The 2016-17 season is a microcosm of where the Jets are at as a team. At the end of February and early March, there were whispers about the Jets still being in the playoff hunt and that a berth was definitely possible. Yet, that was wishful thinking because the Jets were unable to provide consistent play with their line up or ice an optimal line up that would lead to a greater chance at winning. The Jets seemed so close to being a playoff team, yet they are so far away.
Injuries have played a role in this, Myers has only played 11 games this season and is now looking doubtful to play another game this season. Toby Enstrom was shut down because of knee surgery and he will have missed 22 games by the time the 2016-17 season is finished. Bryan Little missed 23 games at the beginning of this season due to injury. There are more injuries to note, Paul Postma is out with hernia surgeries. But, not having those pieces did play a significant role in the demise of the Jets’ 2016-17 season.
That being said, Jets fans should have a little excitement around players being called up to fill in for injuries. Nelson Nogier being called up and realizing a dream should be a feel good moment, but he is not necessarily developed enough to provide the Jets with appropriate NHL depth required to fill in for defensive injuries. Fan shudder when Brian Strait was called up because he is just not good enough to be in an NHL line up, yet he was the first defenseman called up from the Moose. Organizational depth, especially on defense has played a role in the Jets poor season.
Coaching has led to poor lineup decisions, horrible defensive zone structure and abysmal special teams. Petan should be playing higher in the line up, either as third line centre or on Bryan Little’s wing on the second line. Chris Thorburn consistently is played over younger players that are better (Marko Dano anyone?). The Jets currently sit 19th in the league for their powerplay conversion rate and 29th for their penalty kill rate. A simple solution to the powerplay and penalty kill woes would be to put Patrik Laine in the “Ovie spot” on the first unit and to keep Mark Stuart off the penalty kill. Or out of the line up. But, again, depth issues.
The Jets will have relatively the same team going into the 2017-18 season. Copp, Dano, Tanev, Chiarot and Hellebuyck are the only RFAs currently on the Jets’ roster and Postma and Thorburn are the only UFAs. The Jets will let Thorburn go and have to decide what to do about Postma, if they should bring him back or not. The Jets look to have a hair over $18 million dollars in cap space going into the 2017-18 season and will have to use some of that on their RFAs, but they should have a significant amount to sign significant depth players or trade for upgrades on defense.
Here is why the Jets need to send money to produce a very competitive team for the 2017-18 season. Little and Enstrom will be UFAs come the summer of 2018. Little will be looking for a raise from his current contract that posts a $4.7 million dollar cap hit. Enstrom, who at 32 is now on the south side of his career, may stay around and take a cut, or he may leave the Jets. Lowry, Armia, Ehlers, Petan, Morrissey, and Trouba will all be RFAs. Trouba has shown that he is an elite defender this season and should look for a significant raise to around Byfuglien’s $7.6 Million salary. Morrissey has not looked out of place on the top pairing and will look for a raise from his ELC of $863,000. Ehlers is sitting at 61 points and has 4 games to increase that total. Ehlers is due for a raise. Guys like Lowry, Armia and Petan will get raises, maybe not by the millions, but enough to affect the cap space the Jets have.
The cap will go up, but will it be enough to allow the Jets to keep key pieces. The Jets can also stay conservative with the moves they make this off season, but being conservative has not gotten the Jets very far since they relocated from Atlanta.
The other factor is age. Wheeler is 30, Little and Perreault are 29, Byfuglien and Enstrom are 32. Those players are on the wrong side of their peak years and will start declining. The Jets need to be all in before age starts catching up to the older players of the team. That is the 2017-18 season.
Management has some tough decisions this off season around whether or not to keep Paul Maurice or to search for another coach. However, what ever route they go, what they do with the cap space has to be smart, but not conservative.
The coaching staff can make some quick adjustments that will make special teams instantly better. Patrik Laine currently has 34 goals. Put him in a better position to succeed and watch him score over 40 goals, maybe even in Laine’s second NHL season. Laine is that good and his talent should not be wasted.
The Jets should not aim to make a small step forward in the 2017-18 season, but a huge leap forward. Part of that will be spending money to bring in players, through free agency or trades, to allow the team succeed in 2017-18. The players deserve it and the fans are clamouring for it: The Jets need to be all in for the 2017-18 season.