NHL.com is providing in-depth analysis for each of its 31 teams from Nov. 16-Dec. 16. Today, the Winnipeg Jets.
The Winnipeg Jets are relying on a familiar player with hopes of a long run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
After early exits the past two seasons, Winnipeg acquired center Paul Stastny in a trade from the Vegas Golden Knights on Oct. 9 for defenseman Carl Dahlstrom and a conditional fourth-round pick in the 2022 NHL Draft.
Stastny, who turns 35 on Dec. 27, played for the Jets during the 2017-18 season and helped them reach the Western Conference Final with 15 points (six goals, nine assists) in 17 playoff games.
“I had a good bond with a lot of those guys in Winnipeg,” Stastny said after the trade. “I’ve already talked to a bunch of them, so I’m excited. Just to be able to also play under (coach) Paul [Maurice], I’ve also respected him a lot as a coach and I have nothing but good things to say (about him).
“For the three, four months I was there, I kind of learned to adapt as a player. When you have someone like that (as a coach), you can always evolve and keep getting better, and that’s something I like to do.”
Stastny scored 38 points (17 goals, 21 assists) in 71 games for Vegas last season and provides Winnipeg with depth at center behind Mark Scheifele. It’s an area that was lacking after Bryan Little‘s season ended in his seventh game, when he was struck in the side of the head by a shot Nov. 5, 2019, against the New Jersey Devils. Little has been advised by doctors to not play this season.
Stastny’s return also strengthens what already was a deep top-six forward group. The Jets were the only NHL team last season with five forwards who scored at least 50 points; Scheifele and Kyle Connor each scored 73, followed by Blake Wheeler (65), Patrik Laine (63) and Nikolaj Ehlers (58).
“Getting [Stastny] back is huge,” Scheifele said. “I loved having him on our team and I’m so excited about having him back. He speaks my language, that’s for sure. I’m a big fan of Paul Stastny.”
The Jets are expected to again rely heavily on Connor Hellebuyck, who won the Vezina Trophy voted as the top goalie in the NHL last season. The 27-year-old was 31-21-5 with a 2.57 goals-against average, a .922 save percentage and an NHL-leading six shutouts. Hellebuyck allowed two or fewer goals in 32 of his 58 games despite the fact Winnipeg allowed the seventh-most shots per game in the NHL (32.6).
“We’re lucky to have him, but we can’t make every game as hard on him as it was last year,” Scheifele said. “We’ve got to be better in front of him. That’s a matter of growing.”
The Jets were eliminated by the Calgary Flames in four games in the best-of-5 Stanley Cup Qualifiers. Scheifele and Laine were injured in Game 1 and didn’t return in the series.
Winnipeg played the season with a revamped defenseman group after four defensemen from 2018-19 did not return (Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, Ben Chiarot, Dustin Byfuglien).
“We feel we can get our traction back,” Maurice said. “I think we were trying to hold water last year in a lot of ways and not just a function of our injuries (325 man-games lost), but that we lost four defensemen. We feel now that we’ve got it stabilized, and now we’re looking for forward motion again.”
Maurice said he’s confident those improvements will complement the Jets’ strong goaltending and forwards. But just as important will be the resolve they gained last season battling through their roster makeover and injuries; Winnipeg was on a four-game winning streak when the season was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.
“We were really excited about our team [in March] and more excited about the intangibles, where there were lots of times for that team to break and it just never did,” Maurice said. “We learned how to work harder and compete harder and we were excited.
“I don’t want to judge this team on that series [against Calgary] because there were just too many right things that happened before.”