Perception is Reality, However a Deeper Look May Change What You Think
Sometime in the 1980's, an American Political Strategist named Lee Atwater was quoted as saying "Perception is reality. If you are perceived to be something, you might as well be it because that's the truth in people's minds.". While this could be an introduction to an academic look at the drastically different "realities" people seem to have when it comes to our current political and/or pandemic situations, I can assure you that I am applying it to a Winnipeg Jets-related topic.
What eventually got me thinking about the quotation was when I started taking a look at the strongly held notion that the Winnipeg Jets have been hindering some of their prospects by not bringing them up to the big leagues quick enough. From the many posts on the internet calling for the Jets to start playing Cole Perfetti to the emergence of FreeVille hashtags pushing for Heinola to be in a Winnipeg jersey, it is obvious that so many Winnipeg hockey fans feel like we aren't giving our young prospects a fair shake. I'll be the first in line to admit that I have been one of those people. It certainly is our perception, but is it reality?
So, how do you go about looking for the truth of the matter? I figured that comparing the number of NHL games played by Winnipeg Jets draft picks against their draft year peers would provide the best data. Admittedly this is a somewhat simplistic approach, not taking into consideration actual in-game opportunities (top or bottom 6/PP or SH/etc) the players got during their games, but it should give us a bit of an idea of how the Jets compare to the rest of the league.
Since I recently covered the first 5 of Winnipeg's draft classes, I figured that I would focus on the 2016 to 2020 NHL Drafts for this review.
2016 NHL Draft
The 2016 draft will always be remembered by Jet fans because that was the year we won the lottery and were awarded with the 2nd overall pick. That was 1 of 6 picks Winnipeg had that year, with two 1st round selections to go with 3rd, 4th, 5th, & 6th rounders. Out of those picks, the Jets managed to have 2 of them (1st round selections Patrik Laine - F/Logan Stanley - D) get to the point where they played in NHL games. While there still may be some hope for 6th round pick Mikhail Berdin (G), the other 3 draft picks (Luke Green - D, Jacob Cederholm - D, & Jordan Stallard - F) topped out at the AHL or ECHL level.
When you look at Winnipeg's success rate (i.e. playing in at least 1 NHL game) in this draft (2 of 6 - 33.3%) and compare it to the Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning, you will see that both those teams had 6 players out of 10 (60%) meet the criteria. Toronto's most successful picks were their 1st rounder (Auston Matthews - F) and one of their 2nd round picks (Carl Grundstrom - D). Tampa Bay found their best players with the 1st round selection (Brett Howden - F) and one of their three 2nd round picks (Libor Hajek - D).
Even when Winnipeg traded up for Logan Stanley, it was understood that he would be a "project" and therefore take longer to make it to the NHL than some of the other players drafted the same year. So, he might not be a very good player for this type of review, but I looked it up regardless and found that 27 players who were drafted after Stanley have played more than his 70 NHL games. Stanley has played more NHL games than 6 other first round draft picks from 2016, so he definitely wasn't the worst pick of that round.
While I'm on Logan Stanley, might as well take a look at what it cost for the Jets to move up to select the tall defenseman. Chevy decided to send Winnipeg's 1st (22nd overall) and 2nd (36th overall) picks to the Philadelphia Flyers for their 1st (18th overall) and 3rd (79th overall) to move up the draft and make that selection. So, how costly was that? Well, if you look at it by who the Flyers drafted in those spots (German Rubtsov - F and Pascal Laberge - F), then it wasn't costly at all. Those 2 players have combined for just 4 NHL games, all by Rubtsov, who is currently playing for Philadelphia's AHL affiliate. However, if you look at it another way, Winnipeg could have kept those 2 picks and added Alex DeBrincat (F) and Samuel Girard (D) instead of the tallest defender in the draft. Other noteable players drafted after Stanley include forwards Tage Thompson, Brett Howden, Sam Steel, Jordan Kyrou, & Jesper Bratt, defensemen Filip Hronek, Ryan Lindgren, Libor Hajek, & Adam Fox, and goalie Carter Hart.
2017 NHL Draft
The 2017 draft saw the Winnipeg Jets having selections in all 7 rounds, with two in the 7th. The Jets ended up selecting the following players in this order: Kristian Vesalainen (F), Dylan Samberg (D), Jonathan Kovacevic (D), Santeri Virtanen (F), Leon Gawanke (D), Arvid Holm (G), Skyler McKenzie (F), and Croix Evingson (D).
Of those 8 players, only Vesalainen (46 games) has managed to break into the NHL, though Samberg may get his first taste of the big league on Thursday due to numerous d-men being in Covid protocol. 5 of the 8 are still in the Winnipeg Jets system, so that is a good sign at least. So how does this compare to other players from this draft class?
Well, when you look at players drafted after Vesalainen, you see that there are 17 of them that have played more NHL games than the Finnish forward. Forwards like Ryan Poehling and Morgan Frost were taken right after Winnipeg's 1st round selection and they have played in 48 and 38 games respectively. Yes, there are players with over 100 NHL games like Henri Jokiharju - D, Nicolas Hague - D, Alexandre Texier - F, Mario Ferraro - D, Maxime Comtois - F, & Drake Batherson - F, but it seems that Vesalainen is in the same range as the majority of his peers. Especially when you consider that the forwards with over 100 games are from teams that are rebuilding (Anaheim, Columbus, & Ottawa) and would be expected to give youth more opportunities to play.
When it comes to Samberg (0 games), I guess there is a case for his NHL debut being delayed, as he is one of 11 players drafted in the 2nd round that hasn't reached that milestone. However, the American defenseman has to accept some of the blame, as his decision to stay for an extra year in the NCAA has played a role. The ankle injury in training camp this season didn't help any, though I doubt he would have been able to force his way into Winnipeg's starting lineup regardless.
I also took a quick peek at the 3rd round to see how Kovacevic (0 games) compares to the other picks and found that 10 of the 31 players selected in that round have played at least 1 NHL game, though half of those have played in less than 10. Morgan Geekie - F (72) and Cale Fleury - D (41) lead the way in games played for 3rd rounders.
If you compare Winnipeg's draft class to those of Toronto and Tampa Bay, you see that the Lightning have had their 1st and 2nd round picks (Cal Foote - D - 58 games & Alexander Volkov - F - 46 games) make it to the show, while only Toronto's 1st round selection (Timothy Liljegren - D - 32 games) has managed that feat.
2018 NHL Draft
In 2018, the Jets ended up with only 6 draft picks: 2nd, 3rd, two 5th, 6th, and 7th rounders. With those selections, Winnipeg ended up selecting: 60th overall David Gustafsson - F, 91st overall Nathan Smith - F, 150th overall Declan Chisholm - D, 153rd overall Giovanni Vallati - D, 184th overall Jared Moe - G, and 215th overall Austin Wong - F.
Out of Winnipeg's draft class, only David Gustafsson has donned the Jets jersey in a regular season game. Of the remaining 5, three of them (Smith, Chisholm, & Moe) show signs that they may develop into NHL players eventually. If just Gustafsson & Smith pan out, the Jets would hit on 33.3% of their draft picks and consider it a success. However, if they could hit on either Chisholm or Moe as well, then it would have to be considered one of their better draft classes, despite the lack of a 1st round selection.
The 1st round of this draft features only 3 players who have yet to play in an NHL game, something that late 2nd rounder Gustafsson (28 games) has already done. 18 players drafted in the 2nd round haven't dressed for a big league game and only 3 players (Alexander Romanov - D - 86 games, Ryan McLeod - F - 33 games, & Martin Fehervary - D - 40 games) have played for more games than Gus. In the rest of the draft, only 4 more players (Jasper Weatherby - F - 32 games, Philipp Kurashev - F - 83 games, Yegor Sharangovich - F - 84 games, & John Leonard - F - 49 games) have gotten into more action.
With respect to the other draft picks from the 2018 NHL Draft:
3rd - Nathan Smith: 12 players drafted after him have played at least 1 NHL game. The Jets can't be blamed in this case, since it was Smith who opted (probably correctly as he is having a great season) to stay in the NCAA for another season.
5th - Declan Chisholm: 3 players drafted after him have played at least 1 NHL game (a goalie and 2 forwards). Chisholm was just called up to the taxi squad and may get into his 1st NHL game if Dylan DeMelo doesn't come out of Covid protocol by Thursday.
6th - Jared Moe: 1 player drafted after him has played at least 1 NHL game. No goalie drafted after him has made their NHL debut.
Tampa Bay's Gabriel Fortier - F (10 games) was drafted one spot in front of Gustafsson (28 games) and is the only Lightning to make it to the show from the 2018 draft class. The Maple Leafs have 2 players from their haul (1st rounder Rasmus Sandin - D - 65 games & 2nd rounder Sean Durzi - D - 18 games) that have dressed for Toronto so far, but both of them were drafted prior to Gustafsson.
2019 NHL Draft
For the first time since moving to Winnipeg in 2011, the Jets had less than 6 draft picks for a NHL draft. In 2019, Chevy only had 5 selections to make his mark, including a 1st, 2nd, 4th, & two 5ths. With these 5 picks, the Winnipeg Jets were able to draft Ville Heinola (D), Simon Lundmark (D), Henri Nikkanen (F), Harrison Blaisdell (F), and Logan Neaton (G).
It's probably way too early to judge Winnipeg's haul in 2019, but it certainly seems to ride on whether the Jets can find NHL players with both their 1st and 2nd round picks. While I don't think there is any doubt that Heinola will become one, Lundmark probably has to show more before he gets that chance. The Swedish defenseman has his right-handed shot going for him, as it has helped a guy like Tucker Poolman close in on the 200 game mark. As for the other 3, they will have to develop their game outside of the Winnipeg system if they want a shot at the NHL and it will probably be a long hard road.
Heinola was selected with the 20th pick of the draft and all 19 players choosen before him have made their NHL debuts. To date, Ville has played in 13 NHL games and that is more than 6 of the players drafted prior to him (5th overall Alex Turcotte - F - 4 games, 8th overall Philip Broberg - D - 8 games, 12th overall Matthew Boldy - F - 2 games, 14th overall Cam York - D - 6 games, 18th overall Thomas Harley - D - 8 games, 19th overall Lassi Thomson - D - 12 games).
8 players drafted after Heinola have played in more NHL games: Tobias Bjornfot - D - 72 games, Philip Tomasino - F - 30 games, Connor McMichael - F - 35 games, Shane Pinto - F - 17 games, Arthur Kaliyev - F - 36 games, Nils Hoglander - F - 90 games, Brett Leason - F - 25 games, & Aliaksei Protas - F - 25 games.
10 players drafted after Lundmark have made their NHL debuts, though only 3 of them played in more than 10 NHL games.
Toronto didn't have a 1st round pick that year, but their 2nd round pick (Nick Robertson - F - 6 games) has got to wear the fabled Maple Leaf in a regular season game. Tampa Bay found 2 players that have played in at least 1 NHL game so far, the 27th overall selection (Nolan Foote - F - 8 games) and 3rd round pick (Hugo Alnefelt - G - 1 game).
2020 NHL Draft
After setting a Jet franchise low of 5 draft picks the previous year, Winnipeg fell to new depths with only 4 selections in the 2020 draft. Armed with 1st, 2nd, 5th, & 6th picks, Chevy settled in for a long couple of days, ending up with Cole Perfetti (F), Daniel Torgersson (F), Anton Johannesson (D), and Tyrel Bauer (D).
Definitely too early to come to any conclusions about this class, but it definitely seems like it will come down to how the 1st round (Perfetti) and 2nd round (Torgersson) selections pan out. The Jets 5th and 6th round picks haven't showed signs of taking the next steps to become NHLers as of yet, but Winnipeg surely have a long-term pro in Perfetti. It will come down to the big Swede Torgersson on whether the Jets had a successful draft. His size, strength, and affinity to playing in front of the opponent's net are all things Winnipeg desperately needs, but I think it will be a few years before we see if he makes the jump to the NHL.
21 of the 217 players (9.7%) drafted in the 2020 NHL Draft have managed to play in at least 1 NHL game. A total of 7 players selected after Cole Perfetti (3 games) have played in more games than the 10th overall pick. However, only 4 of them have played in a significant number of NHL games: 12th overall Anton Lundell - F - 31 games, 13th overall Seth Jarvis - F - 24 games, 18th overall Dawson Mercer - F - 36 games, & 21st overall Yegor Chinakhov - F - 24 games. The first 2 of those players made good NHL teams (Florida & Carolina), while the other 2 are from the bottom half of the NHL (New Jersey & Columbus).
4 players drafted after Torgersson have made their NHL debuts, ranging between 2 and 4 NHL games, but these players were also drafted by weaker teams like Ottawa, New Jersey, Chicago, and Arizona.
Neither the Toronto Maple Leafs or the Tampa Bay Lightning drafted any players in 2020 that have broken into the big leagues yet. Tampa didn't have a 1st round selection, while the Leafs had the 15th overall pick (Rodion Amirov - F). While Winnipeg's (Torgersson - Sweden) and Toronto's 2nd round picks (Roni Hirvonen - F - Finland) were playing for their home nations at this year's World Junior Championships, Tampa Bay's 2nd round selection (Jack Finley - F) wasn't able to make Team Canada.
In the end, I think I was surprised that there weren't more players (drafted after Jet prospects) that have played in more games than our guys. Stanley (27), Vesalainen (17), Gustafsson (4), Heinola (8), and Perfetti (7). These weren't the numbers I was anticipating...I was expecting to go on a "give the youth a chance" rant at the end of this article, but that isn't where this data is leading me.
For a long-term project like Stanley was considered, having a bunch of players drafted after him get to play more games than him is not surprising. What was a bit unexpected was how few there were....27, that's not even 1 on every NHL team. Don't get me wrong, clearly Winnipeg could have done much better without trading up for Stanley, but his NHL experience isn't out of whack with his peers.
Looking at Vesalainen and knowing that he somewhat delayed his NHL debut by opting to stay for an extra year in Europe, seeing only 17 players drafted after him with more playing time is lower than I expected. Especially since Ves hasn't exactly lit the lamp at the NHL level. I do believe the time on the taxi squad last year and rarely getting to play with a playmaker has hurt the impact the big Finn has made to date. He probably won't ever be a great 1st round pick, but I think if Winnipeg can find a way to get him into a position where he can regularly use his heavy shot, Vesalainen can still end up being a decent middle six forward. This also kind of shows that he is still young, in terms of NHL players, because not many of his peers are getting more NHL playing time.
As for the remainder of the drafts, I thought the number of players would be much higher than they were. Less than 10 players in all cases, most of them on rebuilding or the up-against-the-cap teams. You could use that to say Winnipeg was in the top 3rd of the NHL for playing their youth. That's not bad for a team that is trying to contend for a play-off spot.
Now, I understand that this exercise is limited in scope, but I think I can safely say that I learned that my perception of how things were playing out for Jets prospects wasn't the reality of the situation.
While I have to admit that the Winnipeg Jets haven't been as hard on their draft picks as I thought they had been, that doesn't mean that Chevy & co have done everything correctly. I still stand by my take that the Jets acquiring both Brendan Dillon and Nate Schmidt this past season was unnecessary, not to mention unhelpful to the development of young d-men like Samberg, Kovacevic, & Heinola. I also think some of their prospects are ready for bigger roles than they have been given. After watching him play for the Moose and Team Canada, I am fairly certain that Cole Perfetti could play a significant role right now in the NHL, if the Jets were willing to burn a year of his ELC. Whether it's this year or next, I think Coach Lowry (or whoever it will be) should look to the examples provided by Florida and Carolina, where they have managed to work the young players into the top 9 this year. Carolina's rookie Jarvis is currently playing on the Hurricanes' top line, while Florida's youngster Lundell is centering the Panthers' 3rd line. I'm not as sure about Ville Heinola, concerns about his defensive game & the state of Winnipeg's defensive make me think bigger players like Dylan Samberg or Jonathan Kovacevic might be better suited at this point. If I had a solid right-handed defensive partner to pair Heinola with, his offensive upside might make it worth it but until then, I think he will be helped by further time in the AHL.