The Winnipeg Jets have always been applauded for filling their prospect cupboards since picking up a largely bare team from Atlanta. Now that the Jets are faced with players potentially leaving in free agency, or being traded away in order to better manage the cap to pay their more elite talent, do they have players in the minors that can step up continue carrying the Jets onwards and forwards into and through the Stanley Cup Playoffs?
Unlike the past two days, Matt Cane’s 2018 Free Agent Predictions unfortunately does not come in handy here, as it largely uses data and players in the NHL during the 2018 season. Due to this, we will be looking at each individual player in terms of statistics for their respective 2017-18 season, courtesy of EliteProspects.com. There is no order to the following list other than how they appear according to CapFriendly.com, and (unfortunately to some readers) most analysis will be courtesy of my personal viewpoints and previous readings. I will cover all players on the list, with the exception of a couple already mentioned previously (as they may have finished the season on the Jets), as well as including some players not found below.
With a lot to get through, these paragraphs will be short and succinct, with how their current contract might play into the Jets or Moose plans.
Probably the most criticized draft pick made by the Winnipeg Jets 2.0, Logan Stanley did take a step forward in terms of production, which is meaningful when you look at how defencemen transfer over from the minors into (eventually) the AHL. It is, however, entirely likely that the Jets still view Stanley as a long term project as they continue to allow the monstrously-sized defenceman to develop and adapt his game into quicker speeds. If Stanley can utilize this size and reach along with quickening his footwork and Hockey IQ, he can easily reach be a regular NHL player a la Tyler Myers – but probably not at the same offensive production. Being on his entry-level contract, expect Logan Stanley to slowly work with Pascal Vincent and the Manitoba Moose to try and be ready to get into the NHL line-up in year three (which happens to be the last year of Byfuglien’s contract).
Lemieux always appears to be one of the last cuts at training cut, and if it was not because of injuries, there is a high chance that he probably would have been with the Jets back in 2016-17. However, he remained with the Moose, and struggled immensely – likely leading to why he remained with the Moose after the couple of games with Matt Hendricks and Joel Armia earlier on this season. Fortunately for him, he impressed in terms of production, but was an absolutely mess like always with regards to his PIMs. For a Jets team that finally fixed it’s penalty problem (but not penalty killing problem), inserting a player whom gets easily frustrated and plays with a constant chip on his shoulder might be worrisome. With the likes of Tanev already in the Jets lineup, unless the Jets lose more than two forwards, Lemieux will likely remain on the Moose and be the first call-up in times of injury. He also has two more seasons before he gains arbitration rights, so it is likely he is staying put with the organization unless he is a chip-in for another trade.
Putting up a Hobey Baker quality season at over a point-per-game in college, C.J. Suess (previously known as C.J. Franklin) continues to be a late bloomer prospect that steadily improves his game to the competition. In signing Suess to a one-year contract for the 2018-19 season, the Jets retain his rights when he easily could have headed to Free Agency (a la Jimmy Vesey), which is great viewpoint of how players view the Jets organization on the rise. Suess will likely remain with the Moose for the next season and continue his development as a left-winger and see if his production once again rises to the occasion. If nothing else, adding a productive player with a knack for leadership will be of importance to the Manitoba Moose next season as they try to continue their winning ways. If he does, then the Jets made the right call by retaining his rights, as they’ll have a couple more seasons still until he hits free agency.
Voted the AHL’s Most Outstanding Defenceman for the entire league as a rookie, Sami Niku has easily risen up to be the Jets top defensive prospect. With swift skating and a superior vision for passing, Niku has not only been had an impact on defence, but also on offence. The young defenceman is easily a product of Finland, thanks to his attributes of calmness and sky-high confidence in himself to perform, and could easily be the next Toby Enstrom. Though it is only one season, Niku’s style of play can easily transfer over to today and tomorrow’s NHL with how quick the game is becoming. With two seasons left on his entry-level contract at age 21, there is plenty of time to see what Niku can continue to do – with the accolades already pouring in, however, the next contract certainly won’t be cheap – unless his next season is the dramatic opposite of the 2017-18 season.
While absolutely dominant in the WHL with the Prince George Cougars and performing highly in two previous AHL tryouts, Jansen Harkins struggled this season full-time with the Manitoba Moose, even spending time in the ECHL and was largely kept out of the playoffs. At age 21, it certainly is not the end of the world, but one would have hoped to see more and better from the centre that had been in previous discussions to eventually rise to the Jets for their bottom-six depth – now, it seems like Harkins needs to have a stellar season next season with the Manitoba Moose to even be thought of again. With two years remaining on his entry-level contract, he has time to improve himself and get back to his old production rates – but depending on how he comes into training camp, will he start the season with the Moose or the IceMen?
Largely known for his celebrations for an empty-net goal, Mikhail Berdin has had very respectful numbers in the USHL since coming over from Russia, and was rewarded for it with a three-year entry-level contract starting the 2018-19 season. Berdin has all the tools and raw talent to become a NHL-calibre goaltender, though he will likely need to adjust aspects of his game as he steadily rises through each professional level. Whether or not he starts with the Moose or IceMen (depending on other factors, like Jamie Phillips), Berdin will need to size up and grow up, but in this author’s opinion, I wouldn’t be surprised for him to eventually take the reins of the Moose from Comrie and impress many. Rick St. Croix is likely very eager to work with the kid and help him become the goaltender he could be. The Jets might have to worry more about him in year two and three when he likely takes the reins of the Moose from Eric Comrie.
In an up-and-down season for the Czech product, Michael Spacek was flipped around the lineup from wing to centre and was largely “just okay” – at least, when you compare his offensive production to the likes of what he was putting up with the Red Deer Rebels for the previous two seasons. Spacek remains a bit of a enigma, but certainly has the time to mature his game in the AHL, as it is unlikely he is jumping ahead of any of the other forwards in the prospect pipeline; in that sense, Spacek will likely be working a lot of his game as a centre while he continues to rack up the points on the power play. Originally touted in many scouting reports as a sleeper pick garnered by his small size, Spacek will more than likely spend the next two seasons with the Moose, with the Jets hoping to cash in on their 2015 4th round pick in the distant future.
The former #1 pick in the 2014 QMJHL Draft, Luke Green’s offence has been highly touted and comes as promised. Unfortunately, most of that showing have been limited recently, as he suffered a dislocated shoulder in the Jets training camp, and was subsequently signed to an entry level contract. When he returned, however, Green impacted every single game he was a part of in the Q, putting up a literal point-per-game in the rest of the regular season. The right-handed player has all the tools of the new-typical NHL defenceman – swift feet, thinks fast, makes quick decisions with the puck. Though there are defensive parts of his game that he could improve (and likely are to be addressed against harder competition in the AHL and in a league that is not laden with points), Green certainly already looks better than other right-handed defensive minor prospects and as such has a better potential.
As it turns out, forgoing his junior year and season where he was voted the Captain by his teammates in Michigan State to turn pro with the Manitoba Moose was the absolute correct decision for one Mason Appleton, and was rewarded for it by being named the AHL’s Top Rookie for the 2017-18 season. Appleton showed versatility all season long, whether it was in his shots, his passes, or general vision and Hockey IQ. Appleton unfortunately missed the majority of the AHL Playoffs with a (likely) concussion after taking a late, high, and direct hit to the head from Colin Campbell, but has certainly risen dramatically in terms of forward depth for both the Jets and Moose. Depending on how the rest of the Summer 2018 works out, Appleton could be in competing for a roster spot with the Jets, but certainly wouldn’t be hurt by another season with the Moose – though it certainly would be disappointing to not be able to use his entry-level contract AAV with the Jets as the cap crunches.
When Nelson Nogier appeared in 10 games with the Jets late last season because of injuries, many saw a steady and reliable defensive defenceman that could be dependable on the third pairing and penalty kill should there be a plethora of injuries with the big club. Unfortunately, that could not be seen this previous season, as Nogier had an injury that required surgery that sidelined him for the majority of the 2017-18 season. With one season remaining on his entry-level contract, he will likely use this offseason to further recover and spend the last season to re-establish his game with the Moose. If anything, Nogier will likely be a reliable AHL defender for the Moose for years to come, barring any surprises that will have him jump up the depth chart on the right side.
Brought in on a two-way contract that paid him $100k in the Minors, Buddy Robinson was a great fit with the Manitoba Moose, showing off his big size and great attitude, with some rumblings of whether or not he deserved a call-up with the big club at some points. Though he didn’t, the 26-year-old winger certainly showed he could be a difference in the AHL, and Craig Heisinger will likely want to keep him there. Whether or not that will be on a two-way contract or AHL-only is to be determined, as Buddy is a UFA and could very well choose where ever he would like to play. Unfortunately, there are many younger and more highly touted prospects within the Jets’ systems, so it will take another herculean season for Buddy to see time in the NHL again – and that might take him away to another team that can offer that possibility.
Also brought in for depth in the AHL, Michael Sgarbossa took a one-way contract and got paid $650k to spend the majority of his time with the Moose after being up and down with Anaheim and Florida’s NHL and AHL teams the previous season. While not exactly earth-shattering, it was much needed depth in the centre which pushed the AHL team into a winning season for the first season since they’ve returned. Spending $650k for a centre that likely is never going to see time in the NHL again, however, isn’t exactly money well spent. Whether Sgarbossa’s last year here will convince him to sign an AHL-only contract for, say, $200k is left to be determined – but there are plenty of centres out there and will be even more this Summer as teams try to shed weight and contracts in favour of their younger prospects – the Jets and Sgarbosssa included.
Chase De Leo
Chase De Leo has quietly been quite effective in the AHL with the Moose, and turned it up another level in the Calder Cup Playoffs – however, has not exactly shown anything deeming him worthy of ever seeing time in the NHL as a winger. Being on a better Moose team this previous season didn’t change his numbers dramatically, and his ceiling is likely just a top player in the AHL. That being said, the 22-year-old is still young and could very well try to fight hard for a qualifying offer from the Jets, but it certainly doesn’t seem like he is destined for anything more than being a top player in the AHL.
Jamie Phillips has been thrown around North America because of injuries and as a result has never really had the opportunity since his days with Michigan Tech to solidify his game. While he hasn’t exactly shone in either league, he has been a reliable backup with the Moose, but struggled in his limited showing in the ECHL this year. Already 25 with arbitration rights, it will be hard to see whether the Jets organization continue to see him in their depth charts with the likes of Mikhail Berdin and Arvid Holm steadily rising. Jamie will have to take the long road a la Michael Hutchinson by putting up a stellar season in the ECHL and be deserving of callups to the AHL and possibly the NHL. I do not see this happening within the Winnipeg Jets Hockey Club, however.
Another Summer 2017 signing that led the Moose to turnaround their season, Cameron Schilling had a respectable season on the left-side of the defence in the AHL. The 29-year-old received a minimum salary guarantee of $375k to remain in Winnipeg, Manitoba in one season, and to be honest, that’s probably what they would have to pay him (or a little bit less) to remain here versus any of the other AHL teams in warmer regions of North America. The Jets and Moose likely have more younger LHD prospects of their own that they would like to see.
After steadily rising his offensive production in the QMJHL, Jan Kostalek has cooled down significantly and has become a steady defensive defenceman with the Manitoba Moose the past three seasons. This past season, however, saw Kostalek struggled enough to be sent down to the ECHL – a far cry from a point in time where Kostalek was considered on the same level as Josh Morrissey. It’ll be hard to see Kostalek receiving a Qualifying Offer this offseason, though he may eventually end up remaining with the Manitoba Moose as depth.
Unfortunately for Jimmy Lodge, but he is likely one of those players too good for the ECHL, but not good enough for the AHL, as he has fallen significantly from his original third round draft back in 2013. Another RFA this Summer, Jimmy is unlikely to receive a Qualifying Offer from the Hockey Club, and likely will spend his remaining professional career in the ECHL.
The chippy winger whom has always shown considerable effort whenever and where ever he is on the ice has long been liked by the Jets organization, and is likely a character in the locker room that coaches will point to for other developing prospects to model their hustle after. JC will likely be one of the few RFAs this season that will receive a Qualifying Offer this Summer, as he continues to teeter between being a hard forechecker on the Jets’ 4th line, or a leader with the AHL squad. As a 24-year-old, however, next season should be a make or break as to whether he will ever be considered for a full-time NHL position.
Julian Melchiori hits unrestricted free agency this year after being the AHL team’s primary defensive defenceman for the past six seasons. He did perform better this season in his contract year after being sidelined for bits and parts of the season with concussion, but one of the last remaining Atlanta Thrasher draft picks likely sees the writing on the wall here within the Jets depth chart and may opt for greener pastures. By all accounts he does seem to be a leader on the team along with Patrice Cormier, but if he believes he still has the chance to play in the NHL, he will likely be moving teams for a two-way contract somewhere else.
With many players remaining on the Reserve List, we will try to keep things short by addressing some key players either to be signed, or having expiring deadlines to sign by.
Ivan Telegin and Pavel Kraskovsky
A quick mention for these two: both of these Russians have potential, but have shown unwillingness to come over to play in the AHL with either St. John’s IceCaps or the Manitoba Moose, and have instead signed long contracts in the KHL, with Telegin’s ending in Summer 2019 and Kraskovsky’s in Summer 2020. While Telegin likely won’t be coming over to North America anymore as a 26-year-old, there is still potential for Pavel Kraskovsky to establish himself as a shutdown centre akin to Adam Lowry. His offensive production, however, certainly leave a lot to be desired. The Jets have rarely drafted any Russians, and the only one signed that comes to mind is Mikhail Berdin. It’s hard to think either of these players will be making their ways overseas at all, let alone any time soon.
In two months time, if the Winnipeg Jets do not sign Jack Glover to an entry-level contract, he will become an unrestricted free agent – and it certainly appears that he is headed in that direction. There are simply too many other right-handed defenceman in front of him, and time and time again when he finally got the opportunity to perform and show his skillset, he didn’t necessarily impress, including in the ECHL. I don’t believe he is destined for the AHL, either.
While there certainly is a need for centre depth in the Jets organization (considering it pretty much ends at Jack Roslovic and Skylar McKenzie), Matt Ustaski certainly doesn’t appear to be an up-and-comer to help either the Jets or the Moose in the near or distant future. Granted, he was drafted in his third year of draft eligibility in the seventh round, so the Jets scouts might have hoped that some scoring prowess eventually comes to a player of a 6’5″ size – but that unfortunately never came. Come August 15th, Ustaski will join Glover in becoming a young UFA.
How do you follow up scoring 42 goals in the WHL? How does scoring 47 goals sound? Skyler McKenzie’s “one good season” suddenly became a trend, and likely earns a entry-level contract this Summer to play with the Moose. There is a possibility he remains in the WHL for one more season, but it’s hard to imagine that he would develop further with the Portland Winterhawks after being trusted enough by Pascal Vincent to play games in the 2018 Calder Cup Playoffs. Plus, with possible departures of other wingers from the AHL squad, there will need to be some replenishment to keep the Moose competitive. McKenzie will need to get used to playing above his size sooner than later – might as well do it now.
The Swedish defenceman has always been considered a long-term project if he were to be drafted, as he has the size, skating, and dependability in his own zone, but doesn’t necessarily have any offensive abilities. While the game is shifting away from stay-at-home defenceman, Jacob Cederholm differs than most in that he has the ability to skate or make a safe play out of his zone to get it to his other players – but doesn’t really contribute much outside of that. He was brought over on an ATO to play with the Manitoba Moose, but it was only one game and he didn’t really do much of anything to garner him more playing time. It is likely that the Jets wait another two summers before deciding whether or not to sign him to an entry-level contract, but it would be a waste for him to go back to Sweden to play for HV71 and not get much of any playing time – in that scenario, it would be worthwhile for him to sign an ELC and play with the Manitoba Moose. But, the Hockey Club certainly has time to make this decision.
The Winnipeg Jets’ last first round draft pick (and likely will be for the next year unless the team trades up into 2018’s first round of the draft), Kristian Vesalainen rebounded from his struggling SHL season and returned to form with a high-tempo game and dynamite shot from the right-side of the ice (think the Laine / Ovechkin spot, but opposite side). The large Finn was tied for the team lead in the World Junior’s this year with six points in five games, and was a key figure in Karpat’s Liiga championship. With many Finns already making an impact here in Winnipeg, either with the Jets or Moose, the team may believe that it would be an easier transition over to North America with friends and countrymen to rely on while adjusting to the smaller ice, perhaps first starting with the Manitoba Moose before getting a shot with the big club. In reality, it is up to him – I am sure the Hockey Club would love to expose the young Vesalainen to Winnipeg and get him familiar with teammates both on the Jets and the Moose, but there certainly is the worry that he may hit a roadblock in his development in the first season that could impact his future contracts.
As mentioned before, the Kevin Cheveldayoff and the rest of the General Management (including scouting staff and Hockey Operations) certainly have their hands full with 11 players not currently with the Jets (or unlikely to be) heading to restricted or unrestricted free agency. There is always the rotation of fringe players as players exit to try and get opportunities elsewhere (or management cuts ties to at least potentially joining the NHL club), but one wrong mistake, and fans and media alike will hound you for it (hello, Florida Panthers and the Vegas Golden Knights). While much of it will be up to the players themselves of what they believe they are deserving of, or their potential, the Jets certainly have the ability to supplant some talent in their current lineup in the future. It will take some development and time, however – but this means putting the prospects in the right places now: whether that means ELCs to retain rights and have them slide in the Minors, or to join the Moose and step up the competition and be challenged.
Certainly a lot of agents to talk to, conversations to have, and negotiations to go through, however.
On our final day tomorrow, using the previous three days in consideration, I will try to build the Jets roster of 2018-19 and in the future.
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