Predicting the Winnipeg Jets’ Opening Night Lineup
WINNIPEG, MB. – It has already been 104 days since the Winnipeg Jets played their final regular season game of the 2016-17 schedule.
Impressive to some, yet quite depressing to others was the fact that Winnipeg managed to win its final seven games of the season – providing a hint of what could have been, while also falling further out of the the draft lottery picture.
Had the Jets maintained their sub-par play over the course of those final seven games, they would have been looking at a higher ranked draft choice, or potentially a top lottery pick, as none of the bottom three teams drafted within the top three selections at this year’s NHL Entry Draft.
Mind you, had the Jets fallen deeper in the standings, G.M. Kevin Cheveldayoff may not have been able to pull off his side deal with Kelly McCrimmon and the Vegas Golden Knights to avoid losing one of Marko Dano, Shawn Matthias or the ultimate team player, Toby Enstrom to the Golden Knights via expansion.
As the story goes, Chris Thorburn was drafted by Vegas, but ended up signing with the Jets’ Central Division rival St. Louis Blues – fulfilling the tough guy role left vacant by the departure of Winnipegger, Ryan Reaves, who now joins the Pittsburgh Penguins, by way of a draft day trade.
Thorburn’s departure leaves an opening in the Jets’ bottom six forward group – or a seat in the press box, depending on how you look at it.
Although training camp 2016 provided a significant amount of questions as to who would make the opening night lineup, 2017’s version should paint a clearer picture in the minds of Jets fans as to the future plans for some of Winnipeg’s budding talents.
Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers, Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little will be locks within the top six forwards in 2017 – pending injury.
The third line should feature some combination of Mathieu Perreault, Joel Armia and Adam Lowry, leaving Andrew Copp, Nic Petan, Marko Dano, Brandon Tanev, Shawn Matthias and newly acquired Michael Sgarbossa to do battle with youngsters, Kyle Connor, Jack Roslovic, Brendan Lemeiux and Chase De Leo for fourth line minutes.
Is it an ideal situation for the deeply talented young forward corps?
It is a log-jam on the front end for Winnipeg. Players with the talent of Kyle Connor should be longing for a top six role. But with the top six positions all but filled, Connor will have to battle as many as twelve others for one of six bottom line jobs.
It is at this point where things tend to go off-script.
In the past, Connor – now 20 years old – has demonstrated that his drive and willingness to do battle is nearly unrivalled. It is this determination, paired with a strong training camp that may provide Connor with the opportunity to leapfrog a player such as Mathieu Perreault – who has historically gotten off to slow starts.
Making the case for Adam Lowry, Joel Armia, and Andrew Copp would be Head Coach Paul Maurice, who has often shown his trust in those players in key moments – whether that be a defensive shift or an important power play faceoff in the offensive zone. It goes without saying that Maurice likes using players he has grown accustomed to.
On the flip side of things, Maurice has also seen players such as Dano, Petan and Tanev serve time in the AHL or press box due to the size of his roster. With younger goal scoring threats such as Connor and Roslovic hoping to make names for themselves once again this fall, it may be tough for those three ‘aging youngsters’ to show their true colours when compared to these more youthful names.
That poses the question of youth over experience. Will Maurice and his staff stick to a forward lineup similar to that of last season, or will they try once again to get even younger?
Remember, this franchise has hosted two playoff games in Winnipeg since relocation. Adding to those dreadful stats is the fact that the Jets/Thrashers have never won a playoff game in the 30 team era – going winless in eight opportunities.
The Jets/Thrashers have also put up the third worst record since 2001, with a total of 544 wins, compared to 571 losses and 163 ties. Only Columbus (538 wins) and Florida (516 wins) have worse records in that timeframe.
On defence, much stays the same for the Winnipeg Jets in 2017-18, with two key additions.
Free agent signing, Dmitry Kulikov will join the big boys on the backend, while 6-foot-8 Tyler Myers should return to the fold this season, pending all is well at home.
Joining an already crowded group of blueliners, featuring Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, Toby Enstrom, Josh Morrissey, Ben Chiarot and Julien Melchiori, Kulikov and Myers hope to live up to their substantial contracts.
In the crease, there is no doubt that freshly acquired Steve Mason will get the nod in a large percentage of games for the Jets off the bat. Providing guidance and a veteran presence to fellow netminder, Connor Hellebuyck will also be at the forefront of Mason’s job description.
If the first 10 games go well for Mason, he should be expected to carry the weight for the bulk of the season. If not, Hellebuyck will be thrown into action, and counted on to snatch the starting gig away from the 4.1 million dollar man.
With injuries playing a significant role in the Jets’ season last year, the depth of this year’s squad should help in that regard. However, there will also be a handful of very disappointed young men come the final round of cuts this October – and it is guaranteed that many of those players will have had NHL experience.
The predicted Winnipeg Jets opening night roster for October 4th vs. the Toronto Maple Leafs is listed below.
*Please note that this is a prediction as of July 21st, and does not take future injuries, trades or management decisions into account.
Laine – Scheifele – Ehlers
Wheeler – Little – Connor
Perreault – Lowry – Armia
Tanev – Copp – Matthias
Trouba – Morrissey
Byfuglien – Enstrom
Myers – Kulikov
Dano, Chiarot, Hutchinson
Petan, Sgarbossa, Roslovic, Lemieux, De Leo, Melchiori
– Carter Brooks, MyToba Sports
Photos by Will Borys and James Carey Lauder