A few years ago, when the Sabres were at the height of their tank, The Hockey News came out and predicted that the Winnipeg Jets would win the Stanley Cup in 2019. They also predicted that the Sabres would win in 2020. It doesn’t mean they’re going to be right, but based on where the team was five years ago, both Winnipeg and Buffalo were building promising futures.
The Jets were lauded for years for building a team properly through smart drafting and trades while creating a strong farm system. Yet in 2019, the Jets haven’t had a good shot at the Stanely Cup, and due to some bad fortune and poor moves, they look like a contender that was grounded just as their ascent began.
This is an interesting tale and the Sabres can learn a lesson or two.
For a quick catch up on the Jets, they drafted a team with an explosive forward crop led by center Mark Schiefele, scoring winger Patrik Laine, and other great wingers like Blake Wheeler, Nikolaj Ehlers, and Kyle Connor. The Jets defense came together through a mix of trades like former Sabre Tyler Myers and Dustin Byfuglien while drafting Jacob Trouba and Josh Morrissey. Add in goalie Connor Hellebuyck, who they did not rush to develop, and the Jets created a deep and talented roster over the years of 2014-16.
NHL pundits league-wide looked and said the same as The Hockey News, that this was a team that would be a real contender. It was just a question of when it all would come together.
Well in 2017-18, the Jets emerged, finishing 2nd overall in the league and losing in the Conference Final. That spring leading up to the playoffs, the Jets added center Paul Stastny to the lineup to solidify their 2nd line. The playoffs saw Winnipeg make it all the way to the third round before falling to the Vegas Golden Knights in five games.
That offseason saw two crucial things happen that unfortunately started the slowdown of the Jets ascent. Stastny, who looked like he would stay in Winnipeg, went to Vegas instead and young defensive star Jacob Trouba was signed only to a one-year deal despite scoring 50 points on defense. These two things had a major effect on the Jets. Winnipeg backed into the playoffs last year, struggling down the stretch, and ended up losing to the St. Louis Blues in six games in the first round.
Stastny’s loss left a void that the Jets still have not been able to fill at forward.
If Buffalo has had a slight reputation issue in the NHL, then Winnipeg is unfairly NHL Siberia in player’s eyes. It was a bad fortune for the Jets that with a great young team underway they still
lost a good center that solidified their lines. Trouba’s issue was a whole different matter that the Jets mishandled. Trouba has wanted a bigger contract for years and the Jets had low-balled him during negotiations. Once the one-year deal was made the rumors started that he was already gone. The Jets could’ve traded him in the summer of 2018 for much more value then they received in 2019. They could’ve traded him at the deadline in March and got a better deal. Instead, Winnipeg tried to get a deal with a guy who they burned their last bridge with, and by this point, wanted out for family reasons also. Instead, the Jets only got a 1st round pick back (their own) and Neal Pionk from the Rangers.
Free agency brought more bad news as Tyler Myers left to join the Vancouver Canucks when the Jets wouldn’t pay him more to stay, and Ben Chiarot also left. Additionally, Laine, a restricted free agent, was in an awful negotiation with the Jets that led to belittling comments about the team and coach. Laine has since resigned but it remains to be seen what his long-term future in Winnipeg is. The last dagger the Jets received was another of bad fortune when right before the season started in September star veteran Byfuglien announced he was taking an indefinite absence and possibly retiring.
In just over a year’s time, the Jets went from one of the top contenders to losing most of a great defense corp, a top center, and falling back to the pack as a playoff hopeful at best. While the Jets have a lot of youth up front, their defense will take time to rebuild, which will probably waste the last few good years of captain Blake Wheeler’s career.
At this point, none of the best decisions look great. If they try to add talent to restock their defense for a defenseman like Ramsus Ristolainen, it will come at the price of one of their great forwards like Ehlers. Free agency is a hard sell being in Winnipeg and the team generally is not a big spender anyway. Unfortunately, the only real option is to draft some new talent while taking a chance or two to trade a decent prospect for an established defender.
The Jets are a cautionary tale of how quickly a window can open and how quickly it can close. You can’t blame Winnipeg for Stastny not staying or Byfuglien leaving out of nowhere. But as a GM, part of your job is asset management something so many GMs miss at. Trouba could’ve been moved far earlier for help that would’ve shored up the Jets defense. If you knew a year earlier Trouba was probably gone why wouldn’t you extend Myers?
In this year’s free agency, why doesn’t Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff make a play at a better veteran defenseman like Anton Stralman? Once you have a core built the goal is to keep that group together as long as possible with as many opportunities to have a shot.
The Jets look to have already lost their biggest window.