Pretty much every professional draft in sports lends itself quite easily to second guessing almost immediately after picks are announced. Such as the case for yours truly on Thursday night when my beloved Seattle Seahawks picked linebacker Jordyn Brooks with the 27th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.
Maybe Brooks will turn out to be a fine pro. Almost as soon as the pick was made, I saw tweets comparing him favorably to Seahawks star linebacker Bobby Wagner. That didn’t stop me from wishing the Hawks had picked Patrick Queen who of course was taken one pick later by the Baltimore Ravens, or Xavier McKinney who went undrafted after day one. I almost instantly had a thought of how much we fans might regret this pick in four or five years if a player like Queen or McKinney goes on to have more impactful career than Brooks.
Then started thinking if there were any of instances of that for the Winnipeg Jets. Draft picks where we could look back and wistfully say “yup, they should have taken this guy instead…”
So over two posts in the next few days, I am going to count down the Jets five biggest “misses” starting with numbers five, four and three.
But before I begin, there are a couple of guidelines that I used to make this list for you to keep in mind…
For starters, the misses need to be within the next five picks made after the Jets made their selection. No “they could have had this player who was drafted in the fourth round with a pick they had in the second round” methodology. The kind of misses I am talking about are the ones where – like my analogy as a Seahawks fan above – we can all look back on and say “there was a better pick and it was right there for the taking and the Jets passed.”
This means as much as some of you think that Logan Stanley could already be labeled a “miss” and that the Jets could have had Alexr Debrincat, to me, that Debrincat was taken 20 picks later (and many would argue should have been taken much higher in the first round of the 2016 draft) doesn’t exactly suggest that it was as much a Jets miss, as it does that there may have been information on Debrincat that had multiple NHL GM’s looking elsewhere.
Second, picks that were traded away by the Jets aren’t being counted here even if the trade return didn’t work out for the Jets – not that there really is any worth noting. In 2013, the Jets traded a couple of 2016 picks to the Chicago Blackhawks for Michael Frolik and one of those picks turned out to be John Hayden who has had a couple of half-seasons with the Hawks and New Jersey Devils. Every other pick the Jets have traded away (at least from what I was able to see and track down) didn’t really turn out to produce a bonafide NHL’er.
Last of all, I’m not going to consider the 2019 or 2018 drafts, because it’s still too early to decide if the Jets have missed out on anyone in those drafts. Only five players from the 2019 draft in total saw any time in the NHL last season (Ville Heinola thankfully is in that group) and the list isn’t much bigger when you look at 2018’s draft either.
That all out of the way, here are (at least in my estimation) the first three biggest draft misses for the Winnipeg Jets…
#5 – D, Brennan Serville
(2011 Draft, 3rd round – 78th overall)
The Jets could have picked… C, Nick Shore (LAK – 82nd overall)
Brennan Serville was a University of Michigan commit when the Jets drafted him and at the time was considered a ‘reach’ pick which as you’ll note with a lot of these picks seem to be the kind GM Kevin Cheveldayoff loves. Serville played all four years at Ann Arbor and then one pro season between the AHL Manitoba Moose and the ECHL Tulsa Oilers, but the 6’3″ defenseman struggled with injuries and seemed to retire after just a couple of seasons.
Nick Shore played a couple of more seasons with the University of Denver before makign the jump to pro hockey first with the Manchester Monarchs for a season and a half before getting the call to the NHL as a solid depth forward. Shore has bounced around a bit over the last five seasons with stops in LA, Ottawa, Calgary, a season in Russia, Toronto and now Winnipeg… So in a way this one kind of worked out in the end for the Jets.
As far as draft misses go, this one is pretty mild. Could have been a better pick, but given who we saw taken right after, it wasn’t the worst mistake made.
#4 – F, Kristian Vesalainen
(2017 Draft, 1st round – 24th overall)
Could have had… D, Henri Jokiharju (CHI – 29th overall)
I’m going to preface this by saying that putting Vesalainen on this list isn’t exactly fair and there is still time for Kristian to prove me wrong here.
For starters, it’s only been a couple of seasons since this draft took place and for the same reasons I excluded players from the 2019 and 2018 drafts from this list, I thought about also extending to the 2017 draft. One can also make the argument that there has been zero need for the Jets to attempt to keep Vesalainen on their roster and instead decided to let him develop outside of the NHL. It’s not like Kristian has had an fair chance or extended look really to prove himself.
Henri Jokiharju on the other hand has played on a couple of teams that are thin on defense and have had room to give him a chance to play, unlike Kristian in Winnipeg. Henri got a good look in Chicago in his first pro season out of junior making a Blackhawks defensive lineup that wasn’t exactly stacked full, and then the following summer lucked out by being traded to Buffalo (that felt very odd to write out) where he would have had to be really awful to not make that roster.
That said, I feel like there would have been a better than average chance that Jokiharju could have also made the Jets 2019-20 roster as well had the Jets drafted him back in 2017. Maybe one year with the Moose, but this past season the Jets really could have used a player like him as opposed to having to lean on waiver wire pickups like Luca Sbisa and Anthony Bitetto.
As for Vesalainen, he may have hurt his own development back in 2018-19 by choosing to go back to his home country to play another season in Lliga when the Jets really would have liked him to stay and work on his game in North American rinks with the AHL Moose. The first half of this past 2019-20 season may have reflected just how much better staying on this side of the pond might have been, as Kristian seemed to struggle with the smaller rink size and speed of the game even at the AHL level. He got better as the season went along, but there are lingering questions if Vesalainen can be relied on as a steady performer that doesn’t go missing in half his games.
Vesalainen could still turn out to be more than worthy of his first round pick status, but there have been troubling signs that he could just as easily be a big first round miss and that the Jets, who really needed help on the blue line this season, had a player taken five picks later that could have helped.
#3 – D, Jacob Cederholm
(2016 Draft, 4th round – 97th overall)
The Jets could have picked… D, Victor Mete (MTL – 100th overall)
Time hasn’t quite run out on Kristian Vesalainen yet, but we’re pretty much at the point where I think we can say it has for Jacob Cederholm in as far as his time as a Winnipeg Jets prospect. It’s very likely in fact that the fourth round pick won’t see a single game in the NHL as a Jet.
The deadline for the Jets to sign him to a pro contract is June 1 of this year and while obviously the current situation with COVID-19 having ‘paused’ the league and making a potential mess of hundreds of contract situations that would have come up this off season leaves things uncertain, it’s hard to imagine the Jets would offer him a contract at this point. He could sign a pro deal with the Manitoba Moose, or the Jets ECHL affiliate in Jacksonville where Cederholm has played for the last two injury plagued seasons which would allow the Jets to keep him within arms length should he turn it around. At the age of 22, there is still a slight chance he improves, although it’s not likely at this point and it almost certainly won’t be enough to vault him over the likes of Heinola, Dylan Samberg, Leon Gawanke or Logan Stanley.
Victor Mete meanwhile made the jump out of junior to crack the Montreal Canadiens lineup straight out of junior hockey and while he’s very much a bottom pairing defenseman, that’s at least better than what Cederholm has turned out to be. Much like Jokiharju, the Jets could have stashed Mete away in the AHL for the first couple of years after his draft, allowing him the chance to work on his game with the Moose, and then use him as a fifth or sixth defenseman on the Jets depth chart with some possible upside from the 21 year old as he’s displayed in his time with the Habs.