Where do the Winnipeg Jets go from here?
Well, that’s a big part of what the exit interview process is meant to determine.
What Jets head coach Paul Maurice referred to as a “season of extremes” came to an abrupt end on Monday night as the Montreal Canadiens completed a four-game sweep when Tyler Toffoli buried the overtime winner on a one-timer.
This was a series that was, in many ways, as surprising as the four-game sweep of the Edmonton Oilers that preceded it.
Jets defenceman Dylan DeMelo was lost to injury in the opening minute of Game 1 against the Canadiens and centre Mark Scheifele in the final minute of regulation time after he was ejected for charging on a hit that left Jake Evans with a concussion.
Scheifele received a four-game suspension from the NHL Department of Player Safety and will miss the season opener in 2021-22 to complete his penance.
Both of those strange and unexpected plays certainly played a massive role in how the series played out, the loss of a top-pairing D-man and the first-line centre leaving a pair of gaping holes in the lineup.
The Jets managed to score only six goals in this series — with four of those coming at even strength, one while shorthanded and another with the goalie on the bench in favour of an extra attacker.
The Canadiens won the special-teams battle 6-1 as the Jets were shut out with the man advantage while scoring once while shorthanded.
Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck held up his end of the deal but didn’t get enough run support and this series was over before it really began.
After consecutive early exits, winning a round was a step forward, but this group has much bigger goals in mind.
“We’re already a contender, right? You get to the final eight of 31 teams, you’re in the conversation,” said Jets captain Blake Wheeler.
“The hardest part is formulating a core group of players that you believe are the identity of your team, the guys that can push you over the hump and I think we have that.
“That’s a great step in the right direction, starting with our goaltender and then work it around to some of the guys that are now kind of getting to their mid-to-late 20s.
“I mean, that’s a good thing you’re really excited about. In a flat-cap world, that’s going to be kind of the challenge this summer — how do you fit the pieces in, to kind of push that core over the top. I guess that’s what remains to be seen.”
‘Belief’ was a commonly used word by many of the 15 players who spoke on the Zoom calls on Wednesday.
“I believe in this group. That’s why I signed long-term here,” said Jets left-winger Kyle Connor.
“We’ve got one of the best goaltenders in the world and arguably some of the best leaders and players in Mark (Scheifele) and Blake (Wheeler). It’s just a matter of coming together.
“I’m sure you’ve heard that, but it’s so true. I think we’ve got a great group here. I think we can win, and everybody wants to win. That’s the best part about it.
“Everybody is so motivated when they come to the rink every day. Everybody feeds off that.”
Hextall on Hockey: Jets swept — what’s next?
Thank you #NHLJets fans for your support through a truly unique season. 💙
— Winnipeg Jets (@NHLJets) June 8, 2021
“Hockey is such a fluid game that there’s no one quick fix. There’s no one, ‘We get this person, in this spot, that’s going to be the difference.’ It doesn’t really work that way,” said forward Andrew Copp.
“At the end of the day, one team wins the Stanley Cup at the end of the year and that’s a hard place to get to. You want to give yourself as many chances as possible of reaching that ultimate goal.
“We did a pretty good job this year and we put ourselves in a position where that goal became in sight. Obviously, we didn’t get over the hump. It’s just everyone taking a step in their individual games, taking a step in our team game, how we work together. Guys with another year of experience, another year of being mentally stronger and understanding what kind of game it takes to win in the playoffs.
“It’s a totality of actions and we’re on the right path with the majority of the things that need to be in place for us to win.”
With that in mind, here are five hot-button topics that must be answered prior to the Jets reporting to training camp in September:
All signs point to the Jets choosing the one goalie, three D-men and seven forward route when they submit the list of who will be protected from the NHL’s 32nd team in July.
Hellebuyck is the obvious choice between the pipes, while the forward selections are mostly straightforward, especially after Adam Lowry signed his contract extension.
Nikolaj Ehlers, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Scheifele, Wheeler, Connor and Copp will be the others, barring something unforeseen. Right-winger Mason Appleton is coming off a career year (12 goals, 25 points in 56 games, adding a goal and three points in eight playoff games) and looks like an attractive option if he’s available.
A tough decision is looming on defence, thanks in part to the development of Logan Stanley, who took big strides both literally and figuratively. Josh Morrissey and Neal Pionk are locks to be protected and DeMelo’s value was reinforced by how the Jets’ defence corps struggled in his absence.
Morrissey played his best hockey alongside DeMelo and that pairing is likely to spend more time together next season. DeMelo, who bypassed a chance at unrestricted free agency to sign a four-year deal worth $12 million ($3 million average annual value) on Oct. 7, 2020, was asked about the looming expansion draft on Wednesday.
“Haven’t really thought of it too much. Hasn’t really been any assurance (of being protected),” said DeMelo.
“I don’t think we’re there yet and I don’t even know if it will happen. Whatever will happen will happen. All I can say is that I signed here for four years and I hope I can be here for all four and maybe even beyond.
“Obviously, we’re going to lose a good player either way. I was with San Jose for the Vegas draft and we knew we were going to lose a good player. Whatever will be will be, and I guess we’ll have to see what happens.”
The Jets have invested a lot of time on Stanley and it wouldn’t be a big surprise if a side deal was considered as a way to ensure he would not be selected, similar to the one general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff made in 2018 with the Vegas Golden Knights.
“I don’t think a lot of people had me playing for the Winnipeg Jets this year coming into camp. So it was my goal to make the team and play this year. So I achieved that,” said Stanley.
“I had confidence in myself that I knew that I was going to be an NHL player. I just needed to stick with it and keep working on my game and getting better.
“Knowing what kind of player I am, next year I want to come back and take on more responsibility and demand more out of myself.”
The Jets figure to have a bit more flexibility on the salary cap side of things this summer, but a decent chunk of the available cash will be going to Pionk and Copp.
Pionk is in for a substantial raise from the $3 million he made the past two seasons, but hasn’t given his next deal much thought.
Meanwhile, some folks figured that after Copp expressed some frustration with how the arbitration process went during the summer of 2019, he might not be sticking around for the long term.
Copp is now one season away from unrestricted free agency and has seen his role grow significantly.
Asked if a long-term deal was a priority for him, Copp left the door wide open.
“I don’t think anything is really off the table at this point,” said Copp, who posted career highs in goals (15), assists (24) and points (39) in 56 games.
“Those are the conversations, where they see me moving forward here, the direction of the team, what we’re going to do to make us better. Those are the biggest things for me. I’m sure with everything happening sooner rather than later that will get done and addressed pretty quickly.
“Looking back, you want to be as much of a priority as possible. You want to be important, not only on the ice and to the team but off the ice, in the room, leadership and all that stuff. I feel like, over the last two years, I’ve really taken steps from where I was.
“I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m happy with my development over the course of the last two years and I think I still have levels to get to. I don’t think two years ago is going to impact the contract negotiation this year.”
Pionk figures to be paid in the neighbourhood of $5.5 to 6 million depending on the term, while a reasonable comparison for Copp’s next deal could be the four-year, $16-million contract signed by Alex Iafallo of the Los Angeles Kings.
That predicted $4 million AAV for Copp could rise depending on the number of UFA years the Jets are buying.
Stanley is the other player who requires a new deal, but he’ll be looking at a bridge deal at a reasonable number.
Although the forward didn’t live up to the lofty expectations that accompanied the blockbuster trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets for Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic, one area Dubois showed tremendous consistency was in the accountability department.
Dubois, who bounced between all three forward positions and skated on all four lines during the series with the Canadiens, knows he needs to be better next season and vowed to show that when he arrives for training camp in September.
Going 24 games without a goal and finishing with eight goals and 23 points in 48 games, including the playoffs, is not what Dubois envisioned from his fresh start.
“To be honest, when I look back at this year in the future, I’m going to look back and think there’s not much I didn’t go through,” said Dubois.
“From the two-week quarantine to coming back, getting injured (in his second game), then playing. We didn’t have a lot of practices, so it was kind of hard to get into that rhythm. It wasn’t easy.
“When you get to a new team you want to fit in, you want it to be the perfect fit. For me, it was kind of hard finding what that was. I had a hard time trying to find what I could do. At the end of the day, it’s our job to be the best players we can be and to help the team win.
“It was hard for me this year to adjust. Many reasons, I think, but at the end of the day you only have yourself to blame.”
Dubois still has the raw materials that made him a coveted player back in January and now it’s up for him to continue the maturation process.
Although he didn’t make the immediate impact that most anticipated, this is a guy with the ability to be a difference-maker.
The Jets are counting on him to find that level once again.
This rerun was a smashing success and the veteran forward is definitely a candidate to stick around on a short-term deal at a reduced salary.
Paul Stastny is a calming presence and makes the players around him better.
He’s a highly motivated individual and someone who has a strong voice and isn’t afraid to tell it like it is.
Stastny could serve an important role as a mentor for Dubois and possible linemate on the second line depending on how the off-season goes.
The 35-year-old is in no rush to make a decision on his future, but he views the Jets as a viable option and a team on the rise.
“I’ll probably just take my time away with it. Now that I’m older, options are probably more limited but you have an idea of what’s best for me, what’s best for my family,” said Stastny, who wouldn’t reveal the ailment that kept him out of the first two games against the Canadiens.
“With the expansion draft and everything that’s going on, teams are going to be busy trying to figure that stuff out. We’ll be patient about it.
“You kind of have an idea of what places you want to play at. You want to be where it’s a good fit for you and you want to go somewhere you’re wanted, too. I have nothing but good things to say here. I know the future has always been bright (for the Jets), it continues to be bright and there’s always going to be a chance (to win) here. That’s a really important piece to picking a team you want to play (for).”
Laurent Brossoit is coming off another strong season as the No. 2 guy on the depth chart behind Hellebuyck.
It’s a comfortable situation for him, but he’s been limited to 33 games and just 26 starts over the past two seasons and that’s not a high number for a guy who would like to eventually graduate to starter status.
Hellebuyck is a workhorse and while the volume of his starts is going to remain high moving forward, the Jets must have a capable backup that can provide 20 to 24 starts to help keep their starter fresh.
Mikhail Berdin is trending in the right direction after completing a second season getting the bulk of the AHL starts, but even if he’s competing for the backup job, it would be a surprise if the Jets don’t add another option with more experience, depending on what happens with pending RFA Eric Comrie.
Brossoit would be welcomed back, but if he’s looking to play more, he might have to go elsewhere to accomplish that goal.
Ken Wiebe covers the Winnipeg Jets for Sportsnet.ca and is a regular contributor to CJOB.
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