Ranking the 5 Winnipeg Jets with the most to prove in 2024 NHL playoffs

Ranking the 5 Winnipeg Jets with the most to prove in 2024 NHL playoffs

By Oghale Apr21,2024

A lot of things have gone right for the Winnipeg Jets since Rick Bowness hastily took his chair in Vegas, calling the team out for a lack of pride against the Golden Knights after its five-game loss last season.

“This series, we had no pushback,” Bowness said after Game 5 last May. “Their better players were so much better than ours. It’s not even close.”

Bowness was right to criticize that team. It didn’t have the answers and didn’t appear to have the on-ice fight to find those answers. Vegas’ stars had overpowered the Jets and Winnipeg’s first playoff run under Bowness’ watch had come to an early end. It’s a crisp memory. Looking back on the Jets’ success this season, it also feels like an ancient one.

Kevin Cheveldayoff’s acquisitions of Gabriel Vilardi, Alex Iafallo and Rasmus Kupari, along with extensions for Mark Scheifele, Connor Hellebuyck, Nino Niederreiter and Vladislav Namestnikov gave the Jets an on-ice boost. Adam Lowry’s captaincy has given Winnipeg a new, more inclusive form of leadership. Bowness has helped the team take its next steps in strong five-on-five defence, protecting the middle of the ice.

And now, Winnipeg arrives at Game 1 of the playoffs in an unfamiliar way.

The Jets are on a tear, winning their final eight regular season games, and aren’t looking to find their game so much as to prove their season series dominance of Colorado can be replicated when the chips are down and the 2022 Stanley Cup champions are firing on all cylinders. The pressure is on Winnipeg to be Winnipeg — not to find a level of play it hasn’t shown.

So where does the pressure come from? Rest assured, there are a lot of Jets with a ton of unfinished postseason business.

Today, we kick off our Jets playoff coverage with a look at the five Jets players with the most to prove during these playoffs.

1. Mark Scheifele: A historic 2018 playoff run followed by years of devastation

Mark Scheifele had already arrived as a point-per-game scoring star in 2017-18, but found another gear altogether in the 2018 playoffs.

He scored 14 goals. An NHL-record 11 of them on the road. Scheifele scored at will on the power play, off the rush and after extended offensive zone time. He was easily among Winnipeg’s most dominant players in the Jets’ run to the Western Conference final, centering the top line and finishing with 20 points in 17 games.

Scheifele was good in a losing effort to St. Louis in 2019 — and realistically, he’s been good nearly every time he’s played — but he’s been a touch cursed since that time. Matthew Tkachuk’s reckless trip ended Scheifele’s play-in round early against Calgary in 2020; Winnipeg fell in four games. Scheifele’s suspension after his hit on Jake Evans ended his playoffs early against Montreal in 2021; Winnipeg collapsed without him, losing in four games. Then, in Game 4 against Vegas last season, Scheifele crashed hard into the boards after a breakaway, eventually leaving the game with an upper-body injury.

The Jets don’t win playoff games when Scheifele doesn’t play in them. It’s as simple as that. Check the stat line, though, and you’ll see only one goal and no assists in four games against Vegas last season. Winnipeg’s star centre has more than that in him; he’s in the midst of one of the best seasons of his career.

I think it would mean the world to him to be there, on the ice, battling with his teammates from start to finish of the postseason. If he does that, odds are he’ll contribute, but a vintage playoff run from Scheifele would put his recent playoff past to rest, cementing his status among Winnipeg’s all-time greats. He’s seven points behind Blake Wheeler for first place in Jets 2.0 playoff scoring history and 17 beside his hero/idol/mentor, Dale Hawerchuk.

Imagine the playoff run Winnipeg would be on if Scheifele took No. 1 on both lists.

2. Nikolaj Ehlers: Matching regular season success with postseason production

Nikolaj Ehlers has been limited by playoff injuries just as Scheifele has been, but hasn’t been nearly as effective at his peak. Ehlers’ four goals and 12 points come in 34 career playoff games — a stat line that doesn’t march in concert with his quality as a player. Meanwhile, his injury troubles have limited him so much that, when combined with the 2021 lack of crowds on home ice, Ehlers hasn’t played in a whiteout since 2019 against St. Louis.

Ehlers scored just seven assists in his first 21 playoff games. A broken foot in Game 5 against the Blues excuses his Game 6 stat line in 2019 but Ehlers didn’t score his first postseason goal until the 2020 play-in round against Calgary. He’s matured as a player, focusing on making better decisions with the puck so that he helps his team even when he’s not producing points but Ehlers is an elite five-on-five scorer — among the very best in the world at five-on-five.

Now that he’s entering the playoffs healthy — unlike last year in Vegas, where his injured status following Ryan Hartman’s open ice hit was the stuff of daily concern — Winnipeg needs more from him in the playoffs than it’s ever gotten before. He’s on a great line with veteran linemates and scored two goals and three assists in Winnipeg’s final four games of the regular season. More of that would revive his reputation as a big game player.

3. Neal Pionk: Most of his playoffs have been good. Much of his stretch run has not

At this time last year, Neal Pionk was putting together a tremendous stretch run, silencing critics of a season that he didn’t start as well as he ended it. He emerged as the Jets’ leader when Josh Morrissey got hurt against Vegas, finishing his playoffs with a team-leading seven points in five games.

Like most Jets, his game came crashing down in Game 5, contributing to a goal against in the game’s opening minute. It was the beginning of a game-long, team-wide collapse that Bowness called out in his postgame news conference. This year started much better, with Pionk and his partner Brenden Dillon delivering solid results against tough competition in a top-four role, but his recent performances have included so much defensive zone chaos that Winnipeg briefly moved him to its third pair. He’s put up six assists in his last eight games but has been an uneven defender in those games, too, while leading the team in minor penalties taken.

Pionk’s penalty taking and his defensive impact grade him out as Winnipeg’s seventh-best defenceman in our player cards. We’ve seen him play much better than that and that’s what the Jets need now.

So which Pionk is Winnipeg going to get? I don’t know the answer but the Jets’ team-wide quality can swing wildly depending on whether he’s having an on or an off night moving the puck.

4. Kyle Connor: Fast and dangerous, but at both ends?

Kyle Connor built his playoff reputation early in his career, dazzling observers by taking over Game 5 against Nashville in 2018. It’s my opinion that Connor’s three-point performance in that pivotal game bought him time for the rest of his game to develop; he was seen as a clutch player and a playoff performer right out of the gate, finishing the playoffs with 10 points in 17 games.

Connor has 12 goals and 15 assists for 27 playoff points in his NHL career — good numbers for most players but underwhelming ones for Connor himself. He routinely scores at a point-per-game during the regular season and holds the Jets 2.0 scoring record with 93 points; in a series against, say, Mikko Rantanen, who somehow scores even more during the playoffs than he does during the regular season, it’s reasonable to ask for more from Winnipeg’s star left winger.

To that end, Connor is on an eight-game point streak, with four goals and eight assists. He’s responded to a second-line demotion by elevating his game, flat-out dominating in the offensive zone, and re-establishing himself as one of Winnipeg’s most dangerous players — again — at just the right time. He’s easily Winnipeg’s most dangerous offensive player with the puck on his stick in the middle of the ice, matching Vilardi’s hands but offering footspeed to match. He looks unstoppable when he’s on and like a perimeter player when he’s off.

Connor has the power to be a game-breaker and he’s made good on that power down the stretch. There’s also no doubt in my mind that his Game 5 performance alongside PL Dubois was part of the impetus for Bowness’ postgame tirade. He’s not a player that outscores his minutes at five-on-five — Winnipeg scored 43 goals and gave up 43 goals with Connor on the ice — so it seems obvious that Winnipeg’s top winger gives up quality compared to Rantanen in Colorado.

Teams win championships when their great offensive players become great players, period. Connor has scored the ninth most goals in the NHL since making the Jets roster on a full-time basis in 2017-18 and still has a lot left to prove in his all-around game — especially at this time of year.

5. Connor Hellebuyck: No guarantees, even for the best

Connor Hellebuyck was the best goaltender on the planet this season. He’s on a short list of goaltenders for “best of his generation” if you’re willing to squint and start the generation upon Henrik Lundqvist’s retirement. He led all consistent starters in save percentage this season, elevating a good defensive team to the best goals-against numbers in the league and the Jennings Trophy that came with it.

And, if you like your stats of the fancy variety, Evolving Hockey tells us that Hellebuyck’s 172.7 goals above replacement (GAR) from 2019 to now is more than 40 goals better than Juuse Saros, the next best goalie during that timespan.

Despite all this, there’s a belief that persists in Winnipeg that Hellebuyck hasn’t been good enough in the playoffs — that he’s been outplayed, whether by Laurent Brossoit last season, Carey Price in 2021, Jordan Binnington in 2019 or Marc-Andre Fleury in 2018. I suspect an overwhelming part of that perception comes from results-based thinking that equates goals against with goaltending failure (as opposed to a process-based analysis which considers the goaltender’s decisions and execution first and foremost).

Did your eyes roll back in your head as that sentence wore on? Whether or not it’s fair, goaltending legacies are cemented by playoff wins. Hellebuyck has 17 of those — all 17 in Jets 2.0 history — but only one win in his last nine tries. Whether he made the right decisions and executed the right positions or not — and whether he wins his second Vezina Trophy or not — Hellebuyck is long past caring about regular season accolades.

If Hellebuyck is ever going to get the respect his big, boring and ultimately successful quality of play deserves, it’s going to have to come from playoff success. For all my talk of “best of his generation,” Hellebuyck didn’t even make Lundqvist’s, Martin Brodeur’s or Mike Vernon’s top-five active goaltenders lists earlier this season.

So, yeah. It’s absurd, but Hellebuyck seems to have a lot more to prove to the world at large. A massive, game-stealing, round-dominating playoff run would do worlds for his stature among the greats.

(Photo of Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor: James Carey Lauder / USA Today)

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