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31 in 31

Inside look at Winnipeg Jets

Laine, Connor unsigned, defenseman depth unsettled as training camp nears

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

31 in 31: Winnipeg Jets

31 in 31: Winnipeg Jets 2019-20 season preview

NHL.com senior writer Dan Rosen and NHL Network's Mike Johnson discuss the biggest questions facing the Winnipeg Jets for the 2019-20 season

  • 06:56 •

NHL.com is providing in-depth roster, prospect and fantasy analysis for each of its 31 teams throughout August. Today, the Winnipeg Jets.

The Winnipeg Jets face plenty of questions as they approach this season.

The biggest involves the status of unsigned restricted free agent forwards Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor, two of Winnipeg's most important offensive weapons.

 

[Jets 31 IN 31: 3 Questions | Top prospects | Fantasy breakdown | Behind the Numbers]

 

The Jets also have to replace three key veteran defensemen, leading to concerns that their window to win the Stanley Cup is closing.

Winnipeg lost in the Western Conference First Round in six games to the St. Louis Blues last season after reaching the conference final against the Vegas Golden Knights in 2017-18.

"If you're looking for any extra motivation, it's great," defenseman Josh Morrissey said. "Being a team that went from the Western Conference Final to not having a great season last year, now all of a sudden I'm not reading too much in the media, but it's hard not to hear about the window -- is it closing? -- and things like that.

"It doesn't come from wanting to prove people outside the team wrong, but we believe in ourselves, and we have a really tight-knit group and it's changed a little bit, but that mindset is still there."

Laine has scored 110 goals since 2016-17, sixth most in the NHL in that span, and Connor had an NHL career-high 66 points (34 goals, 32 assists) in 82 games last season.

Assuming Laine and Connor eventually sign, Winnipeg's top six forwards for much of last season (Laine, Connor, Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Nikolaj Ehlers, Bryan Little) will be unchanged, and offense should continue to be a strength.

Video: Patrik Laine comes in at No. 19 on the list

The Jets have scored 543 goals in the past two seasons, third most in the NHL behind the Tampa Bay Lightning (609) and Toronto Maple Leafs (556).

High-energy forward Brandon Tanev signed as a free agent with the Pittsburgh Penguins on July 1, leaving an opening on the third line.

There will be spots in the lineup available for forward prospects Kristian Vesalainen, the No. 24 pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, and Mason Appleton, a sixth-round pick (No. 168) in the 2015 NHL Draft. Center Jack Roslovic may be ready for more responsibility after the 22-year-old had a limited role last season, when he scored 24 points (nine goals, 15 assists) and averaged 9:44 of ice time in 77 games.

At defenseman, the Jets must replace Jacob Trouba, who played on their top pair before being traded to the New York Rangers for defenseman Neal Pionk and the No. 20 pick of the 2019 NHL Draft (used to select defenseman Ville Heinola) on June 17; Tyler Myers, who signed a five-year contract with the Vancouver Canucks on July 1; and Ben Chiarot, who signed a three-year contract with the Montreal Canadiens on July 4.

Apart from Pionk, the Jets will continue to promote defensemen from within following the departures of Trouba, Myers and Chiarot.

"We've been on this program really for the last four seasons, bringing in younger players and developing them," coach Paul Maurice said. "I feel they're ready for that. And maybe more than that, they want it. There are young guys here that can play more minutes, that can push for more important roles."

The Jets have Morrissey, Pionk, Dustin Byfuglien and Dmitry Kulikov as their top four. Sami Niku, a seventh-round pick (No. 198) in the 2015 NHL Draft, and late-blooming Tucker Poolman, a 26-year-old selected in the fifth round (No. 127) of the 2013 NHL Draft, could see increased playing time.

Video: WPG@STL, Gm6: Byfuglien slams rebound by Binnington

The Jets could have seven players 23 or younger, giving the roster a less-established feel in what seems like a recurring youth movement.

But Morrissey said it's a perfect chance for younger players to make a mark in the NHL.

"It's lost in the shuffle a little bit how young a team we are," the 24-year-old said. "That there's the opportunity for young players to grow and get better and achieve new highs in their careers."

Maurice said he sees a team ready to improve, not one on the verge of taking a step back.

"I'd say our hunger, it's very high and there's a capacity for it," he said. "And yes, we're young. So the idea that after these departures the window's closing, those two ideas don't jive. We feel we have young players who are [ready] for more and in some ways that taste of disappointment ... that's a really important motivator for that next step."

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