Time flies when you’re having fun. And the first Sunday of the month means another edition of the Free Press hockey mailbag is hot off the virtual presses.
Our puck pundits, Mike McIntyre and Ken Wiebe, are ready to tackle your queries about the Winnipeg Jets.
The mailbag, which will appear online the first Sunday of each month, has plenty of material to work with. If you’d like to submit a question for the next edition, email Mike and/or Ken. You can also reach out via our social media channels, if you prefer. On X, find them at mikemcintyrewpg and WiebesWorld.
Let’s get to it:
1. From Jon: When do you think the Jets make a move on the back end? There’s still a log-jam and Ville (Heinola) won’t be gone forever. I’d like to see (Declan) Chisholm get a shot, too.
MM: I’d be surprised to see GM Kevin Cheveldayoff swing a trade anytime soon which involves moving a blue-liner off the active roster, unless a colleague calls him up and makes him an offer he simply can’t refuse. You can never have enough defensive depth, especially if you envision going on a lengthy playoff run. That being said, a “good” problem is still a problem. Chisholm, one of the best defencemen in the AHL last year, has now been a healthy scratch for 11 straight games. That’s sub-optimal, to say the least. And first-rounder Logan Stanley has sat out 10 of 11 games. With Heinola now back with the club after spending some time in Finland while he rehabs his broken ankle, things could ultimately get more crowded then they already are. (An early December return for the talented Finn who had a tremendous training camp is the best-case scenario). Chisholm and Stanley both require waivers, and there’s a fear another team would swoop in if Winnipeg tried to send one, or both, to the farm. I envision a scenario, sooner than later, where Chisholm might get a look with veteran Nate Schmidt parked in the press box. If not, I wonder if the Jets would explore sending him to the Moose on a conditioning assignment (no waivers required) to at least get him some game action, Then there’s always the thing you never hope for as an organization but you know is likely going to happen — injuries. Winnipeg has stayed healthy on the back-end so far, but that sort of thing can change quickly. Perhaps this ultimately sorts itself out. But it’s something to monitor, for sure.
KW: This question has been prevalent for years, not months and my previous predictions had the Jets alleviating the logjam a long time ago, so this has been a challenging one to monitor. Cheveldayoff is on record saying you’d rather have too many D-men than not enough and that’s part of the reason he’s been so patient on this front. But once Heinola is healthy and back up to speed, the Jets will either need to make a move or expose someone to waivers – provided there are no other injuries suffered on the blue line. Chisholm remains an intriguing prospect to me, especially when you consider his mobility and puck-moving ability. That the Jets were able to get Kyle Capobianco through waivers and into the NHL was a bonus for them when it comes to organizational depth. But as Mike mentions, shy of another GM making the Jets an offer that makes sense, it’s hard to suggest that a trade of a D-man would be imminent. That both Dylan DeMelo and Brenden Dillon are on expiring contracts (more on them shortly) is another factor when it comes to the resolution of this issue.
2. From Craig: Will Ville Heinola play more games in a Moose or Jets uniform this season?
KW: I’m going to say Jets, though this answer is a bit more complex for me because of the nature of the injury (fractured ankle). Unless the healing process is ahead of the eight-to-12 week timeline that was originally provided, it’s possible that Heinola won’t get into game action until early-to-mid-December and those early games are going to come with the Moose in the AHL. How many games he’s going to need is difficult to project, since he’s basically going to be playing catch-up from the time that he’s missed. Because Heinola is exempt from waivers, the Jets can afford to be patient and let him take as much time as he needs to get back to full health. But he needs reps at the NHL level to show that he can become a regular with the Jets. Those reps should come at some point in January and provided he plays the way he did during the preseason, that should ensure that he plays more games with the Jets than he does with the Moose. It’s important to remember that he was on target to be in the opening-night lineup, but now he’s going to have to leapfrog multiple players to earn a spot on the third pairing.
MM: Jets, without question. He was on track to not only make the 23-man roster to start the year, but very likely be in the opening-night lineup — ahead of Nate Schmidt and likely on the second power play unit — when he suffered the unfortunate injury in his final preseason tune-up. Once he’s healed up, I suspect he will be given every opportunity to pick up where he left off. There’s always going to be a fear from fans that he gets sent to the Moose because he, unlike Chisholm and Stanley, is exempt from waivers. But I believe coach Rick Bowness when he said ice time will be earned, rather than awarded on merit, and Heinola made a compelling case.
3. From Bubba: Will one of Dylan DeMelo or Brenden Dillon be in Winnipeg next year?
MM: I’d say very likely on one, but very unlikely on both. Not because the Jets wouldn’t want them back, but because of other issues including the salary cap and the crowded blue-line that we’ve touched upon. Both players bring plenty to the table, but I’d argue Dillon’s style of play is what the team could use more of, not less of, and that might make him the “one.” Plus, as we saw on Saturday afternoon in Tempe, there’s some hidden offence just waiting to be unleashed, along with a blistering slap shot.
KW: Expect at least one of those players to remain with the Jets on an extension the Jets would like to get done before the NHL trade deadline in March. I expect both players to remain for the stretch run, with one extended and the other likely used as a self rental – like the Jets did with a number of players during the 2018 run to the Western Conference final. The Jets organizational depth chart is thinner on the right side than the left and that could play a role in the decision-making process. With both D-men north of 30 when the contracts would kick in, that will also be a consideration. However, on shorter-term deals, I could see the Jets attempting to bring both players back. If I was predicting the next Jets extension though, it would be forward Nino Niederreiter at the top of the list.
4. From Hugh: Now that Hellebuyck is locked up long term, what do you see the Jets doing (if anything) with their two quality goaltending prospects? A lot of talk was about how the Jets have two guys in the pipeline if Helly were to walk. Now that he’s locked up, do the Jets try and trade one as a part of the package for more help now? Or do they hang onto them both in hopes that maybe one can become a quality NHL player.
KW: Goaltending can be like pitching. There’s rarely an issue when you have too much of it and it can be crippling when you don’t have enough of it. Inking Hellebuyck to matching seven-year extensions with centre Mark Scheifele was incredibly important for the Jets, but in the short term it doesn’t really impact the direction they are going to take with goalie prospects Dom DiVincentiis or Thomas Milic. DiVincentiis has appeared in 10 games with the North Bay Battalion of the Ontario Hockey League this season, but recently suffered an injury that his head coach referred to as week-to-week. If he can get healthy, DiVincentiis could still be an option for Team Canada at the upcoming world junior hockey championship. Milic is off to a nice start with the Norfolk Admirals of the ECHL, rocking a 1.46 goals-against average and .936 save percentage in four appearances during his first pro season. The Jets like both prospects, but they’re not exactly knocking on the door for NHL backup duty yet, so there’s plenty of time to see how things are going to unfold. Both Milic and DiVincentiis will need to experience at the American Hockey League level and there’s a chance they could be the Manitoba Moose tandem as early as next season. Jets backup Laurent Brossoit is only under contract through this season, so there’s plenty to be determined about the future of the crease behind Hellebuyck. Could there be a point down the road when one of the goalie prospects is used as a trade chip? Perhaps, but I don’t expect it to be as early as this year’s deadline – or next, for that matter. But a lot can happen between now and then.
MM: Yes, the Jets are set for the long-term when it comes to their No. 1 netminder. But having Milic (the reigning WHL goalie of the year, now starting his pro career in the ECHL) and DiVincentiis (the reigning OHL goalie of the year) in the pipeline is quite a coup for the organization. Goaltenders are a different breed, and typically take a lot longer to ripen on the vine and ultimately be NHL ready. The Jets will have no reason to rush either of these guys, although a backup spot to Hellebuyck could be up for grabs as early as next year with both Brossoit and Collin Delia, the second and third-stringers in the organization, on expiring deals. I suspect Winnipeg hangs on to both, invests the time in properly developing them, and hopes at least one, if not both, are eventually ready for prime time.
5. From Shane: I’ve long been very critical of Conner Hellebuyck, because he USED to handle the puck poorly, shooting it along the boards TO the opposition players and often PAST his own players. This has contributed in a large amount to the Jets’ difficulties getting out of their end. Recently, Helle has been surprising me with his puck handling, passing the puck TO his defencemen and facilitating exits from their zone. Is this something he’s been working on?
MM: It sure is. Typically, both Hellebuyck and Brossoit come out early on practice days to do work with goaltender coach Wade Flaherty, and puck handling is something they will spend time on. Having a puck stopper who can also be a puck mover is a valuable weapon, almost like having a third defenceman. Just look at what Logan Thompson did last week in Vegas, where his stretch pass to Mark Stone led to a Golden Knights shorthanded goal seconds later as the Stanley Cup champs caught the Jets on a sleepy line change.
KW: This is definitely an area Hellebuyck has worked hard to improve on and the results have been apparent, as you mentioned Shane. He’s not quite in Marty Brodeur territory yet, but it’s a work in progress and the improvement in this area have helped the Jets when it comes to cleaner and more efficient zone exits.
6. From Rolly: Re our PP, PK problems. I really believe it starts with the Jets losing the face-offs. On the PP it’ll take us SO much time to get the puck back in their zone. On the PK we are defending right from the drop of the puck. Would you agree?
KW: There’s little doubt the Jets would prefer to have possession to start things off on both the power play and the penalty kill – along with even-strength play. However, Adam Lowry leads the Jets at 53.5 per cent and he would be taking the majority of the faceoffs to start most penalty kills and Mark Scheifele is operating at 50.0 per cent and he’s out on the ice to start most power plays. For me, the Jets power play issues have more to do with puck movement and creating more traffic in front than puck possession. And on the penalty kill, they’ve been giving up a lot of goals late in minor penalties. Some times that means they’ve been defending for an extended period but I don’t recall a lot of situations where they’ve been stuck in zone for long stretches. Raising the faceoff percentages would help, but it’s only part of the reason the Jets haven’t been nearly good enough while shorthanded or with the man-advantage.
MM: It’s certainly a factor, Rolly. On Saturday afternoon in Arizona, the Jets spent nearly the entire two minutes of their first power play simply trying to get possession of the puck from the Coyotes. They never really got set up, nor did they generate any shots or chances. The Jets are currently 23rd in the NHL with a 48 per cent faceoff success rate (in all situations), and that’s a number they’d love to improve on.
7. From Charlie: Do you think it is time to review the oft-injured (Nikolaj) Ehlers status as a Winnipeg Jet? The much talented winger is so prone to injuries (even off ice) that he serves no useful purpose to the Jets success.
MM: There’s no question the talented winger has had some bad luck on the injury front, including missing all of training camp due to neck spasms that came as a result of weight training. And he’s not off to a great start this year, with just two goals and three assists in 11 games. I believe a big part of that is a result of not being able to knock off the rust during preseason games. With one more year after this left on his contract, at US $6 million, it will be interesting to see what the future holds. No doubt both the player and team hope he can get back to the type of form he had during the truncated 2021 season, where his 21 goals and 25 assists in 47 games had him on pace to shatter his career-highs.
KW: Unequivocally, no. Although I can understand some of the frustration related to the injuries Ehlers has dealt with, nobody is more frustrated with missing time than he is. Plus, he’s appeared in every game this season despite sitting out all six exhibition games. When at his best, he is a play driver with the potential to be a consistent 30-plus goal scorer. He’s also a zone entry machine, whether at even strength or on the power play. It’s certainly been a slow start when it comes to offensive production, but he’s still generated 31 shots on goal and has been showing signs of turning the corner – including the slick setup on the power play marker scored by Niederreiter on Saturday afternoon. Ehlers has another level to reach and it’s incumbent on him to find it sooner than later. That Ehlers is only under contract for one more season beyond the current one could lead to a decision during the offseason, but there’s no need to consider moving him in a trade this season. For me, an offseason extension is a more likely outcome. But there’s no doubt this is an important season for Ehlers on that front as well and delivering his first 30-goal season would benefit the player – and the team – in both the short term and long term.
Raised in the booming metropolis of Altona, Man., Ken Wiebe grew up wanting to play in the NHL, but after realizing his hands were more adept at typing than scoring, he shifted his attention to cover his favourite sport as a writer.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.