Before the Jet engines get fired up there are four big questions to be considered for the Winnipeg Jets in 2020-2021.
The Winnipeg Jets are the least known, very intriguing team in the NHL. Their most recent national headlines include the debacle of Dustin Byfuglien and his leave of absence followed by the termination of his contract and, now over the past calendar year, the trade rumors swirling around Patrik Laine. Even goaltender Connor Hellebuyck‘s Vezina Trophy award-winning 2019-2020 made minuscule ripples in hockey media.
Looking at the other six teams in the newly dubbed North Division the Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, and even the basement-dwelling Ottawa Senators have an East Coast big city thing going for them, while the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames have their battle for Alberta. In Vancouver, the Canucks own the Pacific Northwest as the only NHL team in the Seattle and Portland media markets.
Winnipeg, as far as media markets are concerned, is in the middle of nowhere. It is closer to Fargo, North Dakota than to any of the big Great Lakes cities including the Minneapolis/St. Paul market. Why does this geography lesson matter? Winnipeg deserves so much more credit than the typical hockey fan gives them.
In the 2019-2020 season, Winnipeg finished sixth in the Western Conference with a 37-28-6 record. Not only do the Jets have the reigning best NHL goalie, but they are loaded with high flying scoring talent on the wings. If you are trying to avoid airplane puns, one could just say the Jets have one of the best groups of top-six forwards in the NHL.
Lacking the dominating scoring superstar like McDavid or MacKinnon, the Jets had five forwards that averaged .82 points per game last season. That is to say, that had the season not been stopped in March of 2020 because of COVID-19, five of the Jets top-six forwards were on pace to score 65 points. That is as many 65 point pace scorers as Western Conference competitors Dallas, St. Louis, and Vegas combined.
Leading the Winnipeg forward core is center Mark Scheifele. Scheifele tallied 73 points in 71 games last season and is truly a goal-to-goal player. NHL Network just named the 26-year-old the 18th best player in all of the NHL, although18th for Scheifele is the absolute lowest he should rank as he is as close to Sidney Crosby‘s level of a complete player as anyone playing today.
Complimenting Scheifele are wingers Kyle Connor and Blake Wheeler. Connor matched Scheifele point for point with 73 and has scored 30 or more goals in each of his three full NHL seasons. Wheeler, at 33-years-old, is the most experienced veteran presence of Winnipeg’s big guns and has played at a point-per-game in each of the past five seasons.
Elite scoring and elite goaltending is an excellent place to be as a hockey team. In Winnipeg however, it looks like the team is having trouble keeping all of their high octane pieces running and that brings up the first big question facing the Jets in 2020-21.
4. What will happen with Patrik Laine?
The 22-year-old Finn was drafted second overall by Winnipeg in 2016 and has scored at a 30 goals pace every year since. He is an absolute shoot first sniper with a career-high of 44 goals. As one of the NHL’s best scorers, it only makes sense that Winnipeg would make this a long term relationship.
After Laine’s Entry-Level Contract expired, both sides agreed to a two-year deal at $6.75 million a season. This is a rather common occurrence for young players who are Restricted Free Agents upon the expiration of a contract until the age of 25. It is commonly referred to as a “bridge contract”, as in it is the bridge to receiving a huge deal in a player’s prime.
Laine’s bridge deal is up after this season and, unless re-signed, will be a Restricted Free Agent. Winnipeg owns his signing rights and would receive draft pick compensation if a team were to sign him under these circumstances. Likely draft pick compensation for Laine would be a First and Third-Round draft pick on the lowest end of his value.
This scenario rarely plays out for various reasons and the NHL reevaluating the Restricted Free Agency compensatory process is a whole other can of worms. But why is this all a discussion at all? Laine’s motivation is unclear. Last season he arrived back in North America from Finland much later than comfortable for Winnipeg fans, and just last week his agent made some comments about how a trade would be mutually beneficial for both sides.
It could be that Winnipeg just is not the most desirable situation for NHL players. Aside from being cold, it is small compared to most NHL cities. The taxes on player salaries in the Canadian province of Manitoba, where Winnipeg is located, is about 17%, compared to Florida where the state income tax is 0%. This paints a picture as to why Winnipeg traded away Jacob Trouba to the New York Rangers in his contract year.
It could also be that Winnipeg has been taking steps back ever since its 2017-2018 Conference Finals appearance. Either way, there is trouble in paradise when it comes to Patrik Laine and the Winnipeg Jets.