Winnipeg Jets Have 4 Options for Second-Line Centre in 2024-25 – The Hockey Writers – Winnipeg Jets

Winnipeg Jets Have 4 Options for Second-Line Centre in 2024-25 – The Hockey Writers – Winnipeg Jets
Winnipeg Jets Have 4 Options for Second-Line Centre in 2024-25 – The Hockey Writers – Winnipeg Jets

With the Winnipeg Jets losing Sean Monahan to the Columbus Blue Jackets in free agency, they have a large hole at the second-line center position to fill for next season.

General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff tinkered alone with a frenetic Free Agent Frenzy Day that saw more than $1 billion in contracts handed out across the league. He was also reportedly interested in centers Chandler Stephenson and Adam Henrique , but was unable to land either — the former signed a massive deal with the Seattle Kraken and the latter re-signed with the Edmonton Oilers. The longtime Jets GM has made nothing but depth signings since then, so the role will have to be filled internally.

Monahan won’t be easy to replace, as he fit seamlessly into the middle when he was acquired from the Montreal Canadiens, scoring 13 goals and 11 assists for 24 points in 34 games while winning 54.7 percent of his faceoffs. However, replacing him will require new head coach Scott Arniel and co., so we’ll take a look at the likely candidates.

Cole Perfecti

Cole Perfetti was drafted as a center and the organization still projects that he will be used as a center one day. However, he has not played much as a center yet, with just 115 draws in 140 games.

The 10th overall pick in 2020 has played primarily at right wing for the first three seasons of his career, which carries less defensive responsibility than center. He was good there, especially in the first half of last season when he was a fixture on the second line, posting 29 points (12 goals, 17 assists) in 41 games before entering a prolonged slump that saw his role diminish. But top prospects eventually need a chance to “cook,” and this could be his chance to prove he can handle the increased heat.

Cole Perfetti (center) celebrates a goal with teammates from last season. (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

Despite being cut a few times last season, Perfetti still had the best campaign of his young career, with 38 points (19 goals, 19 assists) in 71 games. He is great at completing dangerous passes that lead to primary assists, creating offensive opportunities when in the offensive zone and posting above-average defensive numbers.

Perfetti’s 5-foot-11, 177-pound size was always going to be a negative for him, rightly or wrongly. Another positive development from 2023-24, though, was that he stayed healthy all season for the first time and appeared better able to protect himself from hard contact and avoid putting himself in positions where he could get crunched. Centers don’t have to be big to succeed — Joe Sakic is Perfetti’s size, and neither was the late Jets’ 1.0 legend Dale Hawerchuk, who changed the entire face of the franchise when he arrived at center in 1981.

Arniel described young players as “essential” during his introductory press conference, and giving Perfetti the chance to play where he can have the biggest impact would lend more credibility to the new coach’s words.

Brad Lambert

Brad Lambert’s stellar season with the Manitoba Moose has also put him in the spotlight for work at the next level.

Moose head coach Mark Morrison and co. gave the 2022 30th-overall pick a top-six, top-of-the-line power-play opportunity last season, and the young Finn took advantage, scoring 21 goals and 34 assists for 55 points in 64 games. He earned a well-deserved call-up to the Jets for the final game of the regular season, and he recorded an assist in his NHL debut against the Vancouver Canucks.

2023-24 was effectively Lambert’s second season in the AHL, and the growth from his rookie tenure was clearly visible. In 14 games in 2022-23, he struggled at times to adapt to the tougher competition and North American ice, recording just two goals, one assist and a -9 rating.

Lambert was eventually sent to the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League after playing for Finland at the 2023 World Juniors and dominated the WHL, scoring 17 goals and 21 assists for 38 points in 26 games and scoring six goals and 20 assists for 26 points in 17 playoff games. A key was that Thunderbirds head coach Matt O’Dette moved Lambert back to his natural position: center.

He’s been a center ever since and while you can’t assign a top-six role to someone who’s only played one NHL game, Lambert should be an impactful NHL player sooner rather than later and at least get the chance to showcase his skills during training camp and the six-game pre-season.

Lambert attended and participated in the Jets’ recent summer development camp — which he didn’t have to — and that speaks volumes about his character and dedication to development. “He’s come in with a little bit of bravado and is acting like a leader within this group,” Morrison said at the development camp.

Gabriel Vilardi

Vilardi is another player who can play center, but he hasn’t done much with the Jets yet.

In his first season in Winnipeg, Vilardi was deployed in a top-six right wing role with a rotating cast of linemates, recording 22 goals and 14 assists for 36 points in 47 games. He took just 59 faceoffs, winning 45.8 percent of them.

Vilardi played much more center, in a bottom-six role, earlier in his career with the Los Angeles Kings. In 2020-21, as a 21-year-old, he took more than 600 faceoffs, winning 45.9 percent of them. He played much less center with the Kings in the following two seasons, when he was moved to the wing and eventually traded to the Jets in June 2023 for Pierre-Luc Dubois.

A net-front wizard, Vilardi has a skillset that Winnipeg hasn’t seen in a long time, if ever. He doesn’t produce much on the rush, as nearly all of his goals last season came from within a foot of the net and were powered by his uncanny awareness and stick-handling skills. He was especially hot in December when he was on the first line with Mark Scheifele and Nikolaj Ehlers.

Related: Winnipeg Jets’ Top 5 Goalies of 2023-24

The way he generates offense would make him an unorthodox, but potentially compelling, candidate for the role. Arniel would have to make sure Vilardi’s north/south play-driving game is good enough to get the most out of his high-flying linemates (it’s worth noting that Vilardi posted strong CORSI and Fenwick possession stats of 55-plus percent last season.) Arniel would also have to make sure he doesn’t hinder someone on the cusp of stardom by putting him in a role he can’t handle.

Vilardi’s durability is also a concern. He has struggled with injuries throughout his career and last season was no exception, as he missed 35 games due to four different injuries or illnesses.

Vladislav Namestnikov

This would be a safer, temporary solution to allow the three younger boys to develop for another season.

Namestnikov, a 31-year-old veteran with more than 700 career games, has proven to be a versatile forward who can jump between the bottom six and top six when needed without missing a beat. He’s stepped into the Jets’ second-line center role before, including in the latter stages of 2022-23 after being acquired from the Tampa Bay Lightning — playing between Ehlers and Blake Wheeler — and at times last season when injuries occurred or when now-retired head coach Rick Bowness shuffled his lines to find a spark.

Vladislav Namestnikov, Winnipeg Jets (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Namestnikov is best deployed as a bottom-six player, known for his aggressive forechecking, strong skating, and ability to make the players around him better. He would be far from the most offensively talented second-line center in the league; he had 37 points last season (11 goals and 26 assists in 78 games), which was the second-most of his career. That was with 14:08 of average ice time, though, so if he could get closer to the 17:34 average Monahan had with the Jets and play with a bit more offensive talent, he could flirt with the 50-point mark.

Namestnikov also has some downsides in this role. He’s in the final year of his contract and may not return, so it would make more sense to give the role to one of the three younger guys and let them work through the growing pains for the long-term good rather than sitting them out for a season. His career faceoff percentage of 42.11 percent is also a concern.