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Jets Success Shows First-Round Home Runs are Vital

How many first-round picks have the Jets missed on? So far, not one.

NHL: Vancouver Canucks at Winnipeg Jets
Jan 21, 2018; Winnipeg, Manitoba, CAN; Winnipeg Jets forward Patrick Laine (29) carries the puck around the Vancouver net as Vancouver Canucks defenseman Alexander Edler (23) gives chase during the second period at Bell MTS Place.
Ray Peters-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a common belief that drafting and developing is the best way to win the Stanley Cup. If you want to look at the current poster boy for good drafting, look no further than the Winnipeg Jets.

After the former Atlanta Thrashers franchise suffered through more than a decade of sucking, the scouting staff in Winnipeg slowly turned this franchise into a powerhouse.

Perhaps the Thrashers were doomed for ineptitude with the selection of Patrik Stefan at first overall in 1999. Injuries derailed his promising career, but Atlanta didn’t do themselves any favours by drafting the likes of Braydon Coburn, Boris Valabik, Alex Bourret and Zach Bogosian in the first round. Their first-round failures correlate directly with the franchise failing to win their first playoff game until this season.

When the Winnipeg Jets were awarded the franchise through relocation, they got to work right away at the draft table. However, it didn’t come without controversy.

Jets Did Their Homework

During the 2011 draft, the Jets made a somewhat surprising selection when they picked Mark Scheifele at seventh overall. At the time many predicted that Scheifele would fall somewhere in the middle of the first round. He was 16th overall on the final 2011 draft rankings for North American skaters, and some analysts thought the Jets would pick Sean Couturier with the seventh overall pick.

Turns out the Jets scouting staff did their homework. Even though Scheifele was outscored in the CHL by other first-round picks like Couturier and Zack Phillips, the Jets number one centre is likely a top-three pick in a re-draft.

2011 NHL Entry Draft - Portraits
Despite the surprising selection, Mark Scheifele and his connection to the Jets through his junior coach Dale Hawerchuk ended up being a boon for the Winnipeg franchise.
Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images

The Jets used their next two first round picks to select defencemen Jacob Trouba (2012, ninth overall) and Josh Morrissey (2013, 13th overall). Then they loaded up on talented young forwards over the following two years with Nikolaj Ehlers (2014, eighth overall), Kyle Conner (2015, 17th overall) and Jack Roslovic (2015, 25th overall).

Of course, 2016 is when they lucked out in the draft lottery, jumping the Canucks to select Patrik Laine. He looks bound to become this generation’s Alex Ovechkin, and he’s the last draft pick currently on the roster that’s making an impact, albeit a big one.

First Round Picks are Propelling Jets

With an emphasis on drafting and developing, many pundits will stress the importance of nailing your picks in the later rounds. If that’s important, then hitting home runs on your first-round picks should be do-or-die territory.

For years, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff was patient with the roster. He refused to chase free agents, although the fact that many outsiders don’t want to play in the frozen tundra is a factor. He also didn’t make many huge trades, but the ones he did have helped the team long-term.

2017 NHL Draft - Round One
Kevin Cheveldayoff’s patience has paid off as his team looks to bring home the Stanley Cup.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

However, each and every one of his first-round picks between 2011 and 2015 are making an impact with the team. That starts with Scheifele, who despite being questioned back in 2011 is clearly a dominant number one centre. He manhandled the Nashville Predators in Round Two with seven goals in 11 points, channeling his inner Ryan Kesler.

Although Laine hasn’t been scoring at his usual torrid pace, he’s still contributing offensively. Ehlers hasn’t scored, but he’s put up seven assists and he’s due for a breakout. Connor has also found his game after a slow start, and Roslovic was effective in limited minutes. On defence, Trouba and Morrissey have helped form one of the best bluelines in hockey.

The point of all of this? The Jets first round picks are all helping this team compete for a Stanley Cup. Only Laine was a top-three pick, but the rest of the picks were the result of diligent and masterful scouting from the Jets’ brass.

Looking at the Canucks in the First Round

It’s clear that if the Canucks want to get to where the Jets are, they need to hit home runs on their first-round picks. Unfortunately for Jim Benning and his scouting staff, their first-round selections are far from perfect.

Many people would give Benning a 50% rating for his work at the draft. It’s still early for guys like Elias Pettersson and Olli Juolevi, but one looks like a steal while another isn’t inspiring much confidence.

If there’s a positive nugget we can take away from the Jets drafting, it’s that Juolevi could turn out to be a guy like Morrissey. It took until Morrissey’s draft-plus-four year to make an impact at the NHL level. One thing the Jets were good at was waiting until Morrissey was ready, instead of rushing him into the lineup. While some might want to see Juolevi in the NHL this year, the smarter option is to insert him into the lineup when he’s actually ready.

2016 NHL Draft - Portraits
Will Olli Juolevi be the Canucks version of Josh Morrissey?
Photo by Jeffrey T. Barnes/Getty Images

With their two previous picks in Brock Boeser and Jake Virtanen, there’s another 50% success rating. Boeser was a steal at 23rd, while Virtanen was a reach at sixth overall. Virtanen could still turn out to be a good player, but the Canucks can’t necessarily chalk that up as a victory at this point.

One last thing to note is trading for draft picks. Benning has acquired one addition first-round pick in his tenure, which he subsequently traded away for Erik Gudbranson. The Jets acquired additional picks in both 2015 and 2016, picking promising players in Roslovic and Logan Stanley with those selections. It’s just an added bonus if good teams are able to snag extra picks in that coveted first round, and the Jets have been able to do that.

It all just comes back to drafting. Teams need to draft well in the first round in order to seek out success. Bad drafting in the first round is a recipe for disaster. Just look at the Thrashers franchise for evidence of that.