Now that we are one week and a half into the NHL’s Free Agency period and into the quiet part of the summer, we thought it would be a good time to look at the possible line combinations for next year’s edition of your Winnipeg Jets.
Firstly, let’s review the key additions and subtractions that have been made by Winnipeg so far this off-season. (Players previous team in parenthesis)
Key Additions: G Steve Mason (Philadelphia Flyers), D Dmitry Kulikov (Buffalo Sabres), F Michael Sgarbossa (Florida Panthers), F Buddy Robinson (Ottawa Senators)
Key Subtractions: G Ondrej Pavelec (UFA to New York Rangers), F Chris Thorburn (UFA to St.Louis Blues), F Anthony Peluso (UFA to Washington Capitals), D Paul Postma (UFA to Boston Bruins), D Brian Strait (UFA to New Jersey Devils), D Brendan Kichton (UFA to Carolina Hurricanes)
Editor’s Note: In projecting next year’s Winnipeg Jets line combinations, it should be noted that they are just that, projections. Plus, line combinations change regularly throughout the year based on a variety of reasons including performance, circumstances, injuries, etc. This is simply a fun exercise.
Having said all that, let’s start by projecting the Jets forward line combinations.
The Jets haven’t made many changes to the forward corps this off-season. Veteran Jet Chris Thorburn will not be back as he was left exposed in the Expansion Draft by the Jets and subsequently claimed by the Vegas Golden Knights and signed as a free agent by the St. Louis Blues. Aside from Thorburn, most of the forwards from last year will be back next year. The Jets brought in some depth forwards on July 1, adding 24-year-old Centre Michael Sgarbossa (one way contract) and 25-year-old Left Winger Buddy Robinson (two-way contract) but both players aren’t expected to play a key role on the Jets next season. The biggest question for me heading into this fall will be whether or not 2015 1st round draft picks Kyle Connor and Jack Roslovic can crack the Jets opening night line-up. It is my personal belief that Connor has a better chance of starting the year with the Jets than Roslovic. This is based more on where Connor is in his development and the fact that Connor started last season up with the Jets (19 games). I should mention that I wouldn’t be shocked if Roslovic also cracks the Jets opening line-up either (Roslovic played one game for the Jets last season). At the very least, you should expect both Connor and Roslovic to spend some time in the NHL next year. Thus, my forward lines are based on Connor playing more games with the Jets next season than Roslovic.
Nikolaj Ehlers- Mark Scheifele- Blake Wheeler
Rationale: When these three players have played together, the results have spoken for themselves. Mark Scheifele is clearly the team’s Number 1 center now and is coming off a career year in which he registered 32 goals and 50 assists. 3rd year pro Nikolaj Ehlers, still just 21 years old, is the most talented Left Winger on the team and has displayed excellent chemistry playing alongside Scheifele. Wheeler has been a staple on the Number 1 line for years now and is the veteran presence that this line needs. Wheeler is a player Jets Head Coach Paul Maurice leans on in key situations so he should remain on the top line for the foreseeable future. When they are playing their best hockey, this is one of the best lines in the entire league.
Kyle Connor- Bryan Little- Patrik Laine
Rationale: The second line is the most intriguing to me and obviously depends on if Kyle Connor plays the majority of the season up with the Jets next year. Bryan Little is locked in as the team’s Number 2 centre and enters the final year of a five year contract he signed back in 2013. Little is the team’s best face-off man, a tremendous playmaker and a consistent performer who can play in all situations. 19-year-old sophomore superstar Patrik Laine is your right winger on the 2nd line and is coming off a sensational rookie season in which he scored 36 goals in 73 games. Laine and Little had good chemistry together last year and because Laine is a shooter, Little is a good complement for him because he can get him the puck. Connor,20, is my choice for Left Winger on this line because it is my belief that Connor needs to play in a Top Six role on the Jets in order to be effective. Connor is fast and a shooter too so he rounds out the line nicely.
Mathieu Perreault- Adam Lowry- Joel Armia
Rationale: As you can see Adam Lowry is my third line centre here. There is a belief that Lowry is better suited to be the Jets 4th line centre (which is valid) but the reality is he is the Jets best option right now if Perreault remains a winger. Lowry is coming off of an underrated 15 goal, 29 point campaign and was actually decent in the face-off department last year (50.8%), plus he is a good physical presence who contributes on both sides of the puck. It is my belief that Petan and Roslovic are not ready to play a 3rd line center role in the NHL just yet and that’s why I have Lowry here. Mathieu Perreault is the left winger on the 3rd line for me because of the speed and skill element that he provides. Perreault is coming off a 45 point campaign in which he missed 17 games and although it is quite possible that he plays on the second line for most/part of next season, I believe he spreads the offense out better if he’s on the 3rd line. Joel Armia is my choice for Right Wing on the 3rd line for a variety of reasons but mostly because of the improvements he made in his game last year. Armia is big and fast and proved to be one of the team’s best penalty killers last season (3 shorthanded goals). Armia had 19 points in 57 games last year and I believe that Armia can provide more offense next year and could even crack 30-35 points if he plays a full season. A 3rd line consisting of Perreault-Lowry-Armia is solid defensively and able to chip in offensively on a regular basis.
Shawn Matthias- Andrew Copp- Marko Dano
Rationale: The first thing you will notice is that I have veteran Shawn Matthias on the 4th line, not the 3rd line. Matthias had an injury plagued 2016’17 campaign, registering 12 points in 45 games. Matthias has good size and decent speed and although he is certainly an option for the 3rd line next season, I have him on the 4th line because of the size, experience and speed he provides. In regards to the centre spot, I have 23-year-old Andrew Copp pencilled in as the number-4 centre for Coach Paul Maurice. Copp, who can also play wing, made improvements in his game in Year 2, registering 9 goals and 8 assists in 64 games. Copp’s offensive upside at the NHL level is limited, but he is a solid two way player who Maurice can count on. I would like to see improvements in the face-off circle. I do not believe Nic Petan is an option at center and there is a possibility he will spend most of the year playing for the Moose in the American Hockey League. The wild card here is at Right Wing. Some believe Marko Dano should be RW on the 3rd line (which could happen) but I believe by having Dano on the 4th line you give it an offensive element that was lacking last year. The 22-year-old Dano has untapped offensive upside no doubt but he has yet to display it on a consistent basis at the NHL level (11 points in 38 games last year). Should note here that I do believe Brendan Lemieux will get an increased look in training camp in September but it remains to be seen if he will play a full season in the NHL. Lemieux could be a candidate to play 10-20 games in the NHL this year maybe but could play more if they want more of a physical presence on this line. Because of the depth the Jets current have at forward, I believe Lemieux will probably spend the majority of the upcoming season with the Moose.
It should be noted here that I have not included Brandon Tanev or Nic Petan in any of the line combinations as I believe they will be extra forwards for the Jets this year and will spend most or part of the next year with the Moose.
The biggest move the Jets made this offseason in regards to its defencemen was the signing of Russian Dmitry Kulikov to a three year, $12.99 million contract (AAV of $4.333 million per year). Kulikov is coming off a rough year with the Buffalo Sabres (2 goals, 5 points in 47 games) but he gives the Jets better depth on the left side than they had last year. The biggest question mark heading into next season is the health of 27-year-old Tyler Myers who played only 11 games last year. With Myers in the line-up, the Jets have an extremely deep Top Six that can compete with most teams in the NHL but without Myers in the line-up, it leaves a significant hole. Myers had surgery back in February 2017 and is expected to be healthy for training camp but there are still questions about his long term health and whether or not he will be able to play a full season in the NHL next year. Without further ado, here are my projected D pairings for the Jets next year.
Josh Morrissey- Jacob Trouba
Rationale: Morrisey and Trouba played well when paired together last year and Trouba is the best overall defenceman on the Jets. Nobody is going to argue that. When it comes to Morrissey, he started his rookie season in the NHL on a pair with Dustin Byfuglien and he played well but Morrisey is quite simply too good not to be a top pairing defenceman on this team. Morrissey is a tremendous skater who moves the puck well and has a physical element to his game that makes him an excellent shut down option. Morrissey may only be entering his 2nd full NHL season next year but at 22 years old he can handle playing 20+ minutes per night. If Trouba re-signs with the Jets after next season, this could be a formidable pair for years to come.
Dmitry Kulikov- Dustin Byfuglien
Rationale: With Jacob Trouba as the right side defenceman on the top pair, Dustin Byfuglien will be one of the second pairing defensemen. Byfuglien averaged over 27 minutes per game last year but with a full season of Trouba, Buff should be able to play less this year, probably in the range of 23-25 minutes per night. 26-year-old Dmitry Kulikov was a key free agent acquisition for Jets General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and at an AAV of $4.33 million, Kulikov will be counted upon this year to play a significant role on the team and even though he struggled offensively with the Sabres last season, he is a good skater who is generally responsible in his own end. Although I think Enstrom will still be considered as an option here, I have Kulikov here because I think he complements Byfuglien’s style of play.
Toby Enstrom- Tyler Myers
Rationale: The only given about the 3rd pair next year is that it is going to look different than it did last season. The addition of Dmitry Kulikov via free agency most likely means that Ben Chiarot is now the team’s 7th defenceman. And with Mark Stuart and Paul Postma both not returning next year, there is a real possibility that Tyler Myers will be on the 3rd pair. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If you ask me, if Myers is your third pairing defenceman, your Top Six is probably pretty good. Enstrom is on the third pair because I think at this point in his career he is no longer a Top 4 defenceman. It’s either going to be Enstrom or Kulikov on the 3rd pair and even though many still believe Enstrom is the 2nd best Left Shot defenceman on the team, by bringing in Kulikov on a 3 year deal, the Jets need to at least give Kulikov a chance to play a Top 4 role. The number-1 option to replace Enstrom on the 3rd pair aside from Kulikov would be Ben Chiarot and the Number-1 option to replace Myers would be Julian Melchiori.
It should be noted that although 21-year-old Nelson Nogier wasn’t expected to play much for the Jets last season he looked pretty solid in 10 games up with the big club. As Nogier continues to gain more experience in the American Hockey League, he could be an option again for the Jets this year.
In my opinion (and I’m surely not the only one), the most important move the Jets have made this offseason was the signing of 29-year-old goaltender Steve Mason to a two year/$8.2 million contract. Mason, who played 58 games for the Philadelphia Flyers last season, instantly becomes the Jets number-1 goaltender and gives the team a player with 463 games of NHL experience. With all due respect to Michael Hutchinson, Mason is a much better goaltender and gives the Jets a veteran puck stopper who can mentor 24-year-old Connor Hellebuyck. As far as how many games each goaltender plays, that remains to be seen obviously, but my best guess would be Mason plays 50-55 games next season, while Hellebuyck plays in the neighbourhood of 30-35 games next season.
Let’s now look at the entire Winnipeg Jets roster.
Nikolaj Ehlers- Mark Scheifele-Blake Wheeler
Kyle Connor-Bryan Little-Patrik Laine
Mathieu Perreault- Adam Lowry- Joel Armia
Shawn Matthias-Andrew Copp- Marko Dano
Extra Forwards: Michael Sgarbossa, Brandon Tanev
Josh Morrissey-Jacob Trouba
Dmitry Kulikov- Dustin Byfuglien
Toby Enstrom-Tyler Myers
Extra Defenceman: Ben Chiarot
What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with me? Am I out of my mind? Let us know in the comments section….