NHL playoffs: No easy solution to Jets’ latest playoff failures
An interesting offseason lies ahead for the Winnipeg Jets, who have a number of difficult decisions to make on their core players.
An interesting offseason filled with difficult decisions lies ahead for the Winnipeg Jets after being eliminated from the NHL playoffs by the Vegas Golden Knights.
After missing the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 2017 last season, the Jets began searching for a new voice over the summer. They hired Rick Bowness, who brought four seasons of playoff experience and a Western Conference final berth, and overhauled the rest of their coaching staff.
The roster, meanwhile, largely remained untouched outside of a few additions around the edges. It was a vote of confidence from general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, who still believed in this group that last won a playoff round in 2021. But was that the right move?
Winnipeg’s skaters proved inconsistent throughout the regular season, with Bowness repeatedly questioning their effort level during the 82-game schedule — something he did again with his full chest after Thursday's Game 5 loss. But despite his best intentions, the team’s lack of consistency never seemed to dissipate.
The Jets’ encouraging start under Bowness quickly wore off in the second half — and even before then as well — as they fell out of contention for the Central Division, shifting their sights to the wild-card race. And they nearly dropped out of that battle, too.
Three clubs competed for the final playoff spot until the end: the Jets, Calgary Flames and Nashville Predators. Winnipeg ultimately snuck in by two points, although that victory was short-lived after losing to Vegas in the opening round in five games.
Losing that series could have serious ramifications in the coming months, though. For an organization that advanced to the 2018 West final, it might be time to accept that its competitive window is beginning to close, or has already.
The R-word (rebuild) is a phrase most small-market franchises prefer to avoid — look at the San Jose Sharks, for example. Even so, the Jets may have no choice but to explore that path, at least to some degree, this offseason.
There won’t be much salary coming off the books until after next season, providing Winnipeg with roughly $12.1 million in cap space this summer. But that figure could increase dramatically depending on what happens with a few of their veteran core pieces.
Pierre-Luc Dubois, a restricted free agent with arbitration rights, is easily the front office’s top priority. Beyond him, however, decisions will likely need to be made on Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler and Connor Hellebuyck.
With all four players just one year away from unrestricted free agency, Cheveldayoff must decide the franchise’s immediate direction, which could also determine his fate.
Losing Dubois for nothing but cap space in 2024 is not an option for Winnipeg. Thus, management will put forward its best effort to extend the 24-year-old long term this offseason. But doing so likely won’t be easy.
Dubois’ ties to the Montreal Canadiens are well documented at this point. The most obvious one is he was born in Ste-Agathe-Des-Monts, Quebec. That is only the tip of the iceberg, though.
He visited the city during last year’s draft and was linked to the historic franchise via his agent’s comments, saying, "Montreal is a place, a city he'd like to play in.” The two organizations have also reportedly held numerous trade discussions around him in the past.
Most around the industry believe it’s already a forgone conclusion that Dubois will eventually end up on the Canadiens, whether that’s via trade or free agency. The Jets, however, are still hopeful they can convince him to stay.
The 6-foot-2 forward is slated to reach free agency at the perfect time, though, as he’s coming off the best statistical performance of his career. He recorded career-highs in points (63), points per game (0.86) and goals per game (0.37) in 73 games during the regular season.
Few players meant more to the Jets than Dubois, who ranked third on the team in goals (27) and fourth in points. He also finished third in average ice time (18:27) among Winnipeg forwards.
Dubois was crucial amidst his team’s brief playoff run as well, placing tied for second in goals (two) and tied for third in points (four). His 21:48 of ice time also ranked second among Jets forwards behind linemate Kyle Connor’s 22:40.
Top-six centres are also in high demand right now, with the going rate for players under 30 at around $8 million per season. For Winnipeg, one of the least popular free-agent destinations, management may have to offer Dubois north of that figure to convince him to re-sign.
If an extension isn’t feasible, trading Dubois might be the Jets’ only option, which could also entice teams to inquire about Connor (signed through 2025-26) and Nikolaj Ehlers (signed through 2024-25).
Scheifele, carrying a $6.12 million cap hit in 2023-24 before becoming a UFA, was once thought of as the next captain of the Jets franchise. But that has since become a distant memory met with plenty of disappointment over the last few years.
From a results standpoint, Scheifele surpassed the 30-goal and 80-point marks in two of his three campaigns from 2016-19, and he likely would’ve extended that streak if not for the COVID-shortened 2019-20 season. Since then, however, his production and availability haven’t been the same.
The 30-year-old appeared in 56 games during the 2020-21 season, scoring just 21 goals, his lowest total since 2014-15 (15). He regained part of his offensive form the following season, notching 29 markers in 67 contests, but only finished with seven more points (70).
Scheifele’s playmaking ability continued diminishing this season, as he tallied just 26 assists — the second-fewest of his career — despite exploding for a career-high 42 goals in 81 games. But his scoring dried up in the playoffs, as he potted just one goal against Vegas.
For as much offence as he has provided over the years, a significant portion of his value has been consumed by his defensive flaws, causing him to butt heads with numerous head coaches — including Bowness — during his Jets tenure.
It is also fair to wonder if Scheifele may demand a trade himself. He debated his future following a disappointing 2021-22 season before returning for his 12th campaign in Winnipeg. Might he follow a similar path this year?
If he does, the seventh overall selection from 2011 will hold plenty of decision power, as his contract includes a modified no-trade clause, allowing him to block a trade to 10 teams.
In a perfect world, Cheveldayoff would likely lean towards keeping Scheifele and negotiating another contract extension with the franchise icon. On the other hand, now could be the right time for both parties to part ways.
If the Jets are indeed headed for a roster shakeup this summer, they will almost certainly have to discuss Wheeler’s future, although any final decision will be up to the franchise’s longest-tenured skater.
As part of his five-year, $41.25-million contract, Winnipeg’s front office included a full no-move clause and a modified no-trade clause, which allows Wheeler to submit a five-team trade list. But convincing one of those clubs to acquire his services could be tricky.
For starters, the 36-year-old carries a cap hit and salary of $8.25 million in 2023-24 — two figures the Jets would surely have to retain a percentage of to make any deal work. And then there’s the issue of locating a suitable return in exchange for the veteran forward.
It also doesn’t help Wheeler’s offensive production has declined dramatically upon entering his mid-30s. Take this past season, for example. He averaged his fewest goals per game rate (0.22) and ice time per game total (17:03) since 2010-11.
The 2022-23 campaign wasn’t an outlier either, as he has failed to reach the 20-goal mark each season since 2019-20. He has also averaged less than 20:00 of ice time over the last four seasons, compiling just 18:33 during that span.
Wheeler’s days as a top-six forward are long gone, which has caused the Jets coaching staff to shield the former All-Star from other teams' top lines. That’s fine during the regular season, but doing it in the playoffs creates matchup issues.
If that weren’t enough, Wheeler was stripped of his captaincy before the season as the organization initiated a minor culture shift within the locker room. It also likely signalled the beginning of the end for a relationship that has existed since the franchise returned to Winnipeg in 2011.
Still, if the 6-foot-5 winger has anything left in the tank at this stage of his career, he probably doesn’t want to endure yet another rebuild or retool in Winnipeg.
The same is likely true about Hellebuyck, as the 2019-20 Vezina Trophy winner remains in the prime of his career and probably has zero interest in sticking around for the club’s next competitive window to open.
But unlike Scheifele and Wheeler, Hellebuyck and Dubois hold far more weight regarding the franchise’s direction. If both are willing to commit long term, perhaps a full-scale teardown can be avoided. That’s a pretty big “if,” though.
Unless the Jets can convince them otherwise, it will be vital for the front office to strike while the iron is hot. So they’ll need to maximize the 29-year-old netminder’s trade value this offseason before he potentially departs via free agency after the 2023-24 season.
Elite goaltenders like Hellebuyck rarely become available. Since so few exist these days, the two-time All-Star would undoubtedly be in high demand across the sport, adding to the temptation of trading him for a massive haul of future assets.
Hellebuyck, who finished fourth in goals saved above expected (30.8) in 2022-23, would instantly transform any team that acquires him into a legitimate championship contender. And he’s shown no signs of slowing down from his incredibly high workload.
No other goaltender in the league thrives under pressure like the fifth-round selection from 2012. He has faced more shots (11,349) and made more saves (10,412) than anyone since 2017-18. His 26 shutouts during that span are also third-most behind Andrei Vasilevskiy (28) and Marc-Andre Fleury (29).
This past season was no different for Hellebuyck, who ranked fifth in save percentage (.920) and 10th in goals-against average (2.49) league wide following an underwhelming 2021-22 showing, where he posted a 2.97 GAA and a .910 SV%.
Adding to his value, Hellebuyck features a very reasonable $6.16 million cap hit next season, the sixth-highest at his position. For a goaltender of his calibre, any team should be willing to move heaven and earth to fit him onto their roster.