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MCKEEN’S 2023-24 NHL YEARBOOK – WINNIPEG JETS – Team Preview – Player Profiles

Review: The Jets bounced back from missing the playoffs in 2021-2022 to earn a postseason berth last season, but they were bounced in five games by the eventual Stanley Cup champions, the Vegas Golden Knights. Winnipeg finished the season with a 46-33-3 record, qualifying for the second Wild Card berth in the Western Conference. The Jets were tied for seventh with 2.74 goals against per game, thanks in large part to goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, who had 32.94 Goals Saved Above Expected, which ranked fourth. For all of the skill on the Jets roster, they did have trouble scoring goals, finishing 21st with 3.00 goals scored per game. While it was a bounce-back season, they had to lean heavily on Hellebuyck, and it is risky for any team to pin so much on their netminder.

What’s Changed? While there was concern about the Jets blowing up the roster in the offseason, they traded Pierre-Luc Dubois and bought Blake Wheeler out of the last year of his contract. Those are departures of the team’s fourth and fifth ranked scorers from last season, so they are not insignificant moves, but there are still a lot of familiar faces in place. Trading Dubois to Los Angeles brought in Gabe Vilardi, Alex Iaffalo, and Rasmus Kupari, which at least serves as an upgrade on the team’s forward depth. In goal, they welcomed back Laurent Brossoit to fill the backup role behind Hellebuyck after Brossoit contributed to Vegas’ Stanley Cup run with strong play late in the season before making eight playoff starts.

What would success look like? The Jets had a positive goal differential a year ago and another playoff berth is still a conceivable outcome, even if it may not be the most likely scenario. If Hellebuyck remains at the top of his game, he will give the Jets a chance to be competitive. There are enough quality forwards in place that they should be able to score. Between Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers, Nino Niederreiter, Cole Perfetti, Gabe Vilardi, and Alex Iaffalo, there are the makings of a quality attack. They also have a competent core of defensemen. They have room to improve, but Josh Morrissey, Neal Pionk, Brenden Dillon, Dylan DeMelo, and Nate Schmidt are the foundation of a capable veteran group that can keep the Jets in the hunt.

What could go wrong? With so many rumors about the Jets cleaning house after last season, there are still a lot of significant Jets that are heading into the last year of their contracts. That includes goaltender Hellebuyck, DeMelo and Dillon on defense, and Scheifele and Niederreiter up front. If the Jets falter in any way, they could easily become sellers and those five would be the leading candidates to get moved out. The Jets were an average possession team last season, so if Hellebuyck is anything less than great, that could also prompt Winnipeg to shift their focus towards the future. There is too much talent on this roster to bottom out, but not enough to assume they will return to the postseason.

Top Breakout Candidate: Although his rookie season was shortened by injury, Cole Perfetti was starting to live up to the potential that was expected of him when he was drafted 10th overall in 2020. He is a skilled and creative player, who is capable of handling more responsibility, and the Jets probably need him to take another step forward. The emergence of a player like Perfetti could go a long way towards determining if the Jets are going to remain playoff contenders or if they are going to find a spot on the wrong side of the playoff bubble.


Kyle Connor

A dynamic offensive winger, who darts in and out of open ice in the blink of an eye, Connor has put up 173 points (78 G, 95 A) in 161 games over the past two seasons. As brilliant as Connor can be offensively, creating scoring chances out of seemingly nowhere, he can be a defensive liability, though he was a smaller liability on that end last season than he was the season before. That is hardly unique among high scoring wingers, but it can put a limit on how big his overall impact will be on the game. When he is cooking, Connor can do some serious damage. From the start of November through January 13th, he produced 49 points (20 G, 29 A) with 108 shots on goal in 34 games. A declining shot rate last season contributed to Connor’s goal-scoring dip. Since Connor’s most common linemate last season was Pierre-Luc Dubois, there is going to be a change this season and he was better with Dubois than Mark Scheifele, when comparing shot, goal, and expected goal percentages, so that could temper any enthusiasm for Connor’s production. At the same time, Connor had some success with Nikolaj Ehlers on the opposite wing, so maybe the Jets explore that phenomenon a little more. That uncertainty is what casts enough doubt on Connor’s production for 2023-2024. Still, 35 goals and 80 points remains within his grasp.

Mark Scheifele

Despite scoring a career-high 42 goals last season, Scheifele’s name was in plenty of trade rumors in the offseason, but he remains on the Jets roster heading into the 2023-2024 campaign. Scheifele has played more than 20 minutes per game in each of the past seven seasons, and he is a consistently productive offensive performer. Unfortunately, his play without the puck is not strong, so his scoring tends to get offset by the chances that the opposition generate when he is on the ice. Over the past five seasons, the Jets have outscored opponents by a total of four goals with Scheifele on the ice during five-on-five play. Over the course of those same five seasons, Scheifele has scored 45 power play goals, which ranks 20th, one goal behind Connor. Over that five-year period, Scheifele scored on 18.5% of his shots, ranking third, behind only Leon Draisaitl and Brayden Point. Scheifele’s scoring pace slowed as last season progressed and he had 20 points (10 G, 10 A) in his last 28 games before contributing one goal in four games against Vegas in the first round of the playoffs. Scheifele has some lineup uncertainty, too. He played a lot with Connor last season, but others that he skated with most include the since-departed Blake Wheeler, Cole Perfetti, Mason Appleton, and Nikolaj Ehlers. If he plays with Connor and Ehlers, Scheifele would be in a good spot to keep scoring a bunch. Otherwise, there will some concern about whether he can create enough chances at evens. Still, Scheifele’s consistent offensive production suggests that 30-plus goals and 75 points are still reasonable targets.

Nikolaj Ehlers

For some reason, Jets head coach Rick Bowness played Ehlers a career-low 15:39 per game last season. He managed 38 points (12 G, 26 A) in 45 games, despite scoring on 9.1% of his shots, his lowest rate since his rookie season. Ehlers is an elite play driver so for a Jets team with mediocre possession numbers, it makes no sense not to play Ehlers as much as possible. His outstanding speed makes it easy for him to carry the puck through neutral ice and drive opposing defenders back, and it also means that he can have a positive effect on driving play, even with lesser linemates. After missing more than 10 weeks following surgery for a sports hernia, Ehlers returned and put up 14 points (4 G, 10 A) with 32 shots on goal in his next 10 games, but then his production tailed off. If the Jets are going to remain competitive, it would make a lot of sense to play Ehlers more, simply because the puck is going the right way when he is on the ice. Ehlers has two 60-point seasons in his career, but none since 2017-2018. If he stays healthy, another 60-point season should be in his sights.

Nino Niederreiter

A power forward who drives play and is physical force along the boards, Niederreiter is coming off his second consecutive 24-goal season. He was acquired from Nashville at the trade deadline and was a nice fit, contributing 13 points (6 G, 7 A) in 22 regular-season games then adding four points (1 G, 3 A) in five playoff games. The Jets controlled 56.7% of shot attempts with Niederreiter on the ice during 5-on-5 play, the highest mark on the team. Niederreiter averaged 2.32 shots on goal per game last season, the high-water mark for his career. Although he can run hot and cold in small samples, Niederreiter has found consistency on a season-to-season basis, scoring between 20 and 25 goals seven times in his career. The upside for Niederreiter in Winnipeg is that he played 16:54 per game for the Jets and Kyle Connor and Mark Scheifele were his most common linemates after arriving in a trade from Nashville. If that is the role that Niederreiter has waiting for him in 2023-2024, then he should be able to contribute at least 45-50 points.

Gabe Vilardi

Part of the trade that sent Pierre-Luc Dubois to Los Angeles, Vilardi is coming off the best season of his career. Not only did he hit career highs with 23 goals and 41 points in 63 games, but his defensive play was strong, too. That is a tantalizing combination, provided that Vilardi can stay healthy, something that has not come easily for him to this point in his hockey career. At the very least, Vilardi should provide the Jets with competent secondary scoring and that will help them remain competitive even as the franchise transitions away from their previous core. The Kings controlled 57.6% of expected goals during five-on-five play with Vilardi on the ice last season and that was the best rate among Los Angeles forwards. After struggling to secure a spot in the NHL previously, he jumped out to a quick start last season with 15 points (10 G, 5 A) and 40 shots on goal in his first 15 games. He could not maintain that pace but that set Vilardi on the path to his most productive NHL season. Health is going to be an issue until he establishes that he can play a full season, but 40 points should be a reasonable target for Vilardi, with room for him to exceed that if, suddenly, he ends up playing 70-plus games.

Cole Perfetti

A shoulder injury cut short what had been a promising rookie season for Perfetti, who chipped in 30 points (8 G, 22 A) in 51 games before he was shut down. The 10th pick in the 2020 Draft, Perfetti is a playmaker with excellent hockey IQ and that should make him a strong complementary piece up front for the Jets. In a small sample size, his defensive numbers were solid during his rookie season, too, which is an encouraging sign. It took Perfetti some time to get going and he slumped a bit before getting hurt, but in a two-month span from November 25th through January 25th, he contributed 20 points (4 G, 16 A) in 26 games. He saw regular playing time with Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele, so he was getting a quality opportunity to be productive in his rookie season. As the Jets turn over their roster, there is obviously a hope that Perfetti can be a cornerstone piece for the next core of the Jets. As it is right now, he should be a good candidate to provide secondary offense, and 45 points would be a fair target, with more upside if he finds himself skating on the top line.

Alex Iaffalo

Acquired from Los Angeles as part of the Pierre-Luc Dubois deal, Iafallo is a speedy winger who has ranged between 13 and 17 goals in each of the past five seasons. He missed 23 games last season with a lower-body injury and lost some ice time, averaging 16:18 time on ice per game, his lowest since his rookie season. He had an expected goals percentage of 54.4% last season, ranking third among Kings forwards, behind Gabe Vilardi and Trevor Moore. Iafallo started last season with the Kings by producing 14 points (6 G, 8 A) with 32 shots on goal in his first 16 games, and he has spent significant time on the first line in L.A., so Iafallo should be expected to contribute. In Winnipeg, Iafallo’s reliable two-way play and ability to move around the lineup should make him a valued winger. If he scores 35-40 points, that would be consistent with his track record in Los Angeles.

Adam Lowry

A mammoth checking center, Lowry scored a career-high 36 points (13 G, 23 A) last season, and had more than 160 hits for the fourth time in the past five seasons. His offensive production is limited, and it would seem unlikely that he would duplicate his career-best season, but Lowry’s physical presence makes him a valuable contributor. With limited scoring, he did have some success with Morgan Barron and Mason Appleton on his wings, but that is not a line that is going to unleash an offensive onslaught. Even in the best offensive season of his career, Lowry had a 20-game stretch from early January through the end of February in which he managed just two assists in 20 games. That happened in the middle of a 35-game goal-scoring drought, so placing offensive expectations on Lowry would seem to be a fool’s errand. If that’s the case, then a 30-point season would have to be considered a relative success.

Vladislav Namestnikov

Acquired from Tampa Bay, Namestnikov was an underrated addition for the Jets. He contributed a modest 10 points (2 G, 8 A) in 20 games for Winnipeg, and it was broken up like this: five points (2 G, 3 A) in his first four games for the Jets and five assists in his next 16 games. Namestnikov’s ice time was up to nearly 15 minutes per game and his most common linemates were Nikolaj Ehlers and Blake Wheeler, which is a strong situation for a middle-six center. Namestnikov is a reliable two-way player, which made him a valuable, albeit low-key, addition last season and Winnipeg was all too happy to sign him to a new contract but will be interesting to see if he can handle second-line center responsibilities because that has not typically been how he has been deployed with his previous six teams in the NHL. As a result, it is tough to forecast Namestnikov for much more than 30 points.


Josh Morrissey

Head coach Rick Bowness received lots of credit for turning Morrissey loose on his way to a career-high 76 points (16 G, 60 A), more than doubling his previous career high. At the same time, Morrissey was hardly dominant during 5-on-5 play, which does not reflect well on his finishing fifth in the Norris Trophy voting. He is not the first, nor will he be the last, defenseman to receive votes based on his point totals. It is not that Morrissey is incapable of playing solid defensively, because he certainly has in the past, but last season was much more about his offensive contributions, and it may not have produced results as positive as his point totals would suggest. Morrissey had an astonishing 46 points (7 G, 39 A) in his first 39 games last season, scoring on 11.1% of his shots. It would incredible if Morrissey matched last season’s numbers, considering he had never been close to that production before, so a more reasonable expectation looks like 55-60 points.

Neal Pionk

After surprisingly strong results in his first couple of seasons with the Jets, Pionk has faltered in the past two seasons and that has led to inconsistent results. He is a capable puck mover who can quarterback a power play, but his shaky defensive play is posing a challenge for Winnipeg because Pionk played nearly 22 minutes per game last season. It is tough to overcome a defenseman playing big minutes and getting crushed in those minutes. Pionk had some shaky seasons with the Rangers early in his career but improved upon moving to Winnipeg. However, he has 2.97 expected goals against per 60 minutes in each of the past two seasons, and that is the highest rate of his career, so there has been a slippage in his performance. Pionk has recorded more than 30 points in four straight seasons, and he should be able to keep that going. Even if he loses some ice time due to his questionable defensive play, Pionk is still the second-best defender to run the Jets power play, so there are going to be special teams opportunities available to him.

Dylan DeMelo

An excellent defensive defenseman, DeMelo produced a career high 27 points (6 G, 21 A) last season, and he has had back-to-back seasons with more than 100 hits and 100 blocked shots. He does not have a big and flashy game, it’s more about making smart decisions and playing positionally sound, which may not attract the most attention, but DeMelo’s team typically fares better when he is on the ice. DeMelo had what for him would be considered an offensive explosion at the end of the regular season, contributing five points (2 G, 3 A) in the last seven games. It is certainly possible that DeMelo could push last season’s point total, but a more likely scenario would bring him in around 20-25 points. Scoring is not really his role, and, at this stage of his career, it would be a surprise to see that change.

Brenden Dillon

A veteran defenseman who has earned his way into a top-four role and not only did he fill that role for the Jets last season, but Dillon was outstanding. He finished with a career-high 23 points (2 G, 21 A) while playing 19:35 per game, his highest time on ice since 2013-2014. While Dillon is adequate offensively, he performed at a high level defensively, and that should not be overlooked. He is a physical defender who can skate and has racked up 410 hits in the past two seasons. An oddity for Dillon last season is that he had strong possession numbers, over 53.0% Corsi and expected goals, and yet the Jets were outscored 52-46 with him on the ice during 5-on-5 play. The main issue was his low on-ice shooting percentage (6.9%), so there could be some regression working in his favor. Even if that is the case, the most likely outcome is still going to have Dillon falling in the range of 20-25 points.


Connor Hellebuyck

It seems less and less likely that the Winnipeg Jets will finish out the upcoming season with Connor Hellebuyck still on their roster. But for the time being, they’re throwing it back a few seasons and giving their starter the most successful environment he’s had in years; the Jets will enter the final year of their starter’s contract reuniting him with his most effective tandem partner in Laurent Brossoit, likely hoping to recreate some of the magic the two were able to produce when the Jets were wondering just how far the American-born goaltender could take them.

The Jets had been in a state of decline when they entered the 2022-23 season, but they managed to bounce back and sneak into the postseason on the backs of an elite year for Hellebuyck – who might have shouldered more than his fair share of the workload for yet another season, but he certainly delivered in the process. The rest he got in the 2022 off-season seemed to pay off; after failing to receive even a single Vezina vote last summer for the first time in his NHL career, Hellebuyck came back with a vengeance and finished as a finalist in voting for his incredible performance dragging his team back into relevance and contention. The hope, undoubtedly, is that the return of Brossoit – someone who plays a similarly long-limbed style to Hellebuyck and keeps things consistent in net for the team when the pair are able to switch out night after night – will further ensure that Hellebuyck is able to keep the team on the rise and maybe even give them a reason to keep him around for a postseason run. But with rumors constantly swirling that shed doubt on him sticking around, Winnipeg will have to work twice as hard to maintain their focus if they want to forge ahead of the other Central teams and make it worth Hellebuyck’s while to stick around.

Projected starts: 65-70