After the Winnipeg Jets sept Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers in the first round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, they appeared to be on the verge of advancing to the conference finals, as they were heavily favored to defeat the Montreal Canadiens to accomplish this feat. However, as a result of Mark Scheifele getting suspended for his hit on Habs forward Jake Evans in Game 1, the Jets were reverse swept by Montreal. To make matters worse, the Jets will be without Scheifele for their 2021-22 season opener, as he still has a game to serve on his four game suspension issued by the league as discipline for his actions. With all this being said, the Jets biggest goal this offseason was to bolster the defense group, which was accomplished early by GM Kevin Cheveldayoff in trading for Nate Schmidt and Brenden Dillon, as well as extending the contracts of Neal Pionk and Logan Stanley, who had a very impressive series against Montreal. Cheveldayoff was also able to extend Paul Stastny on a one-year deal and brought in shutdown center Riley Nash from the Toronto Maple Leafs. In this article, we will analyze the new additions, and show why the Winnipeg Jets will not only be the best Canadian team, but one of the best teams in hockey in 2021-22.
The 2020-21 season was certainly one to forget for Nate Schmidt. Schmidt has been one of the better AB defenseman in hockey during his time with the Washington Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights, and his 2020-21 season was the worst of his career by a sizeable amount in all categories. This season in Vancouver, Schmidt scored five goals with ten assists for fifteen points (his lowest since 2014-15) in fifty-four games on an awful Vancouver Canucks team. His 2020-21 individual AB score was also his worst since the 2014-15 season, as he registered a -5.37 score, breaking a streak of five consecutive seasons registering above a +3.9 score. As a Capital, Schmidt had a +4.77 average AB score in four seasons. As a Golden Knight, Schmidt had a +8.25 average AB score in three seasons. Nate Schmidt is a career +4.81 AB, defenseman in eight seasons, at thirty years old, making $5.95 million AAV until the conclusion of the 2024-25 season. If he can rebound as a result of a change of scenery, the cost of a 2022 3rd round pick is nothing to the contending Winnipeg Jets, as they will lean on Schmidt to aid their defensive woes from last season. We think he is a prime bounce-back candidate and is definitely worth the risk for Kevin Cheveldayoff and his team.
In addition to Schmidt, the Jets also acquired Brenden Dillon from the Washington Capitals in exchange for a 2022 2nd round pick as well as a 2023 2nd round pick. Brenden Dillon had an outstanding season for the Washington Capitals in 2020-21, as he scored two goals with seventeen assists for nineteen points (three shy of his career-high twenty-two in 17-18 and 18-19 with the San Jose Sharks) in a full fifty-six games. He nearly surpassed his career-high point total in a whopping twenty-five fewer games. Dillon’s +4.99 individual AB score was the second best of his nine-year career, and his best registered score since his +5.21 score in that 18-19 season with the Sharks. Dillon is a career -1.19 AB defenseman, who is currently under contract until the conclusion of the 2023-24 season making $3.9 million AAV. Its reasonable to infer that a pairing of the new defense acquisitions is a possible combination for the team in 2021-22, as Schmidt can play the right side, while Dillon is only left. We project Winnipeg’s defense pairings will be something like what we have below.
1st pair Left- Josh Morrisey (+0.83 Career AB)
1st pair Right- Neal Pionk (-1.31 Career AB)
2nd pair Left- Brenden Dillon (-1.19 Career AB)
2nd pair Right- Nate Schmidt (+4.81 Career AB)
3rd pair Left- Logan Stanley (+3.53 Career AB)
3rd pair Right- Dylan DeMelo (-1.12 Career AB)
Extras- Nathan Beaulieu (-0.97 Career AB), Sami Niku (-4.18 Career AB)
Outside of Sami Niku, who likely won’t crack the lineup unless an injury occurs, Winnipeg has nothing but respectable career AB players in their defense group, as they are seven legit options for them come playoff time should they need it. Speaking of Neal Pionk and Logan Stanley, the two had very solid seasons with the Jets this season, which led to them earning new deals with the club. Pionk signed a four-year, $5.875 million dollar AAV contract and Stanley signed a two-year, 900k AAV contract with the Jets this summer. Since being acquired from the New York Rangers in the Jacob Trouba trade, Neal Pionk has blossomed into one of the team’s best defensemen. Pionk was a career -5.86 AB player in New York in two seasons and is now a +3.24 career AB player in Winnipeg over the same amount of time. Pionk’s change of scenery also appeared to improve his point totals, as he set a career-high in points during his first season with the Jets, then had another solid season in 2020-21 in much fewer games played. In 2019-20, Pionk scored six goals with thirty-nine assists for forty-five points in seventy-one games, and followed it up with a three goal, twenty-nine assist, thirty-two points in his fifty-four game campaign with Winnipeg this season. We think Pionk has an incredibly bright future as a twenty-six year old right-shot defenseman, and when we ran his new deal through our arbitration analyzer, we found his closest comparable to be former Toronto Maple Leafs Captain Dion Phaneuf (27.94 career average points/AB for Pionk to 27.92 career average points/AB for Phaneuf). Dion Phaneuf made $6.5 million during his age twenty-six NHL season, which is $625k more than what Pionk just signed for, making this an excellent deal for Cheveldayoff and his team.
With all this being said, we believe quite confidently that the Jets have fixed their defense group, and we expect it to be one of the best in hockey in front of one of the league’s best goaltenders in Connor Hellebuyck. The rest of the team is just as good, as their top six forwards of Mark Scheifele, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Blake Wheeler, Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers, and Kristian Vesalainen is also one of the most balanced and talented in the game today in our opinion. As of right now, they are one of two projected AB positive Canadian teams, with the Edmonton Oilers being the other (article coming on them soon). Even still, Winnipeg’s +35.21 projected score to Edmonton’s +6.98 projected is almost a thirty point swing in the Jets favor. According to our projection, this is the best Winnipeg Jets team since they made it to the Western Conference Finals with a +85.37 score and lost to the Vegas Golden Knights. We see the Jets as a Top-5 team in the league this season, as they only have five negative career AB players on the team. Three of them are DeMelo, Dillon, and Pionk, who we’ve already discussed have been on the upward trend in their more recent seasons. In AB history, there has only been one team with 90% or more of their players registering positive individual AB scores, as that team went on to win the 2009-10 Stanley Cup in the Chicago Blackhawks. We would not be surprised if the Jets managed to reach a percentage near 90%, and we are excited to see that potentially play out this season. Also it’s worth mentioning that the average percentage of positive players on a Stanley Cup Championship winning team since the creation of our metric in 2007 is 65%, which the Jets would absolutely shatter in this case. With the Jets only being three projection points back of a first place spot in the Western Conference, we think this is going to be a very special year for them. Much more to come.