As the Buffalo Sabres are at home again for the playoffs in 2018, the Winnipeg Jets have found their way into the second round of the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. They are a long way from their days in Atlanta when they were perennial bottom dwellers in the league. The Jets have finished the greatest season in franchise history, while the Sabres have finished one of their worst. This was far from the result that was expected back in 2015 when the trade to acquire Evander Kane was made.
That is the one key trait that links the Jets and the Sabres together as the Jets have seen an impact in round one from former Sabres Tyler Myers, and Joel Armia. It’s clear the Jets are on the winning end of that trade, but there’s more to the success of the Winnipeg Jets this year than just one trade.What were some of the key components of the Jet’s success, and can the Buffalo Sabres follow suit?
Finding the right men: Kevin Cheveldayoff and Paul Maurice
Cheveldayoff has a lot in common with Botterill. First, Cheveldayoff like Jason Botterill was a successful AHL GM for the Chicago Wolves who at the time were affiliated with the Atlanta Thrashers. After winning consecutive Calder Cups in the AHL, Cheveldayoff then accepted a position as Stan Bowman’s understudy in Chicago where he would win a Stanley Cup as Assistant GM. He would then be named the new General Manager of the Winnipeg Jets for their return home.
Of course, just like Jason Botterill, Cheveldayoff was taking over an organization in Atlanta that was indeed a mess with just two 40 win seasons, and one playoff berth in their existence. After Claude Noel wore out his welcome, the Jets had to find a new head coach. This is where we arrive at Paul Maurice.
He’s been coaching in the NHL for years, as he started at just 28 years old. He was the last coach of the Hartford Whalers and would follow the team to Carolina after they relocated. He had a 12-year tenure from 1995 to 2004 under Peter Karmanos, including a Stanley Cup finals appearance in 2002, thus having the pleasure of seeing the Red Wings super team that year. He would later find his way over to the Toronto Maple Leafs, he would also return to Carolina, and would eventually take over as coach of the Winnipeg Jets.
If anyone had any doubts on Maurice and Cheveldayoff, I can imagine that those doubts have been erased with the way Winnipeg has played this year. There is an old saying, winning cures all, and that appears to have been the case in Winnipeg.
When you look back at all of Maurices' coaching jobs, taking over in Hartford/Carolina, coaching a Toronto team post-lockout in decline and near the end of the Sundin years, and then finding his way back to Carolina, none of his coaching jobs have been easy.
In Winnipeg, GM Chevy has provided Maurice with the best chance at a Stanley Cup he may ever get. In Buffalo, Phil Housley is a guy that some fans may have already wanted to see axed after just one year, but just like many of Paul Maurice’s previous gigs, Phil Housley has inherited a team that needs a lot of retooling. He was known for his work with Nashville’s defense, but in Buffalo, he has nothing anywhere near the talent that Nashville has or even Winnipeg.
Winnipeg’s top four defense includes Trouba, Myers, Morrissey, and Byfuglien. Nashville’s top four defense includes Josi, Ekholm, Subban, and Ellis. Buffalo clearly has a lot of work to do to be on par with Winnipeg.
Night and Day: Atlanta found draft duds, Winnipeg found draft studs.
Looking back at those old Atlanta Thrashers drafts, there was a lot more bad than good. They found hits in Ilya Kovalchuk, Dany Heatley, Evander Kane, Bryan Little, and a late round gem in Tobias Enstrom. But they also landed plenty of duds like Alex Burmistrov, Boris Valabik, and Alex Bourrett, Daultan Leveille, Jim Slater. Most importantly, they are known for drafting Patrik Stefan first overall.
From 1999 to 2010, aside from the names mentioned above, the only other players the organization drafted that would make a career in the NHL were Zach Bogosian, Kari Lehtonen, Braydon Colburn, Darcy Hordichuk, Paul Postma, Ben Chariot, Patrick Dwyer, Jim Slater, Garnet Exelby, and Derek MacKenzie.
When Cheveldayoff came in, and when you look back at the Jets drafting history from 2011-2016, it is much improved. They have hit on almost every single first-round draft pick since they have returned to Winnipeg, and only Patrik Laine was a top two pick.
Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers, Josh Morrissey, Jacob Trouba, Kyle Connor, and Jack Roslovic. They found a couple late round assets as well. Connor Hellebuyck was drafted in the fifth round. They also nabbed a supporting cast member in Adam Lowry in the later rounds.
The previous regime did some good things
I have criticized former Sabres GM Tim Murray numerous times for burning through so many assets so fast, but if there is one thing that I have to give him a lot of credit for, it’s his drafting. Even though he burned through a lot, he still managed to assemble some solid prospects in the organization.
He found Brendan Guhle in round two. He drafted Rasmus Asplund and Cliff Pu, both of whom could be solid middle six players for the Sabres in rounds two and three. Although many of us would love to say he should have taken Draisaitl over Reinhart, he still was able to identify Sam Reinhart over Sam Bennett as a potential cornerstone player, and a major part of the Sabres core. And of course in Buffalo, it was Darcy Regier that landed Rasmus Ristolainen for the Sabres and kicked off the tank efforts by assembling a massive amount of draft picks and assets.
Darcy also drafted our goaltender of the future in Linus Ullmark.
In Winnipeg, it was more in the way of trades that their previous regime did well. In particular, the big one was the Blake Wheeler trade made by Rick Dudley. Although the Boston Bruins won the Stanley Cup after they moved Wheeler, he would still become the organization’s best player. That was Rick Dudley’s impact on the Winnipeg Jets. Dudley also acquired Dustin Byfuglien back in 2010 as a part of Chicago’s cap crunch.
When you look at the Byfuglien and Wheeler trades today, they basically acquired those guys pennies on the dollar, although to be fair, It took a couple years for both of those guys to really take the next step in their careers. Blake Wheeler and Dustin Byfuglien for Rich Peverley, Boris Valabik, Marty Reasoner, Joey Crabb, and prospect Jeremy Morin? Kevin Hayes was also apart of the Byfuglien deal, as the first round pick component that Chicago received. I think most Jet fans would do that ten times over. But the Bruins and Blackhawks still managed to win the Stanley Cup.
The Jets however in terms of actual assets surrendered, ended up on the winning side in terms of player value. In a way, that’s kind of what the Winnipeg Jets have in common with the post-lockout Buffalo Sabres. The Sabres acquired Daniel Briere and Chris Drury for Chris Gratton, and Rhett Warrener.
Five years from now, it’s very possible that we look back and say that Tim Murray’s drafts had a huge impact on the success of the Sabres if players like Alexander Nylander, Brendan Guhle, Cliff Pu, and Rasmus Asplund make a major impact.
A big shakeup: turning a problem into a massive return
As I said in my intro, Winnipeg stands out to Buffalo fans they still have pieces in play on their roster from the Evander Kane trade, whereas Buffalo is left with Zach Bogosian who we really don’t even know what he truly can do because he’s never healthy.
Tyler Myers played a major role in Winnipeg as one of their most productive defenseman. Myers being healthy has made a huge impact on the Jets this year. Former Sabres first-round pick Joel Armia carved out a role as a bottom six forward and penalty killer.
Lastly, the first round pick from the Evander Kane trade that ended up being Jack Roslovic will factor into their future. Evander Kane without a doubt was the best overall player in the trade, but at this point, I would say Winnipeg has been on the winning end of that deal, and given Kane’s troubles at the time, it was the deal they needed to make.
Buffalo is faced with a dilemma on what to do with Ryan O’Reilly. Is O’Reilly a part of their future, or is he a guy the Sabres feel they need to ship out in an effort to shake up the team?
Time is important, and most of it came from within the system
The Winnipeg Jets did a lot of middling when they came in from Atlanta. In their first six seasons, they weren’t tank worthy, and they weren’t ever as bad as the Sabres have been this season. In their first seven seasons, they were competitive and even had a playoff berth in 2015. They also had to deal with the disadvantage of being an Eastern Conference team for their first two years back in Winnipeg.
The Jets have actually been more competitive than the Atlanta Thrashers ever were. Even with that, the Jets still had a lot of work to do to make the Atlanta Thrasher days an afterthought. It took the Jets two seasons to become a borderline playoff team and finished ninth in the East during the lockout-shortened season of 2012-13. They missed out by four points. A couple years later, the Jets found their way into the playoffs but were bounced in round one.
Until their recent series win over Minnesota, the Jets/Thrashers organization were 0-8 in playoff appearances. This Winnipeg Jet explosion that we have seen this season, improving from 87 to 114 points, well simply put, this was eight years in the making. It took eight years of good moves, and good drafting to correct all that was done wrong in Atlanta.
And let’s look at how the Jets acquired some of their best players:
- Dustin Byfuglien: acquired via trade with Chicago in 2010
- Captain Blake Wheeler: acquired via trade with Boston in 2011
- Tyler Myers: acquired via trade Buffalo in 2015
- Bryan Little: drafted 12th overall by Atlanta Thrashers (Jets)
- Nikolaj Ehlers: drafted ninth overall in 2014
- Patrik Laine: drafted second overall in 2016
- Jacob Trouba: drafted ninth overall in 2012
- Josh Morrissey: drafted 13th overall in 2013
- Kyle Connor: drafted 17th overall in 2015
- Connor Hellebuyck: drafted 130th overall in 2012
- Andrew Copp: drafted 104th overall in 2013
- Joel Armia: acquired via trade with the Buffalo Sabres in 2015
- Adam Lowry: drafted 67th overall in 2011
- Brandon Tanev: signed as an undrafted free agent in 2016
- Mathieu Perreault: signed as a UFA in 2014
And this impressive collection of players eventually led to Winnipeg as buyers at this year’s deadline, acquiring Paul Stastny from the St. Louis Blues.
Most of the Jet’s help came from within, but they added a few external pieces here and there via trade and free agency. With external additions, the Jets have done a good job of identifying the right guys to bring in. They really haven’t dived into free agency though and signed players to 50 million dollar contracts. I mean, over the past five years, the Jets biggest additions in free agency might have been Brandon Tanev and Mathieu Perreault.
It will be interesting to see how the Sabres approach free agency. I’m not expecting them to land John Tavares. John Carlson on the other hand, maybe? But I will not be surprised if the Sabres make a sales pitch. Although Winnipeg hasn’t dived into free agency spending millions, if the right guy is there to add in free agency, I would be interested.
Buffalo has traded for some of their key players, but they have also drafted a lot of their top players as well. However, they are still waiting for many of their young guys to reach their potential, and make the main roster. We will have Brendan Guhle, Casey Mittelstadt, and Linus Ullmark next year, but we are also waiting on either C.J Smith, Justin Bailey, or Alexander Nylander to make the roster full time.
Why did it happen this year for Winnipeg
Not a lot of major changes were made to the Jets roster last offseason, but three things stood out the most: Kyle Connor, Connor Hellebuyck, and Tyler Myers.
Connor Hellebuyck has had a year that has been worthy of Vezina consideration, and most importantly he took a huge step forward in his second season as a starter. Last year, he was 26-19-4 with a .907 save percentage, and this year he blew up for a 44-11-9 record, as well as a .925 save percentage and six shutouts.
Kyle Connor saw 20 games last year, and this year after his full season and a year older, Connor has lived up to the hype so far. One comparable that comes to mind with Kyle Connor is Casey Mittelstadt, not from a style of play, but from an expectation perspective. Both players could be identified as steals in their draft classes. Connor registered 31 goals this season, and one can only hope Casey Mittelstadt can have as much of an impact as a rookie.
A healthy Tyler Myers has provided the Jets with a boost as he has had his best season in over eight years. He only played eleven games last year.
Lastly, Blake Wheeler had a career year, and Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers, and Josh Morrissey all continued to take steps forward in their young careers.
Can Buffalo follow suit someday?
Although it may be a stretch for Buffalo to go from a 62 point team to a 114 point team, as the Colorado Avalanche showed last year, it is possible to go from worst, to the wild card. It might have been better to use Colorado as a study, but the goal here for Buffalo is to win the Stanley Cup. Colorado was a playoff team, but they still have some work to do to get to the next level. Buffalo has even more work.
A big portion of Colorado’s turnaround was on the shoulders of both Nathan MacKinnon, and Mikko Rantanen. MacKinnon finally exploded and became the player he was expected to be going from 53 points to 39 goals, 97 points. Buffalo could see something similar next year if Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart take another step in the 2018-19 season. Buffalo has its own version of Kyle Connor for next season in Casey Mittelstadt, who should be an impact player, especially after full offseason.
Does Buffalo have a Connor Hellebuyck here? It could quite possibly be Linus Ullmark, especially if the Sabres have a better defense. It might be unreasonable to expect Ullmark to have a Vezina type rookie season next year as it did take Hellebuyck a couple years to become Winnipeg’s workhorse goaltender. I would settle for the year that Semyon Varlamov and Johnathan Bernier had as a tandem in Colorado.
If Robin Lehner is not returning next season, the Sabres will need another veteran to compete for the job. Carter Hutton could be a nice option if he is looking to come in and compete for a starting job, or form a tandem. For what it’s worth Hutton, does also know Phil Housley from Nashville, and has been a pretty steady backup in his career. At 31, I couldn’t think of a better option to bring in to compete with Ullmark next year.
Ironically both of these teams have traded Evander Kane, although it was Winnipeg who has been on the better end of the deal so far with the production Tyler Myers has had this year. However, Buffalo has a key player who may be in need of a change of scenery in Ryan O’Reilly who could be explored as a trade possibility. Could O’Reilly be dealt to acquire another blueliner who can have an impact?
The Sabres will be at worst adding an impact player through the draft. It’s very possible that one of either Rasmus Dahlin, Brady Tkachuk, Andrei Svechnikov, or Filip Zadina wear the blue and gold as early as next season. The Jets selected second overall a couple years ago and got a major impact from Laine as a rookie.
Most importantly, while in Winnipeg, several players over the past two seasons have taken a step forward including Mark Schieferle, Josh Morrissey, and Nikolaj Ehlers. We also saw Blake Wheeler have a career year at 31. If Ryan O’Reilly is returning next season, the Sabres will need his best if they want to return to relevance someday.
The Sabres will need Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, and Rasmus Ristolainen to all continue to take steps forward in their careers, and more importantly, they need to emerge as leaders in the Sabres locker room, along with key veterans in Kyle Okposo and Marco Scandella. It might take some time for Buffalo to get to the level Winnipeg has arrived at, but if we learned anything from the Avalanche this year, teams can make a big turn around within two years.
As for Winnipeg, they might be Canada’s best chance to bring the Stanley Cup back to Canada, I am a fan of storylines though, and as good of a story, as Vegas has been, I am hoping to see San Jose with Evander Kane, and Winnipeg in the Western Conference finals.