Jets give Hellebuyck support with defense upgrades

If the Winnipeg Jets have had an Achilles Heel the past couple of seasons it has definitely been on their blue line. There was an exodus of players from that position a couple of years ago (Dustin Byfuglien, Tyler Myers, Jacob Trouba, Ben Chiarot), and it not only left the team with a lack of depth at the position, it also left them without a true No. 1 defender.

They were able to stay competitive through that because they have a game-changing goalie in Connor Hellebuyck that has not only been able to play major minutes and lead the league in games played in three of the past four seasons, but also play at an exceptionally high level. That sort of goaltending can mask a lot of flaws, and Hellebuyck has done a masterful job of that the past couple of years. It resulted in top-four finishes in Vezina Trophy voting in three of the past four seasons, including two times as a finalist and one win (2019-20).

Having a goalie that can do that for your team is great. It can take an average team and turn it into a playoff team. It can take a playoff team and turn it into a contender. What is even better is having a defense in front of that goalie that ease his workload a bit. And the Jets took some steps toward doing that this offseason with a couple of potentially significant additions in Nate Schmidt and Brenden Dillon.

They acquired Schmidt from Vancouver in a salary dump trade after finally convincing him to waive his no-trade clause for Winnipeg, and then acquired Dillon from Washington for two draft picks. Neither player is going to be a game-changer on their own, but for a Jets team that had Derek Forbort and Tucker Poolman playing top-four minutes a season ago they should be significant upgrades.

Schmidt is an interesting case because he is coming off of a brutal year in Vancouver that was probably the worst of his career. But it was such a sharp outlier to the rest of his resume that it’s tough to know what exactly happened there. Bad fit on a new team? The Canucks as a team being bad defensively and carrying over to Schmidt individually? The Canucks’ messed up season due to COVID where nobody was really their normal self? Just a fluke bad year? Whatever the reason, the cost was right for the Jets to make it a solid gamble that he can rebound. If he does get back to his normal level that is a strong offensive presence added to the Jets’ back end. He is a wild card, but one with a lot of upside.

Dillon, on the other hand, is a bit safer. You know what you are going to get, and it is a solid, defensive presence. He is not going to offer much in the way of offense, but he should step into the Jets’ lineup and immediately be one of their best defensive players when it comes to shot, chance, and goal suppression.

When you combine those two new additions with the return of Neal Poink, who has quickly become one of the most underrated blue liners in the league, and Josh Morrissey the Jets should have a very formidable top-four and a significant upgrade over what they were using this past season. No disrespect to players like Forbort and Poolman, but if they are among your top-four ice-time leaders on defense your team probably needs a couple of upgrades to that position. The Jets seem to have found that this offseason.

It is so important because the Jets do have the makings of an intriguing playoff team here. Poink is quietly developing into a legit top-pairing defenseman, while they have players like Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers, Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, and Pierre-Luc Dubois to carry the offense. Connor, Ehlers, and Scheifelle are legit top-line performers, while Dubois has the potential to be a No. 1 center if he can bounce back from a disappointing 2020-21 performance.

Add in an elite, franchise goalie with an improved defense and suddenly you have the makings of a very intriguing team in the Central Division. The Jets had a clear weakness. They addressed it. It has to be a welcome sign for their top goalie and for the team in general.

New York Rangers: 2021-22 NHL Season Preview

The 2021-22 NHL season is coming and it’s time to take a look at all 32 teams. Over the next month we’ll be examining best- and worst-case scenarios, looking at the biggest questions, breakout candidates, and more for each franchise. Today, we preview the New York Rangers.

2020-21 Season Review

• Record: 27-23-6 (60 points); fifth place in East Division
• Postseason: Missed playoffs. Drafted Brennan Othmann with the 16th pick.
• Offensive leader: Artemi Panarin (42 games, 17 goals, 41 assists).

• Free Agent Additions: Barclay Goodrow (trade from Lightning), Ryan Reaves (trade from Golden Knights), Patrik Nemeth, Dryden Hunt, Sammy Blais (trade from Blues), Jarred Tinordi.
• Free Agent Subtractions: Pavel Buchnevich (trade to Blues), Tony DeAngelo (buyout), Colin Blackwell (Kraken expansion draft), Phillip Di Giuseppe (Canucks), Brendan Smith (Hurricanes), Brett Howden (trade to Golden Knights).

Biggest question for Rangers

• Did they lose their wits chasing grit?

Did the Rangers abruptly fire Jeff Gorton and make other key front office changes because of the Tom Wilson – Artemi Panarin incident? Was countering Wilson the guiding light during Chris Drury’s first offseason as Rangers GM?

Ryan Reaves said that he wasn’t acquired because of Tom Wilson — at least not directly. Even Tom Wilson himself insisted it wasn’t all about him.

Sometimes people want to ignore the elephant in the room. Sometimes they’re stubborn, or in denial, about obvious truths. Especially when one person seems to leave you wildly flustered, and possibly overreacting.

[PHT’s offseason trade tracker]

Wilson-related or not, the Rangers sacrificed skill for grit before the 2021-22 season. Maybe losing Pavel Buchnevich will make sense in the long run. But next season? It sure feels like a painful subtraction, and maybe even an unforced error.

When the Lightning traded for Barclay Goodrow, it was part of a series of moves to go over the top. That was already a stacked team, one that forged a historic regular season. The Rangers, meanwhile, haven’t truly made the playoffs since 2016-17.

(No, you should not count getting squashed like a bug during the 2019-20 Qualifying Round.)

So, was this team already skilled enough to focus so much on sandpaper? It seems dubious. Then again, Gerard Gallant worked wonders in Vegas, and sometimes that team got a bit fixated on ferocity.

What’s the salary cap situation?

Even during a genuine rebuild, the Rangers weren’t shy to spend big money on big names. They’re still the Rangers, after all.

Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba combine for about $19.6M in cap hits through 2025-26. Maybe the Rangers should have traded Chris Kreider. Instead, they kept him on a deal that could get scary ($6.5M AAV through 2026-27). Igor Shesterkin could end up being better than a $5.67M goalie. With just 47 games of NHL experience, Shesterkin still counts as a leap of faith.

That’s already a lot of money for a team that hasn’t delivered yet. And things could get even more expensive for the Rangers after the 2021-22 season. (Or there could be some agonizing losses.)

Ryan Strome ($4.5M) and most importantly, Mika Zibanejad ($5.35M) are both 28-year-old centers entering contract years. Two different players, sure, but both present the Rangers with riddles to solve.

[PHT’s 2021 NHL Free Agent Tracker]

Adam Fox was already surging toward a big payday. He’s 23, a right-handed defenseman, and just won a Norris Trophy. Mix in a sometimes-outrageous offseason of spending on defensemen, and ominous music plays for the Rangers’ salary cap. Fox merely being an RFA gives the Rangers a key advantage, but Cale Makar‘s $9M seems like a reasonable placeholder. If maybe an optimistic one.

Fox isn’t the only young player the Rangers need to leave room for.

Kaapo Kakko enters a contract year, while Alexis Lafreniere has two years left on his rookie contract.

Overall, the Rangers need to get the balance right. If they sign both assuming too much growth, they could get burned. If they wait too long, Kakko and Lafreniere could drive up their value. There are worse problems to have, but these are challenges nonetheless.

The Rangers approach the tougher stages of a rebuild. Will they turn young prospects into stars, ideally on team-friendly contracts? Can they support that young talent with savvy additions? Chris Drury has his work cut out for him.

Breakout Candidate

• Kakko/Lafreniere

All but the most patient observers would admit that there have been some disappointments with both prospects so far.

In the cases of both Kakko and Lafreniere, they were hyped as very NHL-ready prospects. Instead, each player has struggled with immediate jumps to the big time.

Those stumbles aren’t the end of the world. Thanks to having two seasons in the NHL, Kakko serves as the best reminder to be patient.

Consider his Evolving Hockey Player Card from 2019-20, which was concerning even with caveats for young players:

Kakko Evo Player Card 2019-20 New York Rangers: 2021-22 NHL Season Preview
via Evolving Hockey

Yikes, right? Then, in 2020-21, Kakko looked like a player who could really gain steam.

Kakko player card Evo New York Rangers: 2021-22 NHL Season Preview
via Evolving Hockey

Frankly, if I were running the Rangers, I’d be tempted to extent Kakko before he surges to another level. (If he’d listen to offers right now, of course.)

With some prospects, people picture too much growth. They assume a 25-year-old player has more runway than maybe they actually do. But Kakko (20) and Lafreniere (19) are both indeed in the age ranges where players can take big leaps.

Don’t be surprised if both do so. Maybe the Rangers are assuming too much, but betting in young players is better than hoping aging veterans can hold on.

Bonus points if other young players come through for the Rangers in 2021-22, too. Ideally, Vitali Kravstov isn’t just learning from Ryan Reaves …

Best-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Rangers

Gallant represents a huge coaching upgrade. Panarin – Zibanejad tear it up, and stay healthy. Their defense improves, and Shesterkin cleans up the rest. Kakko, Lafreniere, and others flourish. The Rangers become dangerous, and in a hurry.

Worst-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Rangers

That fixation on feistiness leaves the Rangers with more fights and hits, but the same middling standings results. Kakko and Lafreniere stagnate. Gallant’s system can’t overcome limitations on defense beyond Fox and a few others. Things fall apart, and management takes all the wrong lessons from that collapse.

PointsbetNew York Rangers’ Stanley Cup odds

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James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.