The Winnipeg Jets have built their success on the back of solid draft choices and young talent. Each year the younger players in the organization take a step forward and continue to transform this roster. Last season the Jets said their last goodbyes to veterans like Ondrej Pavelec and Mark Stuart and ended up seeing Connor Hellebuyck and Josh Morrisey not only take their roles, but be better at them. Both took enormous strides in their career as Hellebuyck became a Vezina candidate and Morrisey was leaned on as part of a top shut down defensive pairing by the end of the season. Kyle Connor also made the most of his first full-time job in the NHL and played much of the second half of the season and the playoffs on Winnipeg’s top line.
This year the Jets have parted ways with a few more veterans. Toby Enstrom, who had been with the team since the move to Winnipeg, was not offered a new contract and is off to play in Sweden. The Jets also said goodbye to forwards Matt Hendricks and Joel Armia as well as two backup goaltenders in Steve Mason and Michael Hutchinson. As past moves have opened up roster spots for younger players to step into bigger roles, so too this year Winnipeg will be looking for some new breakout stars to fill the gaps.
Here are six to keep an eye on…
As a rookie in the AHL last season, Appleton was the Moose’s best offensive player. The former Michigan State Spartan led the Jets farm club in points and assists, and finished fourth in league scoring. This earned Appleton AHL Rookie Of The Year honors which was on top of the AHL first All-Star Team and AHL All-Rookie honors that he collected. Appleton will be a long shot to make the Jets out of camp. However, if he has a strong pre-season and can get off to a quick start in the minors, he may be the leading candidate to get called up. Kyle Connor set the bar last year for call ups, and Appleton has shown the offensive ability to have similar production.
Petan, the former Portland Winterhawk stand out, has been in the Jets system since being taken in the second round in 2013. Despite clear offensive skill, and the #freepetan movement from fans, he has never received a real shot in Winnipeg’s lineup. Petan has a total of 95 NHL games played, managing five goals and 16 assists in that time. Though his offensive numbers aren’t overwhelming, Petan supporters would argue that he has spent most of his time in the bottom six forward group, which is not really suited to his talents. Petan has found himself as the odd man out throughout much of his career in Winnipeg, seeing more action in the press box than on the ice. He will need a very impressive training camp to crack the opening night roster, but will more likely have to wait and hope to get an opportunity later in the year. If Petan can somehow find himself a spot on this roster, don’t be surprised to see him put up some real numbers.
Niku provided the Jets with a legitimate option to bolster their blue line. For years the Jets offensive organizational depth was touted as one of the best in the NHL, but you rarely heard about the up and coming defensive prospects the team which may be because there weren’t many. Niku changed that in his first pro season in North America. Niku earned the Eddie Shore Award as the AHL’s top defenseman, as well as All-Rookie and First All-Star team nods alongside Appleton. He put up 54 points in his rookie season and also notched his first NHL goal during a call up on April 3rd. Niku’s offensive ability was well-known before he was drafted, however the growth in his defensive game has been enormous with Manitoba. The seventh round pick has definitely been a hit for Kevin Cheveldayoff as well as the Jets and he has a real chance to crack Winnipeg’s top six.
The left side of the Jets defensive core certainly has openings, especially with the loss of Tobias Enstrom. Josh Morrisey will fit in beside Jacob Trouba on the top pair, but after that Winnipeg has a lot of questions. Ben Chairot, Joe Morrow, and Dmitry Kulikov are the other left defensemen that filled spots last year. Add Niku to that list and you have four guys fighting for two available spots. Kulikov has a big contract and will likely at least get a look early in the season. For me Morrow fits in more as a seventh or eighth guy which leaves Chairot and Niku fighting for the last spot. Either way Niku is likely to get a look at some point this year and could fight his way to a permanent role.
Marko Dano is in a very similar situation as Nic Petan. A first round pick in that same 2013 draft, Dano has bounced around a few times trying to find his NHL opportunity. Initially acquired by Winnipeg as part of the Andrew Ladd trade, Dano has been another press box warrior trying to make the most of his time when he does get on the ice. In 82 career games with Winnipeg, Dano has posted 10 goals and 12 assists. His game is a little different from Petan’s in that he plays a little tougher with some more grit. This may give him a leg up over Petan as Dano is far more suited to play in a bottom six role which is where the real battles will take place during training camp. If Dano manages to crack the lineup, he brings a little bit of everything to the roster. Between his offensive skill and sandpaper attitude, Dano could finally be a big part of the everyday lineup.
Roslovic is the first player on this list that seems to be slotted in to the opening night roster already. Roslovic saw significant playing time last season, playing in 31 games due to some key Winnipeg injuries. In that time last season, he received good reviews and apparently did enough to earn the inside track on a roster spot coming into training camp this season. Roslovic has spent the first few days of camp alongside Mathieu Perreault and Kristian Vesalainen on Winnipeg’s third line. Perreault has proved over the last couple years that he can play with anyone and more importantly, produce with anyone and this line has the opportunity to be huge contributors and provide some great depth for an already dangerous Jets offense.
At this point it is a tale as old as time. A young Finnish hockey player coming to the Manitoba capital and capturing Winnipeggers hearts. Vesalainen has the chance to follow in the footsteps of two other great Finnish goal scorers. Vesalainen proved last season he could put the puck in the net while playing in the Finnish Elite League, scoring 22 times and totaling 43 points in 49 regular season games, adding eight more playoff points on his way to helping Kärpät a league championship.
His shot, and setup, especially on the power play is very reminiscent of Patrik Laine, and I can’t be the only fan who has licked my lips thinking about a man advantage situation with a sniping Finn on either side ready to shoot. Vesalainen finished his Liiga career as one of the highest scoring under 20 year old players in league history and made his decision early on in the summer to come to Manitoba to see where he fits into this team’s depth chart. Joining Roslovic and Perreault should afford him some offensive chances as both of them can be great set up men for Kristian’s shot. Though expectation shouldn’t be as high for Vesalainen, he will have an opportunity in Winnipeg, and if history tells us anything, the Jets and their fans may be in for a treat when the Finnish goal scorer takes the ice this season.