Draft and develop. It’s the mantra Winnipeg Jets fans have been hearing about, virtually non-stop, since the day the NHL returned to River City. And it’s one that, for many loyal supporters, was beginning to grow a bit old.

This article was published 29/12/2017 (1650 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Draft and develop. It’s the mantra Winnipeg Jets fans have been hearing about, virtually non-stop, since the day the NHL returned to River City. And it’s one that, for many loyal supporters, was beginning to grow a bit old.

Just when exactly was this all going to start paying off?

After all, the Jets have but one playoff appearance to show for their six completed seasons so far — a four-game sweep at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks. And the Manitoba Moose, supposed to be the breeding ground for the next wave of talent, were putrid in the team’s first two seasons in Winnipeg after moving from St. John’s in time for the 2015-16 season.

Well, it appears the future has finally arrived. And is likely here to stay for a while.

The Jets look like the real deal this season, holding their own with the NHL’s heavyweights. And the Moose are certainly mighty, occupying the top spot in the AHL standings, which suggests the organizational success can be sustained thanks to plenty of depth.

So how did they get here?

Michigan native Kyle Connor (top) was coming off a season in which he led the USHL in scoring and was named the player of the year.

AARON LAVINSKY / STAR TRIBUNE FILES

Michigan native Kyle Connor (top) was coming off a season in which he led the USHL in scoring and was named the player of the year.

There’s no denying the Jets hit the jackpot in 2016 when the ping pong balls fell in their favour and landed them a franchise-changing player in Patrik Laine. The Finnish sniper will be a cornerstone of the team for years and delivers the type of offensive threat most rivals can only dream of.

As valuable as Laine is, he’s still just one player. And that’s why the most important development for the long-term growth of the organization may have actually happened a year before Laine was selected with the lucky lottery pick at No. 2.

The 2015 NHL draft, held in Sunrise, Fla., marked a major turning point, even if nobody really realized it at the time. Incredibly, it happened with the Jets coming off their most successful regular season and only playoff appearance, meaning they were drafting much lower than in previous seasons.

Winnipeg made eight selections that day and, in the process, restocked their rather empty shelves in a major way. Just two years later, six of those players are playing pro and making major contributions.

"If you get half-a-dozen players in a draft, you are hitting it out of the park, you are hitting for the cycle," says Craig Button, the former NHL executive turned TSN analyst. "To me, if you get three players that are legitimate prospects into your system... to have six from one draft, you’re nailing it."

Shane Malloy, host of Hockey Prospect Radio on the NHL network and an expert in scouting and analytics, says the Jets now have "one of the best prospect pools in the business" and what transpired two years ago played a major role.

"They are building a win-maximization team through the most intelligent and cost-effective strategy, the NHL draft," Malloy says. Statistics show the average NHL team gets 1.62 NHL players per draft. By his calculations, the Jets are on target to blow that away from the Class of 2015.

"There is a possibility that they could have three, or maybe four, players play more than 200-plus NHL games each. Now that would be impressive," he says.


General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and director of amateur scouting Mark Hillier are not prepared to declare the 2015 draft their finest work. But they can’t completely hide their glee as they speak in depth with the Free Press and provide some insights into how things transpired that weekend.

"The draft day is a very important day for every organization in the league, because the way teams have to be built in the salary-cap era and the way players contracts work, you need to have that constant influx of players. Whether it’s a first-round pick or a seventh-round pick, right after their name is called the hard work begins," says Cheveldayoff.

The other Jets first-round draft pick Jack Roslovic is currently tied for second in AHL scoring (15G, 20A) in his second season with the Manitoba Moose.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The other Jets first-round draft pick Jack Roslovic is currently tied for second in AHL scoring (15G, 20A) in his second season with the Manitoba Moose.

Kyle Connor, taken with the Jets’ own 17th overall pick, certainly got the party started on the right foot. The talented Michigan native — coming off a season in which he led the USHL in scoring and was named the player of the year — was someone they believed would be long be gone when it was their turn to hit the podium.

"From our perspective, he fell into our lap at 17," Cheveldayoff admits.

Connor, with 11 goals and 10 assists so far this season with the Jets, has been a great fit in the top-six forward group.

 Hillier says their other first-round pick at No. 25, acquired in the Evander Kane blockbuster trade earlier that year, also involved some good fortune as Jack Roslovic was — also a surprise — still available. Roslovic (15G, 20A) is currently tied for second in AHL scoring in his second season with the Moose and is on the cusp of pushing for full-time work in the NHL.

"Both Connor and Roslovic we had rated quite a bit higher than we got them. There’s always a little luck involved, too. Unless you’re picking No. 1 you can only pick from who’s left. So you have to be a little lucky when teams below you passed on guys you like and a player kind of falls into your lap," says Hillier. "We obviously thought we had a really good start to that draft."

As solid as those top two picks were, things really took off in the later rounds.

Sami Niku of Finland  is tied for the AHL rookie defencemen scoring lead and in the Top 10 among all blue-liners.

ALAN DIAZ / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILED

Sami Niku of Finland is tied for the AHL rookie defencemen scoring lead and in the Top 10 among all blue-liners.

Sixth-rounder Mason Appleton (12G, 19A) is leading AHL rookie scoring and in the Top 10 among all skaters. He looks like an absolute steal in that spot. Same goes for seventh-rounder Sami Niku (4G, 16A) who is tied for the AHL rookie defencemen scoring lead and in the Top 10 among all blue-liners.

"They were players we had discussions on all year long. There was some passion on those players all year. With Appleton, one thing there is he needed to gain a step on his skating, his skills were still a little raw; that’s probably why he fell down to the sixth round. But the one thing we liked was his hockey sense, how he processed the game," says Hillier.

The knock against Niku was his frame, standing six feet tall but weighing in at just 170 pounds.

"It was easy to see the skill set there, but he was a pretty slight, under-developed body. At the time, even a couple years ago, there wasn’t as much room, or the thinking, to draft a small defenceman. But the rules and the way the game is being played is really changing rapidly right now. There’s more room for the smaller defencemen and the smaller player in general," Hillier says.

"We wondered if he was going to be big enough, strong enough. He has gotten quite a bit bigger and stronger, but that’s still a work in progress as he’s developing now. But you couldn’t deny his skill."

Cheveldayoff recalls plenty of spirited draft meetings, beginning in January 2015, where they eventually created a list of between 75 and 100 players they had their eyes on.

"You tell the scouts this is your list. It’s your job, if you like this guy then you put him on a spot where you can fight for him," he says.

"There are certain guys inside the meetings where scouts will say, ‘I really like this guy, I’m going to step up and put this guy on my list.’ Those create conversations within the room. One scout may like them more, one may like them less, you have to find that happy medium.

"We only want to draft players that we want in our organization. If we’re going to step up and do this it’s because we have a strong feeling of what they can become."

Fourth-round pick Michael Spacek (4G, 7A) is off to a fine start in his rookie season with the Moose.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Fourth-round pick Michael Spacek (4G, 7A) is off to a fine start in his rookie season with the Moose.

Teams such as the Detroit Red Wings used to thrive in those later rounds, finding hidden gems who would become key parts of the organization. Cheveldayoff says it’s a lot more difficult to pull that off now.

"Like anything in this game, it has evolved immensely, the process of scouting, the way video is used now. Scouting back 15 years ago was much different. The world is much smaller now, and the hockey world is much smaller now," he says.

"At the end of the day, scouting is an art, it’s not a science. For these guys it’s their careers, their livelihood. Year after year after year, they continue to grow and get stronger by having more knowledge and history of the game. I’m very proud of our scouting staff and the work they’ve put in."

Fourth-round pick Michael Spacek (4G, 7A) and second-round pick Jansen Harkins (2G, 6A) are also off to fine starts in their rookie seasons with the high-flying Moose and still have plenty of upside.

The Jets also have third-round pick Erik Foley tearing it up with Providence in U.S. college play. The power forward has 21 points in 16 games to lead his team and was named Hockey East player of the month for November.

"He’s definitely in our plans and on our radar. So it does look like the majority of the picks will be on our development path moving forward," Cheveldayoff says.

The final selection of that draft, seventh-rounder Matteo Gennaro, was never signed by the team and is playing his final season in the Western Hockey League as an over-ager.

"We really worked hard on the amateur side, we listened to our area scouts, we listened to everybody’s opinions, going through multiple meetings a year where we want our area scouts to be passionate in their opinion about the players, especially these late round guys," says Hillier. "We think these late round picks are just as important as the higher picks. But obviously it’s more of a bonus when you can hit on some of these later guys."

However, Hillier cautions that plenty of hard work remains.

"These guys (aside from Connor) aren’t playing in the NHL yet, and that’s the ultimate goal. A player hasn’t really reached his peak until he’s in the NHL," he says.

"When you see guys like Niku and Appleton that were sixth- and seventh-round picks having the success they’re having at the AHL level in their first year, you think that’s pretty encouraging for the future. This has been a great development year for them so far and we think their future is bright. We think they have a good chance of being future Jets."

Manitoba Moose Mason Appleton is leading the AHL rookie scoring race and was a steal in the sixth round.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Manitoba Moose Mason Appleton is leading the AHL rookie scoring race and was a steal in the sixth round.

 Strong drafting is only part of the battle.

"The Winnipeg Jets do as good a job as anybody drafting and developing. Those are mutually inclusive, not exclusive. It is imperative that those two things go hand in hand," says Button.

Malloy says even the best prospects can still flop if critical mistakes are made after draft day.

"For the most part, there are three aspects that make the whole scouting and developing process work. The first aspect is the amateur scouting department’s ability to evaluate and project talent, which may be the most challenging of all. Next, the organization’s player development department must try to mold the prospects by giving the players tools to strengthen his talents. Perhaps most importantly is the prospect’s’ responsibility to pay the price and sacrifice, which requires a tremendous work ethic. If anyone of these aspects fails, then the likelihood of a prospect having a long NHL career becomes remote," says Malloy.

Hillier says the organization’s first pick in the summer of 2011 set the stage for what was to come.

"We told Chevy from the start, before we picked (Mark) Scheifele, that we could probably get a player who’s a quicker fix, a guy that might help us in the short term more than Scheifele. But if you want a better player long term, we’re going to have to take our time but Scheifele’s the guy," says Hillier. "There was a lot of pressure on that pick, being the first in the organization, but I think Chevy really showed faith in us with that pick and showed us that he was serious on the draft and develop model and that the amateur scouting was really important to the organization. And we’ve really gone from there."

Cheveldayoff says the work Jimmy Roy and Mike Keane do on the player development side is invaluable, as they become the focal point for prospects.

Erik Foley (left) battles for the puck with Jack Glover during the Jets development camp earlier this year. Foley has 21 points in 16 games with his team Providence to lead his team and was named Hockey East player of the month for November.

JUSTIN SAMANSKI-LANGILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Erik Foley (left) battles for the puck with Jack Glover during the Jets development camp earlier this year. Foley has 21 points in 16 games with his team Providence to lead his team and was named Hockey East player of the month for November.

"From the moment that we draft them, we congratulate them, they get their jersey, they get their picture taken and head up to our suite at the draft. One of the first people they meet is Jimmy Roy, and that development process starts right there," says Cheveldayoff.

Moose coach Pascal Vincent and his staff appear to be pushing the right buttons with their young prospects on the farm.

"I know we’re winning now and it’s great, it’s awesome. That’s what we want to build, a winning culture and everything. But the mission stays the same. We’re here to develop players. And the final results of the games are important to us, because it tells us where we are compared to the other teams in the league. But at the end of the day we’re here to develop individuals," says Vincent.

He calls Appleton the most pleasant surprise to date.

"We had no expectations other than the pro scouts and the amateur scouts telling us what his potential could be and what he had done in the past. He came here at camp just to make the team, and he showed up in great shape. When I think about Mason Appleton I think about his compete level, I think about his hockey sense and his ability to adjust his game," says Vincent. "He’s becoming a pretty complete player who is competing hard and is pretty smart with his routes. And he’s very consistent in his effort, very mature, intelligent. He’s got this confidence about himself that is really good. A very positive confidence, he knows he can get the job done and he’s doing it."

Appleton admits some surprise about how deep he went in the draft. But he quickly shook it off and began to focus on what he needed to do to take the next step.

 "It was maybe a tad later than I thought. That’s kind of how drafts work, they’re kind of a little crapshoot in that aspect. So you never really know. Obviously I was thrilled to get drafted at all. Regardless of what round I was taken in obviously I was super excited," he says. "The draft was three years ago. I’m a lot different player than I was then. A lot stronger, a lot faster, heavier shot. I don’t even really think of it as I’m a sixth rounder any more. Once you’re kind of a pro, you’re just all in kind of that same pool and your draft spot doesn’t really matter anymore."

And now the next phase of his progression, Appleton says, is becoming a more consistent player and eventually pushing for NHL work.

Michael Spacek after being chosen 108th overall by the Winnipeg Jets during the fourth round of the 2015 NHL hockey draft.

ALAN DIAZ / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES

Michael Spacek after being chosen 108th overall by the Winnipeg Jets during the fourth round of the 2015 NHL hockey draft.

"I think everyone’s timeline is different. It’s not something that I’m focused on. If that opportunity ever comes I’m hopefully going to jump on it and do the best I can. But for now, obviously getting better every day at this level, obviously it’s a great hockey league. I’m here every day to just work as hard as I can and just be the best player I can be," he says.

Roslovic is quick to hand out praise to his coaches for helping his sophomore season be even better than his terrific rookie campaign. He says the Class of 2015 will often talk about how far they’ve come in such short time.

"We’re all equals in the dressing room. I think it’s cool that we’re all the same age. Obviously we get that as a common ground. The fact that we’re all contributing is just a testament to all the coaches and the brass," says Roslovic. "I think they’ll be happy about that year."

***

So how does 2015 compare to other years for the Jets?

Scheifele and Adam Lowry are the only players who panned out from the 2011 draft. The other five are long since gone and forgotten.

In 2012, Jacob Trouba and Connor Hellebuyck were strong picks, while a third, goalie Jamie Phillips, is in the ECHL. The other three never made an impact.

The 2013 draft might be the second-best for the team. Josh Morrissey, Andrew Copp and Tucker Poolman are all with the Jets, while Eric Comrie and Nic Petan are key players with the Moose. J.C. Lipon and Jan Kostalek are also Moose regulars, meaning seven picks have had an impact at the pro level. Three others that year did not with this organization.

With the exception of Patrik Laine (centre), it's too early to say how the draft class of 2016 will turn out.

NATHAN DENETTE / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

With the exception of Patrik Laine (centre), it's too early to say how the draft class of 2016 will turn out.

Nikolaj Ehlers was the star of the 2014 draft for the Jets, but there are questions after that. Chase De Leo and Nelson Nogier provide some depth on the Moose, while four other picks have yet to turn pro and it remains to be seen what, if any, impact they might have.

It’s much too early to say how the 2016 draft — Laine aside, of course — and the 2017 one will play out. However, Hillier thinks there could be more late-round gems on the way such as goalie Mikhail Berdin (6th round, 2016) and forward Skyler McKenzie (7th round, 2017).

"You can obviously gamble a little more than when you’re in the sixth or seventh round than in the first round. But there’s got to be something about that player that (scouts) think there’s NHL skill there. They aren’t going to have a lot of those skills, because if there are they’d be higher picks. But there has to be one thing that sticks out to them that we think there’s enough there that this can be developed into something better down the road," says Hillier. "When we started with Winnipeg, we were told amateur scouting was going to be the lifeblood of this organization. And it was going to take some time to draft and develop. We were going to go through some hard times but this is the way we had to build the team."

Button says patience is a key, something the Jets appear to have plenty of. And as they continue to build depth by stockpiling talent, that allows for a smooth navigation through things like injuries, free agency and salary cap concerns.

"You have to be patient. For every Patrik Laine there’s a Jack Roslovic. That’s just the way it goes," says Button. To have both your NHL and AHL franchises clicking at the same time is a dream come true, he said. "All those elements are incredibly important, not just for success, but for sustained success. They’re in it for the long haul, not the short haul."

Cheveldayoff says the cream will always rise to the top, regardless of where a player is selected. That’s why a true evaluation of a draft is fluid,

"It doesn’t really matter if you’re a first round or a seventh rounder, if you’re gonna play you’re gonna play, you’re gonna find a way to play," he says. "If you’re a seventh rounder, don’t ever take that and say I’m only a seventh round pick. At that point in time you’re a Winnipeg Jet, and we need to develop you to the best ability that we can."

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.