NHL preview: If goaltending gets better, Jets could be ready for showtime
Can Steve Mason give Winnipeg consistency it needs between the pipes to contend?
This is part of our series of season previews for the seven Canadian-based NHL teams.
2016-17 record: 40-35-7 (87 points), 5th in Central Division, missed playoffs
Key off-season additions: G Steve Mason, D Dmitry Kulikov, F Matt Hendricks
Key off-season subtractions: G Ondrej Pavelec, F Chris Thorburn, D Paul Postma
Probability of winning the Cup*: 1.96%
Probability of making the playoffs*: 53.49%
*derived from betting odds posted by Bodog
Last season's story
The Jets were a team that could score with anyone, but couldn't keep the puck out of their net. They were tied for sixth in goals-for, but were 27th in goals-against, better than only Arizona, Dallas and Colorado. All of that led to a ninth-place finish in the Western Conference, seven points out of a playoff spot. The highlights of their season came from the forward group, especially with Patrik Laine establishing himself as one of the NHL's premier goal scorers in his rookie season. He led the league in hat-tricks with three, and finished with 36 goals. Mark Scheifele also erupted to cement himself as one of the best centres in the league, finishing seventh in league-scoring with 82 points.
Just gonna watch this Patrik Laine pass on repeat all day <a href="https://t.co/9IAvlLGThR">pic.twitter.com/9IAvlLGThR</a>—@PeteBlackburn
The Jets kept mostly everything in house this off-season, handing extensions to both head coach Paul Maurice and general manager Kevin Chevaldayoff. They also decided to give veteran centre Bryan Little a large extension, keeping him in the fold for the next six years at an average of just over $5.2 million US per season. Goaltender Steve Mason was the big acquisition. The former Flyer signed a two-year deal with the hopes of solving what's been a longstanding issue in Winnipeg. They also brought in defenceman Dmitry Kulikov to help solidify the backend.
Mason finally becomes what Winnipeg has been looking for between the pipes, giving the Jets consistent goaltending good enough to keep pace with the electric offence. Connor Hellebuyck runs with the back-up job and maybe even becomes something of a 1A to Mason. Neither gives them a Vezina-calibre year, but their combined steadiness allows the team to stay competitive even if the offence decides to go cold for stretches. When the offence is hitting on all cylinders, Blake Wheeler, Nikolaj Ehlers, Laine, Scheifele and Little strike fear into any team in the NHL with their size and speed. The team heads back to the playoffs for the first time since the 2014-15 season, and even makes some noise challenging the big guns like Nashville and Chicago in the Central Division.
JetsTV's <a href="https://twitter.com/JamieThomasTV?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@JamieThomasTV</a> takes a look at the relationship between goaltenders Steve Mason and Connor Hellebuyck. <a href="https://t.co/8n8WNsRskR">pic.twitter.com/8n8WNsRskR</a>—@NHLJets
The experiment in net fails, and Mason squanders his opportunity as the No. 1. Unproven Hellebuyck doesn't fare much better, continuing the annual woes Winnipeg has stopping the puck. Dustin Byfuglien begins to show his age on the blue line and can no longer handle the workload that comes with being a top defenceman. The season turns out much like it did last year, with Winnipeg scoring a lot of goals but not being able to do much else, missing out on the playoffs for a third straight season.