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Jets season preview: Laine, Connor signed, look to provide boost

Byfuglien's status hangs over Winnipeg days before opener

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / Staff Writer

The 2019-20 NHL season begins Oct. 2. With training camps open, is taking a look at the five keys, the inside scoop on roster questions, and the projected lines for each of the 31 teams. Today, the Winnipeg Jets.

Coach: Paul Maurice (seventh season)

Last season: 47-30-5; second place Central Division, lost to St. Louis Blues in Western Conference First Round




1. Lift from Laine, Connor 

Forwards Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor, who each were a restricted free agent, agreed to terms over the weekend, erasing two big question marks for the Jets heading into the season. Laine, who agreed to terms on a two-year, $13.5 million contract (average annual value $6.75 million) on Friday, will immediately give them offensive relief. He will be relied upon to put up numbers closer to his rookie season of 2016-17 (64 points; 36 goals, 28 assists) and 2017-18 (70 points; 44 goals, 26 assists) than his NHL career-low 50 points (30 goals, 20 assists) last season. His 110 goals in that period ranked sixth in the NHL. Connor, who agreed to a seven-year, $49.98 million contract (annual average value $7.14 million) had NHL career-highs in goals (34) and points (32) last season and is an integral piece of an attack that has scored 543 goals in the past two seasons, third in the NHL in that span.

Video: Laine, Jets agree to two-year, $13.5 million deal


2. Byfuglien's status 

Dustin Byfuglien's request for a personal leave on the eve of training camp was granted, leaving a major gap. The 34-year-old defenseman has been suspended by the Jets and is reportedly pondering his future after a concussion and two ankle injuries limited him to 42 games last season. Byfuglien's impact with skill and physicality won't be easily replaced if he does not return. Byfuglien has 525 points (177 goals, 348 assists) in 869 NHL games.

3. Turnover of defensemen

The uncertainly surrounding Byfuglien couldn't have come at a worse time. Winnipeg already was in the process of reshaping its defensemen after the departures of Tyler Myers, Ben Chiarot and Jacob Trouba in the offseason. Trouba was traded to the New York Rangers for defenseman Neal Pionk and the No. 20 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft (used to select defenseman Ville Heinola) on June 17, Myers signed a five-year contract with the Vancouver Canucks and Chiarot signed a three-year contract with the Montreal Canadiens. Losing four of their top five defensemen from the end of last season to the start of this one presents a difficult challenge.


4. Hellebuyck's maturation

Goalie Connor Hellebuyck's statistics regressed in many categories last season compared to 2017-18, when he was a Vezina Trophy finalist. He went from 44 wins (in 64 starts) in 2017-18 to 34 wins (in 62 starts), from six shutouts to two, from a goals-against average of 2.36 to 2.90, and from a save percentage of .924 to .913. With such turnover among the defensemen in front of him, Hellebuyck can expect more work and will need a bounce-back season to keep the Jets in contention.

Video: Top 10 saves of 2018-19: Hellebuyck


5. Top six mix

What will coach Paul Maurice do to maximize output from his top six forwards? Maurice has experimented in the preseason, splitting up center Mark Scheifele and forward Blake Wheeler, who usually are linemates; Wheeler led the Jets with 91 points (20 goals, 71 assists) in 82 games last season and Scheifele had 84 points (38 goals, 46 assists) in 82 games. Laine made comments to a Finnish newspaper in early September about wanting to play on the top line. Through most of last season, Scheifele was the center for Connor and Wheeler and Bryan Little was the center for Nikolaj Ehlers and Laine. 




Making the cut

The makeup of Winnipeg's defensemen, with or without Byfuglien, is going to include Josh Morrissey, Pionk, Dmitry Kulikov and Nathan Beaulieu. Without Byfuglien or a trade, Sami Niku, who has played 31 NHL games in the past two seasons, and Tucker Poolman, who played 24 NHL games in 2017-18, could earn a roster spot; each has been sufficiently sharp during the preseason. Anthony Bitetto likely will remain as the seventh defenseman. Winnipeg's third line will include center Adam Lowry and forward Andrew Copp, and an open spot left by Brandon Tanev, who signed a six-year contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins, could be filled by Jack Roslovic. Mason Appleton is a candidate to join veterans Mark Letestu and Gabriel Bourque on the fourth line.


Most intriguing addition

Pionk had 40 points (seven goals, 33 assists) in 101 games in his first two NHL seasons with the Rangers and finds himself among the Jets' top four defensemen. As part of the return in the trade of Trouba, Pionk will be watched closely early. A quick transition to the Jets' methods, possibly helped by being paired with steady Morrissey, is Winnipeg's hope.

Video: Pionk talks trade, expectations with Jets


Biggest potential surprise

Niku has progressed strongly since coming to North America for the 2017-18 season, when he was the defenseman of the year in the American Hockey League, playing for Manitoba. At 6-foot-1, 176 pounds, he plays a mobile, puck-moving, cerebral game. With two full pro seasons on the smaller ice, there have been indicators during preseason he's ready to contribute much more.


Ready to break through

Copp is about to begin his fifth full NHL season and has matured into a reliable shutdown forward with bite to his game. The 25-year-old had 25 points (11 goals, 14 assists) in 69 games last season. It was an NHL career-high for goals, achieved when playing as a trustworthy defender with Lowry. Those qualities might make Copp the first candidate for line promotion should injuries or shuffling be required.

Video: MIN@WPG: Copp beats Kahkonen with top-shelf laser


Fantasy sleeper 

Morrissey (average draft position: 170.2) had an NHL career-high 31 points (six goals, 25 assists) in 59 games last season and should see an increased workload after the departures of Trouba and Myers and the questions surrounding Byfuglien. -- Rob Reese



Kyle Connor -- Mark Scheifele -- Blake Wheeler

Nikolaj Ehlers -- Bryan Little -- Patrik Laine

Andrew Copp -- Adam Lowry -- Jack Roslovic

Gabriel Bourque -- Mark Letestu -- Mathieu Perreault 

Josh Morrissey -- Neal Pionk

Dmitry Kulikov -- Sami Niku

Nathan Beaulieu -- Tucker Poolman

Connor Hellebuyck

Laurent Brossoit

Suspended: Dustin Byfuglien 

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