On Sunday night, the Chicago Blackhawks got their butts kicked by the Winnipeg Jets. As I looked up and down the Jets’ roster — a roster that has them somewhat surprisingly in second place in the Central Division (with two games in-hand on first place Dallas) — something struck me. How were the Jets constructed?
Kevin Cheveldayoff, who had been with the Blackhawks’ front office group for two years (and who apparently shares a birthday with me), was named the general manager of the Jets on June 8, 2011. He was immediately put in charge of a “new” franchise; the Atlanta Thrashers were moving to Winnipeg and they weren’t taking GM Rick Dudley with them.
Chevy’s first draft, in 2011, is still paying dividends on his NHL roster. His first-round pick was Mark Scheifele, and his second pick (in the third round) was Adam Lowry. Both are still big parts of the current Jets’ roster.
That’s emblematic of the Jets’ construction. They have been the opposite of the Blackhawks in that regard. Between 2011 and 2016, they hit on every one of their first-round picks:
- 2011: Mark Scheifele, C (7th overall)
- 2012: Jacob Trouba, D (9th overall)
- 2013: Josh Morrissey, D (13th overall)
- 2014: Nikolaj Ehlers, LW (13th overall)
- 2015: Kyle Connor, LW (17th overall)
- 2015: Jack Roslovic, C (25th overall)
- 2016: Patrik Laine, LW (2nd overall)
- 2016: Logan Stanley, D (18th overall)
They had one (1) pick in the top five out of those eight first-round picks over a five-year span, and they used that on Laine. All eight of these first-round picks have appeared in at least 100 regular season games, with Stanley having exactly 100 on the back of his hockey card. Three of those eight picks played against the Blackhawks last night; Ehlers and Stanley are on IR.
Now sprinkle in some of the later round hits the Jets had:
- 2011: Adam Lowry, D (3rd round)
- 2012: Connor Hellebuyck, G (5th round)
- 2013: Andrew Copp, C (4th round)
- 2015: Mason Appleton, C (6th round)
And you’re now seeing a recipe for eventual success. It’s about drafting and developing players, and affording them the time to become roster mainstays.
But that isn’t to say some of these guys didn’t work out in Winnipeg (especially Laine), and there weren’t hard decisions made along the way.
In 2019, the Jets traded Trouba to the Rangers for Neal Pionk and a first-round pick in that summer’s draft, which became defenseman Ville Heinola. In 2021, they traded Laine and Roslovic to Columbus for Pierre-Luc Dubois and a third-round pick in the 2022 draft (center Daniel Zhilkin). And at last year’s trade deadline, they sent Copp to the New York Rangers in a blockbuster that brought back Morgan Barron, a first-round pick in the 2022 draft (Brad Lambert), a second-round pick in the 2022 draft (Elias Salomonsson) and fifth-round pick in the 2023 draft.
We watched Pionk, Dubois and Barron all make an impact last night. And those were three players many viewed as “key” members of their roster construction at the times of the trades.
The Jets have also received contributions from their first-round picks in 2017, 2019 and 2020 (they didn’t have one in 2018). Kristian Vesalainen, Heinola and Cole Perfetti have all appeared in NHL games already and Perfetti, their first rounder in 2020, had an assist last night.
The Jets haven’t seen postseason wins come from this yet, but they have a new head coach this season whose systems appear to be working significantly better than what they did last year when Paul Maurice abruptly left and the season spiraled off the rails. This season, they look like a tough beat with Hellebuyck playing well in net and their core — built through the draft — competing every night.
My point: the draft is critical to any team that wants to build sustainable success. As the comments during and after games become increasingly critical of the Blackhawks’ current roster construction, we all need to keep in mind what the end game is all about. General Manager Kyle Davidson knows he needs to draft well to win big. And the system he inherited wasn’t good enough, especially at forward, to make incremental moves. He needed to swing big, and did that starting last year during the season and at the draft.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day” and neither are playoff/championship contending rosters. We should know this; the Blackhawks’ dynasty roster(s) weren’t built overnight, either. It took years of the right picks and appropriate development for the Hawks to get to the mountain top.
So when the Blackhawks get their tails whipped by a team like Winnipeg, take a look at how their roster was built. You’ll probably find that many of the teams at/near the top of the standings were built through the draft with some tough decisions (trades) along the way.