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Jets will continue youth movement next season

Prospects likely will have big role when Winnipeg transitions to younger team

by Patrick Williams / NHL.com Correspondent

WINNIPEG -- One season after reaching the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2007, the Winnipeg Jets took a step back and finished last in the Central Division at 35-39-8.

General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff did not retain several key veterans that led the Jets to the postseason in 2014-15; forwards Michael Frolik, Lee Stempniak and Jiri Tlusty each left last summer. Captain Andrew Ladd followed, heading to the Chicago Blackhawks at the NHL Trade Deadline.

Those losses depleted the forward depth, something that proved to be a major issue throughout the season, especially when late-season injuries accumulated.

However, Cheveldayoff has preached a draft-and-develop mantra since taking the job in 2011, and the departure of those veterans freed up ice time for several key young players to take bigger roles. Center Mark Scheifele had a breakout season, reaching a career-high 29 goals and 71 points after taking over the first-line center job because of a season-ending injury to Bryan Little. Forward Nikolaj Ehlers, the ninth pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, finished with 15 goals and 38 points as a 20-year-old rookie.

Ladd's departure left defenseman Dustin Byfuglien and right wing Blake Wheeler as two key forces inside the Winnipeg dressing room and on the ice. Byfuglien anchored the blue line, finished one goal shy of his career-high 20 goals and signed a new five-year contract that will keep him a fixture as a Winnipeg fan favorite. Wheeler ended the season by tying a franchise record with an 11-game point streak (eight goals, eight assists) to go with a career-best 52 assists and 78 points as part of a new top line with Scheifele and Ehlers.

Cheveldayoff and coach Paul Maurice have made it very clear that they are comfortable with a young team, and they will continue to move in that direction.

 Video: Paul Maurice year-end interview - Apr. 11

WHAT THEY SAID: "You start from where you finish [the season]. We will put the best players on our team for training camp. I would like to see the best players make our team. And if they're all young guys, they're all young guys.

"But I'm not going to come here in the summertime and sell you pain for five more years. At the end of the day, I don't care who is in that lineup, we're going to try to figure out a way to win with that group. We're going to put that expectation in our room, instead of saying, 'Hey, just try hard, fellas, and in five years we're going to win'. Blake Wheeler doesn't want to hear that or play like that. Our expectations have to be higher. ... We'll put the best team on the ice and expect to win." - coach Paul Maurice

THE BURNING QUESTION: Who will take over the No. 1 goaltending job?

Video: Ondrej Pavelec year-end interview - Apr. 11

Goaltending remains a perennial issue of debate. Veteran Ondrej Pavelec finished 13-13-3 with a 2.78 goals-against average and a .904 save percentage after missing three months because of a knee injury. Pavelec has one season remaining on his five-year contract and will face intense competition from rookie Connor Hellebuyck at training camp.

After Pavelec's injury in November, Hellebuyck quickly took over the No. 1 goaltending job before yielding it when Pavelec returned. Goaltending depth has long been an organizational issue, but the Jets also have top goaltending prospect Eric Comrie. He is finishing his first pro season with Manitoba of the American Hockey League and carried that team for long stretches after Hellebuyck went to the Jets. Comrie is not expected to challenge for an NHL job next season, but he is a significant part of the organization's long-term plans.

The Jets also have Michael Hutchinson who went 9-15-3 with a 2.84 goals-against average and a .284 save percentage in his second NHL season.

INJURIES: Defensemen Ben Chiarot and Julian Melchiori will have surgery for minor lower-body injuries. They joined defensemen Toby Enstrom (knee) and Tyler Myers (hip, knee), who each had season-ending surgeries. Little continues his recovery from a neck injury, and forward Mathieu Perreault's season ended March 20 after he sustained a concussion against the Anaheim Ducks. Forward Anthony Peluso had season-ending shoulder surgery.

WHO COULD GO: Defenseman Grant Clitsome is an unrestricted free agent. He missed the entire season because of a back injury. Forward Matt Halischuk spent much of the second half of the season with the Jets after starting in the AHL, but he was not able to secure more than spot-duty even among a crush of late-season injuries. He is also an unrestricted free agent.

Video: Drew Stafford year-end interview - Apr. 11

Where it could become interesting for the Jets is if they decide move some of their veterans. Forward Drew Stafford will be a free agent after next season and is coming off a 21-goal season that ranked him third on the team. Stafford will turn 31 in October and likely could yield a quality return if traded.

However, Winnipeg finished 21st in the NHL with 2.62 goals per game, and parting with Stafford's offensive contributions and leadership on a young team could be a difficult decision for the Jets. But the addition of left wing Kyle Connor, the No. 17 pick in the 2015 draft, could make Stafford somewhat more expendable. Connor signed a three-year entry-level contract Monday after one season at the University of Michigan.

Do the Jets want to turn the page on the Pavelec era?

He has held the No. 1 job since 2009 when the franchise was in Atlanta. With Hellebuyck the No. 1 goaltender for the Jets perhaps as soon as next season, could the Jets trade Pavelec now that there id on season remaining on his contract? Complicating the issue, however, is Pavelec's $3.9 million salary-cap charge, something that may be too costly for a goaltender who struggled with consistency throughout his career and will turn 29 this summer.

If the Jets did trade Pavelec, it would alleviate a potential logjam in net; Hutchinson is a restricted free agent this offseason.

WHO COULD ARRIVE: Hellebuyck is all but certain to stick with the Jets as a backup at least.

Video: BOS@WPG: Hellebuyck denies Hayes in front

Beyond that, Maurice will have several intriguing prospects to evaluate in September as the organization continues its full push toward a heavy-on-youth approach.

Defenseman Josh Morrissey, the 13th pick in the 2013 draft, is a possibility to take on full-time duty with the Jets. A left-handed shot, something that the organization lacks at the NHL level. Morrissey rebounded from a slow start in the AHL and emerged as Manitoba's top defenseman. He will receive a long look at training camp and is a mobile, puck-moving player capable of handling power-play duties.

Winnipeg acquired forward Brendan Lemieux in the February 2015 trade that sent Evander Kane to the Buffalo Sabres. Lemieux, a second-round pick by Buffalo in 2014, would provide the sort of abrasive, agitating presence that the Jets lineup lacks at forward. After scoring 32 goals in 45 games in the Ontario Hockey League, Lemieux has started his pro career with two goals and an assist in four games for Manitoba. Like Morrissey, he can also expect an extended look at training camp.

2016 DRAFT PICKS: The Jets have seven picks in the draft, including two in the first round. Having finished 25th in the League, Winnipeg will have a 7.5 percent chance of winning the first overall pick in the draft lottery.

Winnipeg also has the Chicago Blackhawks first-round pick as part of the Ladd trade, a move that also brought prospect Marko Dano to the Jets. However, Winnipeg lost its third-round pick to the Carolina Hurricanes in a trade for Tlusty last season.

Winnipeg also owns picks in the second, fourth, fifth, sixth and seven rounds.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM: Connor signed a three-year entry-level contract Monday after one season at the University of Michigan, becoming the latest addition to a growing cache of young prospects. Connor had 35 goals and 36 assists in 38 games as a freshman and was a Hobey Baker Award finalist. He could fit into the top-six next season.

Maurice is a further reason for optimism. He has 1,283 games behind NHL benches and is able to blend a demanding, exacting set of standards with a patient approach that will be key as the Jets continue their youth movement.

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