Scott Esposito The Hockey Writers
Jets’ 5 Greatest U.S.-born Players
The NHL awarded its first Vezina Trophy, honoring the league’s top regular-season goalie, in 1926-27. Since then, only six U.S.-born netminders have earned the award.
As you know, Connor Hellebuyck is poised to become the first in Jets’ history to win the Vezina, and first U.S.-native to do so since 2011, when Boston’s Tim Thomas won his second one for the Bruins.
Related: The Evolution of Europeans in the NHL
That got me thinking about other U.S.-born players to have starred for the Jets. Turns out, there’s quite a few, from both the 1.0 and 2.0 versions of the franchise.
Here are my top five. Those who played only for the Phoenix Coyotes or Atlanta Thrashers were not included. This list is reserved for those who actually skated in Winnipeg. Sorry, Jeremy Roenick.
1. Blake Wheeler, Right Wing
When Boston decided to package Blake Wheeler with Mark Stuart in a trade to the Atlanta Thrashers for Rich Peverley and Boris Valabik in February 2011, it wasn’t because they didn’t believe in Wheeler (then just 24) so much as they needed Peverley’s prowess at center.
To say the deal worked out for both clubs would be an understatement.
Peverley, then 28, finished the 2011 regular season with Boston, notching seven points and a faceoff percentage of 58.3 in 23 games. In the postseason that spring, he recorded 12 points and won 53 percent of his draws in helping the Bruins win their sixth Stanley Cup championship.
Meanwhile, Wheeler would later become the all-time scorer for the franchise that moved to Winnipeg in time for the 2011-12 season.
The Plymouth, Minnesota native is the Jets’ 2.0 leader in points (651), assists (437), and multi-point games (162). He ranks third in games (710), goals (214), and game-winners (31), as well as second in shorthanded goals (11).
Related: Top 3 All-Time Jets Goalies
Last season, he posted 65 points (second-most on the Jets behind Kyle Conner and Mark Scheifele, 73 apiece) and led the team with 22 power-play points.
2. Connor Hellebuyck, Goalie
Hellebuyck is the best goalie the Jets have ever had. Others, like Ondrej Pavelec, were solid but none have carried the team the way Hellebuyck has this season.
Among goalies who played at least 30 games in 2019-20, Hellebuyck ranked fifth-best in the league in save percentage (.922) and had the tenth-lowest goals-average (2.57). He also led the league with six shutouts.
As if those numbers weren’t impressive enough, they become more incredulous considering the Jets played without three of their top-six defensemen from last season in Dustin Byfuglien, Tyler Myers, and Jacob Trouba.
A native of Commerce, Michigan, Hellebuyck holds franchise goaltending records in save percentage (.917) and shutouts (20).
He’s second to Pavelec in games (270), starts (261), minutes (15,406), saves (7,473), and wins (148). And Pavelec made 101 more starts than Hellebuyck, who at 27 is far from done. Hellebuyck also has the team’s second-lowest career GAA (2.64) behind Al Montoya, who played just 35 games for the Jets.
3. Dustin Byfuglien, Defense
They don’t come much bigger than Dustin Byfuglien, a native of Roseau, Minnesota, listed at 6-foot-5 inches, 260 pounds.
“Big Buff” helped the Chicago Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup in 2009-10 (their first in 49 seasons) then joined the Atlanta Thrashers and followed the franchise to Winnipeg.
Since then, he’s established club benchmarks for defensemen in goals (122), assists (294), points (416), and penalty minutes (826). Among all Jets’ skaters, he ranks second in PIMs, third in assists and shots (1,973), and fifth in points and game-winners (24).
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Byfuglien also had 1,951 career hits, which ranks No. 22 since the NHL started tracking Real Time stats in 2005-06.
4. Keith Tkachuk, Left Wing
Keith Tkachuk (Melrose, Massachusetts) got his NHL start in 1991-92, playing 17 games for the Jets at age 19 and posting three goals, five assists, and 28 PIMs. It didn’t take him long to establish himself as one of the NHL’s top power forwards, and become the team’s captain.
By the end of the 1995-96 season (the original Jets’ last in Winnipeg before moving to Arizona) the rugged left winger had amassed 144 markers, 145 helpers, and 792 PIMs in 308 matches while the team called Manitoba’s capital city home.
5. Phil Housley, Defense
Phil Housley, the St. Paul, Minnesota native, played just three seasons in Winnipeg after arriving in a trade from the Buffalo Sabres (for Dale Hawerchuk). However, in two of those campaigns with the Jets, he posted the best single-season point totals of his career.
The Hall of Fame defender’s best season in Winnipeg was in 1992-93, in which he notched career highs in points (97) and assists (79, including a team-best 50 on the power play) along with 18 goals. That season followed two consecutive 23-goal campaigns for the Jets in which he recorded 162 points.
Dave Ellett (Cleveland, Ohio) — D, 475 games, 95 goals, 204 assists
Dave Christian (Warroad, MN) — RW, 230 games, 79 goals, 130 assists
Brian Mullen (New York, NY) — F, 372 games, 124 goals, 172 assists
Moe Mantha (Lakewood, Ohio) — D, 318 games, 31 goals, 125 assists
Ed Olczyk (Chicago, IL) — C, 214 games, 95 goals, 106 assists
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