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2021-22 Division Preview: Will the Jets take off or crash?

With a solid forward core and goalie, the Jets’ success will inevitably come down to the success of their defensemen.

NHL: OCT 03 Preseason - Jets at Canucks Photo by Devin Manky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Last year, the Winnipeg Jets, along with their fellow Canadian clubs, played the arguably most unique division season in the league. To allow for a season to be played. the Canadian teams banded together to form the North Division, which allowed for teams to eliminate international travel, which would have been impossible given the ongoing pandemic.

In the North Division, the Jets found some fuel despite undeniable holes in their lineup. While they ended up third in the division, there was a very apparent gap between themselves and the frontrunners of the division, the Maple Leafs and the Oilers.

The usual suspects ran the show for the Jets last season. Mark Scheifele had a dominant season on offense, posting 63 points in 56 games. Connor Hellebuyck posted decent numbers and made saves when he needed to while handling a heavy workload. Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers also proved they could pick up some of the slack after the team traded sniper Patrik Laine for Pierre-Luc Dubois.

Over the past few seasons, the Jets have consistently had poor performances on their blue line. After making several moves over the offseason to address this, the Jets will be relying on their new pieces and the improvement of their existing ones if they want to have a chance at achieving success in a hyper-competitive Central Division.

The Fresh Faces

Brenden Dillon, D

Now entering his third team in three years, Dillon is likely looking to make a strong impression and earn a longer stay in Winnipeg (something people rarely want to do). The 30 year-old is on a deal that pays him $3.9 million a year and will expire after the ‘23-’24 season. For a blue line that has struggled in the defensive zone, Dillon’s ability to be consistent will be well received. It would be inaccurate to call him exclusively a defensive defenseman as he is an effective player in the offensive zone, although has rarely seen power play ice time. He will likely be playing top four minutes alongside Neal Pionk or new pickup Nate Schmidt.

Nate Schmidt, D

Schmidt is entering Winnipeg after a strange year in Vancouver where he quickly requested a trade. Last season saw his numbers plummet after entering a very poor Vancouver defensive system that obviously did not play to his strengths as a player. The Jets have taken a big gamble absorbing the remaining four years of his contract that comes in at just under a $6 million AAV. Whether his game rebounds or not, Jets fans can expect a high character, outspoken leader.

The Departures

Mathieu Perrault, LW

Perrault is a depth forward who was not resigned by the Jets. He plays a physical game and often can be found in the middle of any scrum. He was signed to a one year deal at a $950k AAV by Montreal.

Other than Perrault, Winnipeg will return the rest of their team from last year.

The Difference Makers

Connor Hellebuyck, G

For a team that has had unstable defenseman for several years, it is no wonder that Hellebuyck has been regarded as one of the better goaltenders in the league for that period. He has kept Winnipeg in many games over that span, but with additions of two experienced defenseman Winnipeg will hope his workload can be cut down. While Jets fans will hope that Dillon and Schmidt, as well as the possible resurgence of underperforming defensemen like Josh Morrissey, can give them a solid defensive core, I still think they will be one of the worst groups in the Central Division. Their success, either way, will depend on Hellebuyck’s ability to keep the puck out of the net.

The Top Four, D

Winnipeg finally has invested in what they think can be a legitimate top four. Neal Pionk has proven to be a great player, especially last year. Morrissey proved he could be great several years ago and earned himself a massive payday, but calling last year anything short of disappointing would be an understatement. Dillon is a player where you pretty much know what you are going to get, which is exactly what Winnipeg needs on their blue line. Schmidt has the potential to be a big wild card, possibly returning to his form several years ago. However, if he doesn’t, they have a massive bill to foot.

Kyle Connor, LW/RW

While his production slightly decreased from the year before, Connor was still a great goal scorer and dynamic offensive machine. His quick feet and top notch speed make him a nightmare on odd-man rushes and his powerful and accurate shot allows him to finish the chances he creates for himself and his teammates. Expect his production to trend upwards this year.

Mark Scheifele, C

In my opinion, Scheifele is a player that is consistently underrated in the discussion of top centers in the league. Similar to Connor, he is incredibly dynamic. He can score, but he is also an incredible passer who makes everyone on the ice better. He isn’t the best two-way center in the league, but he can definitely hold his own. After a controversial suspension in the playoffs last year, expect him to return looking for something to prove.

Blake Wheeler, RW

Wheeler is a great hockey player who can use his body to take over both zones. More importantly, in my opinion, he will be tasked with bringing together forward with an excess of talent. When a front end is packed with skill, it is not uncommon to see players find themselves without a role. Wheeler also has the opportunity to mentor Pierre-Luc Dubois and potentially help him live up to the player he was forecasted as on draft night.

Nikolaj Ehlers, RW

Ehlers is often the forgotten piece of the Jets. Usually playing on the second line, he often has access to good matchups and possesses the skating ability and skill to make lower pairing defensemen look silly. This, paired with his great shot, makes him another high caliber offensive threat under Winnipeg’s belt.

Honorable mentions: Paul Statsny, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Andrew Copp

Predicting the Season

Evolving Hockey’s model, in my opinion, paints a rosy picture of where Winnipeg will finish the season. They have Winnipeg coming in barely behind Minnesota for the 3rd spot in the Central Division, which is projected to be a very tight race.

Winnipeg undeniably has one of the best forward groups in the league. It will be tough for teams that struggle with defensive depth to figure out how to stop their top two lines, which, however they will be configured, have the skill to score and dominate. There is, however, a massive question mark on the blue line. To finish in a playoff spot, Morrissey will need to have a resurgent year. Their two new pieces, Schmidt and Dillion, will also need to prove they are worthy of top four roles. Finally, while their goaltending has been solid while Hellebuyck has been in the driver’s seat, it is tough to rely on it year after year. All things considered, I see Winnipeg fighting for a Wild Card spot in the Central. I think they have the potential to finish as high as second in the division, but it will be a matter of putting it all together, which I am not confident they can do.

Fortunately for Wild fans, the Jets/Wild rivalry has produced some intense battles in the regular season and playoffs and fans will get to see it reignited after a year-long hiatus.