Do the Winnipeg Jets Waste Young Talent?

A common refrain from armchair NHL GMs (present company included) is that the Winnipeg Jets have failed to cogently develop their young talent. The story goes, “the Jets draft well, but squander young assets.” Vince Heinola is held out as the latest victim of this organizational gremlin.

Andrew Copp’s blazing start to his Rangers tenure has added fuel to this fire. Was Copp a top 6 forward all along? Anecdotally, it seems as though Jets fans have legitimate concerns (if you consider Twitter legitimate).

But is it true? Do the Winnipeg Jets suffer from arrested development (cue narrator)? Let’s try to break it down.

I assume that there is an empirical way to figure this out. Some form of comparative algorithm that could be created to measure draft picks vs. games played/productivity across the NHL. That requires a level of mathematical prowess that I do not possess, so I will instead cherry-pick, and analyze, Jets players that have been lightning rods for wasted talent.

1. Patrik Laine would be a logical place to start, but his circumstances merit exclusion (at least from this specific discussion). Laine was thrust into the Jets lineup in his rookie year, and finished second in the Calder Trophy race. There is no debate that he was immediately productive with the Jets. Did we mismanage the relationship to the point where he wanted out of Winnipeg? Yes. But the mismanagement was less about his development as a hockey player (although he did clash with Paul Maurice), and more about conflicts of personality and ideology. 

2. Sami Niku was drafted by the Jets, 198th overall in 2015. The Rush cover band singer became a bit of a sensation in 2017 when he won the AHL Defenseman of the Year Award in his first season with the Manitoba Moose. He followed that up by scoring in his only game of the pros that year. Jets fans were salivating at the prospect of Niku becoming the next Teppo Numminen (another skilled Finnish defenseman).

Alas, Niku was talented, but never found consistent time on the Jets rotation. He showed glimpses of excellent play, but was often passed over by such luminaries as Tucker Poolman, Derek Forbort, Nathan Beaulieu and Anthony  Bitetto. The crux of the angst was simple: Players like Nathan Beaulieu are objectively not good at hockey, so why not give the youngster a chance? Was it inconsistent play, or organizational oversight that caused Niku to fail to reach his potential?

His post-Jets career supports the position that perhaps his game did not translate well into the NHL. In 2021, Niku signed to a two-way deal with the Montreal Canadians (a putrid team this year), and parlayed that opportunity into a trip right back to the AHL after an uninspiring 13 games.

3. For full transparency, I thought Nic Petan was going to be a ‘thing’. I bought preferred shares in Petan, Inc. Like Niku, he scored in his first game as a Jet, but everything that followed was a precipitous decline. Petan, a skilled but diminutive centreman, never got the opportunity to play in the Jets top 6. Curiously, he didn’t even get an extended run on an anemic Power Play (at the time). 

Petan’s post-Jets career was similarly insomnia inducing. He has bounced around and never really gained traction. Again, much like Niku, perhaps because he just does not possess a translatable skillset for the pro game. 

4. Jack Roslovic’s time with the Jets suffered a similar fate. A first round draft pick, Roslovic struggled to earn the trust of the Jets brass (again Maurice). Eventually, he too wanted out of Winnipeg, but dissimilarly, he has had a bit of a renaissance in Columbus (especially the last few weeks). So, unlike Niku and Petan, he has thrived (relatively) outside of Winnipeg.

A few things that we can extrapolate: (i) don’t be Finnish and play for the Jets; (ii) don’t score in your first NHL game; and (iii) don’t have any variation of ’Nick’ in your name. 

It is tough however to draw any real definitive conclusions from this circumstantial evidence. The fact that Niku and Petan did nothing once free from their relegation in Winnipeg could be a sign they were never really good at all, or, it could be a product of the Jets ‘spoiling’ their development to the point of no redemption. 

This writer believes that the Jets have stifled Nik Ehlers development as well (another Nick). That said, Scheifele, Connor and Morrissey have met or exceed expectations. Ultimately, I believe (on the whole), that the Jets have been negligent in developing young players.

Heinola has had a rough few games. This is usually when the coaching staff relegates young players to the Press Box. The ask from Jets fans is – let’s not. In fact, let’s bring up Sandberg and others to see what we have.

What will happen with Cole Perfetti, Chaz Lucius, and now Barron? Only time will tell. None of them are named Nick, so we are already off to a good start.

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