The Winnipeg Jets have always stressed the importance of their “draft and develop” strategy: that is, building a contender through patience, deft selection, and molding of promising youngsters into top talent rather than through finagling blockbuster trades for established elites.
Through the draft is how Jets’ general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff has transformed, in less than a decade, a terrible Atlanta Thrashers team — whose leadership was utterly incompetent at the draft table and selected a number of busts — to a competitive squad with a promising future and a home-grown core.
“Chevy” has piloted the Jets through nine drafts since relocation and has often been an ace. With his 10th — the 2020 NHL Entry Draft — slated for this October, here’s a look at his first nine from worst to best.
Wait a minute… how could the draft in which the Jets selected Nikolaj Ehlers with the ninth-overall selection be their worst?
While it’s undeniable the speedy, electrifying, and entertaining Ehlers — who has put up 257 points through five full seasons — was a great selection, the reason the 2014 NHL Entry Draft in Philadelphia takes the bottom spot is because the Jets didn’t get much else of value. The seven players they selected that weren’t Ehlers have played a grand total of 14 games in the NHL, 12 for the Jets.
Chase De Leo racked up 107 points over three seasons for the Manitoba Moose but played just two for the Jets in 2015-16 and was traded in June, 2018 to the Anaheim Ducks for Nic Kerdiles. That trade was a total disaster as Kerdiles played only three games for the Moose in 2018-19 and didn’t return.
Nelson Nogier, meanwhile, has played 11 games for the Jets and is a good defensive defenseman at the AHL level but has been leapt over by Sami Niku and Tucker Poolman and will likely be by Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg, too. A major shoulder injury wiped out most of Nogier’s 2017-18 sophomore season and profoundly damaged his organizational stock.
Jack Glover played one game for the Moose and most recently played for Kiekko-Vanta of Finland’s non-elite Mestis League. Pavel Kraskovsky never left the KHL’s Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. Matt Ustaski played one AHL game as well and played 12 ECHL games between two teams in 2019-20.
In 2019-20, Suess recorded 14 goals and 13 assists for the Moose in 57 games, and also made his Jets’ debut, suiting up for a game against the San Jose Sharks in November.
The reason for the relatively low ranking this season is the Jets’ lack of a first-round pick. If you recall, the Jets traded their first-rounder away for the first time in franchise history the February preceding the draft to get Paul Stastny from the St. Louis Blues, who was instrumental in the Jets’ run to the Western Conference Final. Unfortunately, despite best efforts, the Jets weren’t able to retain him for 2018-19.
Of the six players the Jets selected in 2018, it seemed their mid-round picks — a pair of left-handed defensemen — were the most promising; Declan Chisholm and Giovanni Vallati were both standouts for the Peterborough Petes and Oshawa Generals, respectively. This spring, Chisholm signed an entry-level deal while Valatti went unsigned and will go back into the 2020 Draft pool.
David Gustafsson — the Jets’ highest pick at 60th-overall — made the 2019-20 Jets out of training camp, playing 22 games in a fourth-line role and scoring his first NHL goal. After representing Sweden at the 2020 World Juniors and recovering from an injury he suffered in the bronze medal game, he reported to the Moose. It look him a few games to get going but was playing well by the time the COVID-19 pandemic ultimately cancelled the season: he had recorded two goals and five assists in 13 games and was skating on the top line.
Jared Moe and Austin Wong are both a few years away from turning pro as they are playing at the University of Minnesota and Harvard University, respectively.
Take this ranking with a huge grain of salt. It’s really too early to determine how much impact a draft that happened just a year ago will ultimately have on the Jets.
Either way, the Jets selected a franchise-low five players in 2019. With their first-rounder at 20th overall, they chose Finnish defender Ville Heinola.
The selection — which they got back from the New York Rangers the Jacob Trouba trade after dealing it to the Metropolitan Division team for Kevin Hayes at the Trade Deadline — could turn out very well. Heinola was thoroughly impressive for an 18-year-old in eight early-season games for the Jets and three for the Moose — showcasing his intelligence, speed, and puck-moving ability — before returning to SM-Liiga club team Lukko Rauma for the rest of the season. He has a legitimate chance at a full-time NHL gig next season and at helping the Jets’ D be far more respectable than last season.
The rest of the draft class is much farther away from the NHL, but Harrison Blaisdell in particular stands out as a fascinating player: the 5-foot-11, 180-pound centre/winger just completed his first season at the University of North Dakota after two outstanding seasons for the BCHL’s Chilliwack Chiefs.
The Jets, short on truculence these days, certainly need players such as the son of former NHLer Mike Blaisdell in their pipeline: the younger Blaisdell models his game after Boston Bruins’ agitator extraordinaire Brad Marchand.
DraftGeek’s Brayden Sullivan noted in a 2019 prospect profile Blaisdell “is a fairly balanced threat offensively, blending goal scoring and vision into a dynamic package. His shot is high end and he has the release to go along with velocity and pinpoint accuracy…”
“A fantastic skater, the former Pat Canadian plays the game with tremendous pace, flying up and down the ice,” Sullivan continued. “His quickness isn’t limited to his feet, however, as he possesses hands that are capable of keeping up with his lower body movements, often leaving opposing defenders in the dust or in a pretzel.”
The reason this draft year ranks fairly low on our list is because the top two selections have be slow to provide the Jets with any return on investment.
Kristian Vesalainen, selected 24th overall, chose old comforts over new challenges in 2018-19 when he decided to go back to the KHL’s Jokerit in his Helsinki hometown rather than gut it out in the AHL and adapt to the North American style of game.
Vesalainen came back to play 22 games for the Moose down the stretch after the KHL season wrapped up, but was clear his extra time on European big ice didn’t help his development and that he’d, by-and-large, wasted his season.
His 2019-20 season was a mixed bag as he had to do the learning he should have done a season prior. He managed to record 12 goals and 18 assists for 30 points in 60 games for the Moose and at times looked dangerous, especially on the power play. However, he was often invisible and tentative at even strength and was unwilling to shoot or use his size to his advantage. He’s still a top prospect, but coming along much slower than the Jets expected or hoped.
Second-round selection Dylan Samberg, meanwhile, is the Jets’ best defensive prospect. They were hoping the 6-foot-4, 215 pound Minnesotan would turn pro for the 2019-20 season — and they certainly could have used him as their much-maligned, patchwork blue line was battered and bruised all season — but he opted to head back to the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs for a third season.
The strong-skating, mobile, NCAA standout finally signed an ELC with the Jets in April and he has a legitimate shot of making the NHL whenever the 2020-21 season begins.
Of the other seven selections, Leon Gawanke is the most promising. The German turned heads in his rookie season with the Moose with his puck-moving ability and hard shot.
Gawanke began the season rotating in and out of the lineup but his role steadily increased throughout. By March, the 21-year-old was on the top defensive pairing and top power play unit, and recorded 26 points, tops among Moose d-men.
Seventh-round pick Skyler McKenzie has also proven intriguing; the spark plug has impressed with his mix of speed, skill, and truculence in two seasons with the Moose, but doesn’t appear to be in the Jets’ long-term plans.
Of the six players the Jets selected in 2012, only one of them is left with the organization.
Of course, the Jets took Jacob Trouba — the Michigan-born defenseman who evolved into an elite, top-pairing blue-liner — with their ninth-overall pick.
Trouba was the first Jets’ draft pick to be NHL-ready right away, as he never played an AHL game and spent 408 games over six seasons with the squad, many of those on the team’s top pairing.
As difficult as Trouba was for opponents to deal with on the ice, he was just as difficult for the Jets to deal with off it. He held out in 2016, became the first player in team history to take the team to arbitration in 2018, and his unwillingness to sign long-term in Winnipeg created a prolonged shaggy dog story and a ridiculous distraction that finally ended when the Jets traded him to the New York Rangers for Neal Pionk last June.
At first glance, the trade looked truly terrible for the Jets, but they’ve actually gotten the better end of it so far. Pionk was a revelation in his first season in Winnipeg — recording 45 points and playing solid defence — while Trouba struggled in his first season in the Big Apple.
Related: 3 New Jets Who Surprised in 2019-20
The trade made Connor Hellebuyck — the big-bodied goaltender the team snagged 130th-overall — the last member of the 2012 draft class left standing.
Hellebuyck is the Jets’ first diamond in the rough, having compiled a 148-85-22 record, 2.64 goals against average (GAA), .917 save percentage (SV%), and 20 shutouts over six seasons.
His best season was 2019-20, where he stole multiple games for the defensively deficient team and was the number-one reason the Jets qualified for the NHL’s 24-team playoff format. His numbers were eye-popping as he put up 31 wins to go along with a 2.57 GAA, a .922 SV%, six shutouts, and. 12.5 Goalie Points Share. He was also first in quality starts with 36, first in saves with 1656, and tied for first in games played with 58. He received his second Vezina nomination as a result and should be a shoo-in for his first win.
The other four picks are long gone and long forgotten. The biggest disappointment was Lukas Sutter, part of the legendary Sutter hockey clan. Sutter put up 59 points with the Saskatoon Blades the season prior to the Jets selecting him 39th overall but flopped completely. He re-entered the draft in 2014 and was chosen by the New York Rangers 200th-overall but never played an NHL game.
“Was Sutter was a big reach? Was his draft year an illusion? Is the issue to do with scouting error?” asked Arctic Ice Hockey’s Jacob Stoller back in 2014.
“Could something have been done to better support the player? Whatever the case, Lukas Sutter is Chevy’s first high profile bust,” Stoller summed up.
The Jets have gotten good long-term value from the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, in which they made a whopping 10 selections.
With their first-rounder, they selected Josh Morrissey, who plays a top-pairing, shutdown role and is now part of the team’s leadership core as an alternate captain. Morrissey has really blossomed over the past two seasons, putting up 31 points and skating 22-plus minutes per game in each. Thankfully, the Jets have the 13th-overall pick locked up long-term as he signed an eight-year extension last fall.
The Jets also snagged a pair from U.S. colleges; intelligent forward Andrew Copp at 104th-overall and defender Tucker Poolman at 127th. Copp proved himself a play-driving centre in 2018-19 and is a key contributor at both even strength and on the penalty kill. Poolman finally cracked the Jets full-time in 2019-20 — recording four goals and 12 assists in 57 games and skating an average of 17:27 — after an excellent (but injury-plagued) 2018-19 campaign for the Moose.
JC Lipon is still with the organization too; although he’s likely a career minor-leaguer, the Moose alternate captain bolsters the AHL squad with a feisty, hard-nosed play style and is the most viable candidate for their next captain.
The draft class also features some highly-touted players who didn’t pan out; most notably, Nic Petan. The B.C. product had a myriad of chances to make his mark, but was constantly leapt over by other prospects and could never translate his creativity, playmaking skills, and power play prowess into NHL success. The Jets finally ended the Petan saga when they traded him to the Toronto Maple Leafs for Par Lindholm in February, 2019.
Eric Comrie, similarly, was once considered the netminder of the future, but like Petan, has been valuted by others; first by Connor Hellebuyck, and, more recently, by Laurent Brossoit. Now 25 with just eight NHL games under his belt, it’s tough to see Comrie — whose whirlwind 2019-20 season took him from the Jets, to the Arizona Coyotes, to the Detroit Red Wings, and back to the Jets — as anything more than a reliable AHL goaltender.
Overall, however, the 2013 draft was pretty good for the Jets; everyone but Marcus Karlstrom at least played in the organization.
With two generational scorers — Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine — projected to go first and second overall in 2016, the Jets were presented with a no-lose situation when they leapt to second from seventh in the draft lottery. Their good fortune brought the latter — a Finnish phenom with a laser shot — to town.
Four seasons later, Laine’s scored 138 goals and notched 109 assists; his feats over his young career include capturing the longest point streak by a teenager in NHL history and scoring five goals in a single game. He’s still only 22, and only an elite few have accomplished what he has by that tender age.
Although Laine was a one-trick pony in the past, he took massive steps this season toward becoming a complete player; one who is an asset rather than a liability even when he’s not lighting the lamp. Laine, who signed a two-year “prove yourself” bridge deal just before the 2019-20 season began, is going to be a very rich man very soon.
A late round pick who is turning out to be a steal is Mikhail Berdin. The flashy and enigmatic Russian goaltender — selected 157th-overall — has insane puck-handling skills and has become a Moose fan favourite over two seasons. In 2018-19, He posted a 12-11-0 record with a 2.34 GAA, .927 SV%, and a pair of shutouts, raising his stock dramatically in the process.
In 2019-20, he was given the starter’s role and further solidified his position as a compelling prospect by posting a 20-21-1 record, 2.89 GAA, .912 SV%, and two shutouts. He could challenge Laurent Brossoit for the Jets’ back-up gig in 2020-21 if Brossoit re-signs.
“He was quite reckless at playing the puck earlier in the season, cost us some goals and people asked me if I was going to stop him. No I am not going to stop him…” said Moose head coach Pascal Vincent of Berdin in April. “He’s a guy that thinks outside the box. He plays the game differently. That’s an asset. We don’t want to change him into a regular goalie.”
The draft selections also includes Logan Stanley, who’s trending toward being the Jets’ first high-round bust. Many have accused the Jets of reaching in selecting the towering 6-foot-7 defenseman 18th overall and consider him “tall and that’s all.”
Stanley’s improved upon the lack of foot speed that was readily apparent in his rookie 2018-19 campaign with the Moose, in which he still ended up appearing in 73 games, leading Moose rookies in points with 19, and capturing the team’s rookie of the year award.
In 2019-20, he was limited to 44 games and 10 points and overall remains a long-term project. His path to the NHL is tougher than ever now that Gawanke, Heinola, and Samberg are in the mix.
The fact the Jets’ inaugural NHL Entry Draft is number two and not number one is a testament to how adept a drafter Cheveldayoff truly is.
Less than a month after True North Sports & Entertainment officially announced they’d purchased the Thrashers, the newly-minted GM went off the board — on the advice of former Jets’ superstar Barrie Colts’ head coach Dale Hawerchuk — and selected Mark Scheifele with his first-ever pick. There was much gnashing of teeth as Sean Couturier seemed the logical choice at number seven.
History vindicates Cheveldayoff’s choice. Scheifele has become a core member of the Jets’ leadership crew and has blossomed into a bonafide superstar with a tremendous shot, unmatched work ethic, and commitment to continual improvement. He’s got 180 goals and 264 assists for 444 points in 519 career games; the 27-year-old will be a number-one centre and perennial point-per-game guy for the next decade.
Cheveldayoff’s second-ever pick was similarly successful: he took truculent, hard-checking face-off specialist Adam Lowry. Lowry, like Scheifele, has been a key contributor to the Jets’ success over the past three seasons especially.
The trend did not continue with Cheveldayoff’s final five selections thereafter, however. The players selected — Brennan Serville, Zach Yuen, Austen Brassard, Jason Kasdorf, and Aaron Harstad, combined to play in only one NHL game (it was goaltender Kasdorf, who made a start for the Buffalo Sabres in 2015-16 after he was sent there as part of the Evander Kane trade.)
However, the fact Cheveldayoff had the guts to go off the board with his first-ever pick — an incredible decision, in hindsight — and that his first two picks are his teams’ best centres to this day, gives the 2011 draft the second spot.
From top to bottom, the 2015 draft is the Jets’ very best. Former THW’s contributor Rob Mahon summed it up nicely in a piece he penned last summer:
“If you want a case study on how to hit a draft out of the park, you look to the Winnipeg Jets. And if you want to see the finest example of their work, you look at the 2015 NHL draft.”
The Jets’ first pick was a harbinger that things would go well for them; the Boston Bruins, possessing picks 14 through 16, inexplicably chose against selecting Kyle Connor with any of them. The Jets were surprised the University of Michigan product was even available at 17th-overall, but happily took him.
Connor adapted to the NHL game with a rocket ship’s pace; he scored 31 goals in his first full season, put up 34 more in 2018-19, and led the team with 38 in 2019-20. The consistently dangerous, play-driving, top-six sniper, cashed in big just before the 2019-20 season began by signing a $50 million contract extension and will be a Jet through 2026.
Jack Roslovic, meanwhile, hasn’t progressed as rapidly as his fellow first-rounder. His first first three NHL seasons have been more of a roller coaster, a bumpy ride in which he’s played both top- and bottom-six roles. He struggled to shoulder a role on the top six in 2019-20, but still set career highs in goals with 12 and assists in 17.
The crafty Columbus native is still young and possesses the lethal shot and explosiveness to one day be an impactful top-six forward.
The 2015 draft also solidified the Jets’ reputation as the kings of finding studs in late rounds. Mason Appleton, chosen 168th, registered 66 points with the Moose in 2017-18 and was named the AHL’s outstanding rookie in the process. In 2018-19, he played 35 games with the Jets, but was a casualty of the Jets’ deadline day moves and was sent back down. In 2019-20, he suffered a freak foot injury playing football before the Heritage Classic in Regina, but still recorded five goals and three assists in 46 games.
Like Appleton, Sami Niku captured some AHL hardware during his rookie season. He was named the AHL’s Outstanding Defenseman for recording 16 goals, 38 points, and a plus-17 rating. The slick-skating Finn played 30 games for the Jets in 2018-19 in a sheltered role and a full-time roster spot in 2019-20 was his to lose.
Unfortunately, Niku had a rotten 2019-20 campaign. He was in a car crash during training camp and suffered through a number of injuries that limited him to 17 games with the Jets and 18 with the Moose. Despite the setback, he’s still firmly in the Jets’ future plans. If he can stay healthy, his ability to quarterback a power play and expertly move the puck will serve him well in the NHL.
The patience the Jets had with Jansen Harkins, meanwhile, has also paid off. In 2019-20, after establishing a new career-high in points the season prior —Harkins got off to a smoking start with the Moose. He lit up opponents with 31 points in 30 games and was named an AHL All-Star before he got a well-deserved call-up and played 27 games. He recorded two goals and five assists while showcasing an intelligent, hard-working two-way play-style, and is certainly on his way to becoming an impactful NHLer.
When you add it all up, it’s no secret why the 2015 draft is a banner moment and the most important to the Jets’ present and future.