion would likely fly in the face of icing the best lineup.

Projection B

Ehlers-Scheifele-Wheeler
Laine-Little-Stafford
Matthias-Perreault-Connor
Dano-Lowry-Thorburn
Armia/Burmistrov

One wonders if two rookie wingers might be preferable, but asking Bryan Little to shoulder Drew Stafford could result in a mouthwatering third line. The lineup features three scoring lines, and none obviously doomed to possession despair. With Perreault doing the two-way dirty work from centre, Connor and Matthias both might provide offensive dividends.

Conclusion

To be clear, there is a very real probability that these line combinations and even NHL roster projections are wrong. This is both because I'm terrible at it, and the sheer number of possibilities facing Winnipeg. In the bottom-six and press box, the Jets have tremendous control over the style of play they're looking to implement, not to mention an ability to wholeheartedly embrace the youth movement. Even if talk of icing the best lineup is genuine, the answer of what exactly this might look like is far from clear.

What say you to all this speculation? Who are the 13/14 forwards bandying about in your head, and how do they translate into line combinations? What direction should the 2016-17 Winnipeg Jets look to take? And is there anything still missing from the forward corps options? Share your thoughts, questions and concerns in the Comments section below, and as always, thanks for reading!