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The evolution of building an NHL roster and the curious case of the Winnipeg Jets

Evolve or die.

That statement is never more apparent than in the world of sports. Over the last 10 years, the NHL has switched to a salary cap system and with that, the NHL has seen a change in gameplay. Once ruled by the dump and chase grinding style of game, the league has shifted towards an emphasis on puck possession game, speed, and skill.

So how is this evaluation effecting roster construction? Are the Winnipeg Jets keeping up with the times?

All roster construction in the NHL starts with the draft.  If you can’t draft you can’t win and in the last 5-10 years, the face of the draft is changing. The once all-important size (while still relevant) is starting to take a back seat to skill and hockey IQ.  This is one area where the Jets have kept pace with fellow NHL teams. When you look at Winnipeg’s draft classes, you’ll see skill from top to bottom.

1st and 2nd round picks: Nik Ehlers , Jack Roslovic and Nic Petan

3rd and 4th round picks: Luke Green, Michael Spacek and Chase De Leo

5th round and later picks: Sami Niku and Matteo Gennaro

Now I’m not saying that on occasion the Jets don’t go looking for size and sandpaper (because we have seen those in Adam Lowry, Lukas Sutter, Zach Yuen, Nelson Nogier and Logan Stanley) but more often than not, the Jets have focused on drafting assets with talent and skill.

The next level of roster construction is retaining your own players and working with the free agent market. So how have these processes evolved? There have been 2 major changes.

The first change is the length of contracts. Out with the old and in with the new, as team’s look to use players on ELC’s, free agents from Junor, college and European players to round out their roster instead of cheap depth veterans. The second change we see is teams moving away from the specialist type player. Specifically, the enforcers, Penalty Kill experts, shut down shot blocking defenseman and faceoff specialists. In today’s NHL, if you can’t play a regular shift and keep up, you can’t occupy a roster spot.

This is where we start to see some decision-making via the Jets management group. Specialized older players like Mark Stuart, Chris Thorburn, Drew Stafford and Jim Slater have received contract extensions with some term.  Then again, the Jets aren’t scared to give some of their top-end talent big money contracts with a lot of term, such as the Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler deals.

Now, as far as Free Agent signing goes we need to understand that being located in Winnipeg likely has an impact on the team’s ability to sign quality NHL free agents.  That being said, the Jets have dipped their hands into the Free Agency pool before. From Mattieu Perreault’s 3 year deal, to the 2 years they gave both Olli Jokinen and Shawn Matthias. If the Jets want to sign a player in Free Agency, it’s likely they will have to throw in a couple more bucks or add a year of term to entice the player to come to Winnipeg. The issue is, the more money and term you give to an aging player, the more risk is stapled to that contract.

The Jets organization has started to win college free agency bidding wars such as Jets forward Brandon Tanev and recent Moose signee Jake Kulevich. Hidden gems from Junior, college and over in Europe can be of great value for a team like the Jets. The players tend to be younger, cheaper and are willing to take a one-year term to show what they can do.

The final avenue for filling out a roster is through a team’s ability to trade with other teams. Now, how can a trade evolve in the NHL? The modern NHL trade is all about assets, whether those assets are an active player, a prospect, a draft pick, or money.

This is one of the Jets biggest organizational weaknesses as the Jets current management group is extremely conservative. Kevin Cheveldayoff and co only seem inclined to make trades when their hand is forced, such as the Evander Kane trade to Buffalo.  They haven’t used organizational strengths such as forward prospects and cap space, to help shore up a glaring organizational weakness in defensive depth and goaltending. Their worst failing has been allowing far too many pending free agents to leave the organization without gaining an asset at the trade deadline. In a league where the draft has become so vital, a team in a non-playoff team that’s focusing on development has to prioritize getting as many draft picks as possible.

Alike most NHL teams, the Jets have their strengths and their weaknesses when it comes to building a roster. But, being a small market budget team means the Jets have a much thinner line to walk.  o walk that line into the playoffs the Jets will have to start taking some calculated risks to bring in the pieces needed to move forward.

For years fans have been waiting for the priority to shift towards winning… The big question is have the Jets evolved enough to take that step?

  • @Large

    I think the quantity and quality of trades made are being limited due to the truly desired talent having no-movement clauses that include Winnipeg. Have any incarnation of the Jets ever acquired upper echelon talent aside from Bobby Hull? They’ve drafted them sure, but acquired? I think that will only happen if they can become a contender.

  • t_bison

    I think the Jets are probably the most ‘risk-adverse’ when it comes to trading. They would much rather have the devil they know than the one they don’t to a fault. In my mind, outside of Scheifele, Laine & Ehlers nobody on the Jets is safe. I believe Kevin Lowe used to have a rule where minimum 15% of the (mid-80s) Oilers’ roster would be gone the next year – it breeds a type of urgency and gets the culture used to change.

    To be honest, what drives me INSANE is the lack of use of the waiver wire and basic fancy stats with it. How many good Corsi & WAR D-men passed through the wire this season? Obviously you won’t get the next Seabrook but considering how thin the defense is, picking up a few for nothing except the contract and having them on the roster couldn’t really hurt. I am willing to bet a case of beer that there were plenty of D-men pass through the waiver wire that are better than Stuart & Chairot.