After a brief hiatus due to multiple days off before Game 7 of the Western Conference Semi-Finals and the Mothers Day weekend, we conclude the “What Can We Learn” series with a look at the final team to make the final four, the Winnipeg Jets.
The final Canadian team in the playoffs is already up 1-0 in the Conference Finals and looked the part of a team that is going to make their way to the finals. It’s been a long and slow road for the Jets to get to this point, but they appear to be built to sustain this level for play for a few years to come.
Hit those first round picks
The Jets have been patient with their draft picks and have been extremely proficient with their first round selections. Their first round selections since moving to Winnipeg have been – Mark Scheifele, Jacob Trouba, Josh Morrissey, Nikolaj Ehlers, Kyle Connor, Jack Roslovic, Patrik Laine, Logan Stanley, and Kristian Vesalainen.
Roslovic has been a depth forward in the playoffs but almost certainly will be a part of the Jets group going forward. Stanley is a bit of a debatable pick but they got Laine earlier in that draft and the tall defenceman is still trending towards being an NHL defenceman after a breakout second half of the season with Kitchener. Vesalainen will be just another great forward to slot into this lineup soon enough.
When looking back, it’s really impressive to see how well the Jets have done with their first round pick specifically and they form a large part of their success this season. If an organization can avoid the pitfalls AND extract tremendous talent it will go a long way to improving your organization.
They’ve been able to support that group with other later round draft picks but with the elite talent grabbed in the first round, they’ve quickly vaulted themselves up the NHL power rankings.
Winning the lottery to get Laine was a huge boon that likely sped up the entire process, but sometimes you have to get lucky.
Patience is Key
Trust the process.
Jets fans were lamenting the Jets lack of assertiveness on speeding up the development of this team but those cries have been quieter with the Jets just three wins away from making the Stanley Cup Finals.
It’s understandable WHY those fans were vocal and upset about the lack of making moves to help the core. The organization had not won a single playoff game since moving to Manitoba and the honeymoon period had worn off.
But they slowly built up the core that they have and didn’t rush it. Here is a clear breakdown of how the Jets broke down before the playoffs started:
Here's how Winnipeg acquired last night's lineup. Not a single NHL FA signing. Unbelievable job by Cheveldayoff and his scouting staff:
Draft – Draft – Trade
Draft – Trade – Draft
Draft – Draft – Trade
Draft – Draft – College FA
Draft – Draft
Trade – Trade
Draft – Trade
— Brad E. Schlossman (@SchlossmanGF) April 14, 2018
That much draft talent takes a few years to accumulate and extra picks in the later rounds. The 2016 draft was the only draft in which the Jets had less than the 7 allotted picks, and that was because they traded their 7th round pick that year for a 2017 7th round pick.
Stay Away from Free Agency
Looking at the Jets salary cap structure, the Jets aren’t locked down to any contracts that were signed during the fever of the free agent market in early July. Yes, they do have Steve Mason signed for $4.1M next season and it’s looking like a bad deal but it’s short term and not exactly hindering. The Kulikov deal is not a good deal either, but it’s three years and just slightly above league average.
But the team is the term and the reasonable cap hit.
Every year the organization has a major contract coming off the books to ensure that they have enough cap space and flexibility to sign their young players to long term deals at a digestible value. Nikolaj Ehlers deal is a prime example of that.
They’ve committed their money to the stars that they have within their system and appear to be hoping that players like Vesalainen will fill in the depth scoring roles in years to come.
Using free agency to fill in your minor lineup holes is an effective way to ensure that you don’t get yourself in a bind, don’t suffer opportunity cost during the season, and allows you to lock up those players.
This theme runs through all four of the conference finalists – they’ve used the July 1 free agency as an opportunity to add role players, veteran leadership and physicality without committing to long term deals.
Free agents might’ve shied away from Winnipeg and that plays a part in the organization being completely void of these hampering contracts but credit to the management team for avoiding the desire to ‘overpay’ to bring someone there in the past. That reluctance to head to Winnipeg may evaporate with the recent success, so it will be important to remain strong on this front.
Size does Matter
This silly blogger said size doesn’t matter in a previous post and everyone pointed to the Jets (among a few others) as the counter argument. Which just reinforced the original point that was made – that size matters and should be something that you need to be aware of but not something that should be prioritized over skill.
The Jets have done a fantastic job of drafting players with high skill levels and have been able to add a few of those highly skilled players that aren’t small. Connor, Laine, Wheeler, and Scheifele are big bodied players who use their size effectively but are really good at hockey. They have some more slight players in Ehlers and Roslovic who slide in and give the Jets the speed and playmaking abilities to be successful.
If there has been one selection in the first round for the Jets that is hotly contested, it’s Logan Stanley. His Elite Prospects scouting report starts as follows:
Stanley is a huge defensive minded defenceman. He loves to play physical and clear the crease, but also can chip in offensively when needed
Any time a scouting reports starts with ‘he has size’ or is huge, that should be a red flag. Use free agency to add that size for your bottom six or draft skill and then use that asset to trade for things you feel you need.
Size matters in the greater scope and is part of the reason why the Jets have been successful this season but they have got here based on their skill.
For arguments sake, Dustin Byfuglian, Blake Wheeler and Tyler Myers make up a large part of that ‘size’ that the Jets possess. Take those away, replace them with average sized players, and the Jets would fall from one of the bigger teams to middle of the pack.
I remember when The Hockey News put out this cover for their annual Future Watch:
It was mocked in quite a few circles as the slow and steady Jets weren’t anywhere near the team they are now. A lottery win, some patience, Connor Hellebuyck emerging as a number one goalie and some luck in the playoffs and the Jets are seven wins away from hoisting the cup a year before this bold prediction.
The major takeaways from the Jets path is their proficiency on the draft floor, particularly in the first round, patience with that core, and avoiding the free agent market.
Even if the Jets are unable to capture the prize this year, they will be a contender in the west for the next few years. After that, just a little more luck and the Stanley Cup may be making its way to Manitoba.