7 centres Jets could pursue to fill opening on second line

Watch as Paul Stastny makes a quick deke then rips a goal by Cam Talbot.

WINNIPEG — The internal candidates have been debated and discussed, but what if the Winnipeg Jets decide to look outside the organization to fill the need at second-line centre?

With roughly three weeks to go before free agency opens and a trickle of trades already being made, you can be sure the Jets plan to be active in exploring both markets as general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff looks to improve his roster.

Whether the Jets end up window shopping and banking on their own guys — a group that includes Andrew Copp, Blake Wheeler or even Jack Roslovic — there will also be an area of tire kicking that occurs.

Just last week, a Central Division rival made a deal to improve its depth down the middle, as the Minnesota Wild swung a deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins for Nick Bjugstad.

It’s a low-risk deal for Wild GM Bill Guerin, who sacrificed only a conditional seventh-round pick for a player who starred for the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers, was a first-round pick in 2010 (chosen 19th overall by the Florida Panthers) and has accumulated 97 goals (including a career-high 24 in 2014-15) and 207 points in 437 NHL games.

Sure, his production dipped dramatically during the past two seasons but some of that was related to injuries. No matter how things turn out, the Wild are getting a pivot with size and skill at a minimal cost. The Penguins needed some salary cap relief and even though they’re retaining some of Bjugstad’s salary, every dollar is going to count for them.

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The Jets are one of the few NHL teams that enter the off-season frenzy with cap space and it won’t be long before we see how Cheveldayoff plans to use it.

Since the franchise relocated to Winnipeg in 2011, the Jets looked to upgrade their depth at centre on two occasions.

Back in 2012, Olli Jokinen was inked to a two-year deal worth $9 million to slot in behind Bryan Little.

Although Jokinen wasn’t quite as productive as expected (25 goals and 57 points in 127 games), his arrival on the scene ensured the Jets didn’t have to rush Mark Scheifele to the NHL.

Plus, Jokinen was able to serve as a mentor for Scheifele when he did make the team to stay during the 2013-14 season.

Then in 2014, the Jets were able to land Mathieu Perreault on a three-year deal for $9 million after the Anaheim Ducks chose not to provide him with a qualifying offer.

Perreault was a third-line centre at the time, but the Ducks were in a cap crunch and didn’t want to risk going to arbitration, so they let him walk.

It could be argued that Perreault has been one of the best free-agent signings the Jets have made under Cheveldayoff’s watch.

His time at centre ended up being limited — partially related to a back injury but also because Perreault proved to be more effective on the wing — but he’s produced 79 goals and 211 points in 399 games since joining the Jets.

Cheveldayoff hinted during his season-ending availability that there could be players like that available because of similar circumstances this off-season, but only time will tell who might fall into that category.

With all of that in mind, here’s a look at seven centre’s who could be on the Jets’ radar when it comes to exploring the marketplace for a second-line pivot:

Anthony Cirelli, Tampa Bay Lightning

Age: 23
Height: Six-foot
Weight: 193 pounds
2019-20 stats: 63 GP, 16 G, 28 A, 44 P, 113 SOG, 18:28 TOI
Career NHL totals: 168 GP, 40 G, 54 A, 94 P, 262 SOG, 16:08 TOI
Contract status: Pending RFA ($935,833 AAV last season in final year of entry-level deal)
The skinny: We’ve spent a lot of time discussing the prospect of Cheveldayoff swinging for the fences and the pursuit of Cirelli would certainly qualify — especially if it came in the form of an offer sheet. The Lightning are going to be in a salary cap bind, with new deals required for Cirelli, Mikhail Sergachev and Barclay Goodrow, among others. With Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos occupying the top two spots on the depth chart, Cirelli is a bit of a luxury item as the third-line centre. He’s an excellent two-way player who is already on the radar for the Selke Trophy and has been used at times with Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat when Point has dealt with an injury.

Unless Cirelli chooses to take a below-market bridge deal with the Lightning, he would be the type of player many GMs could view as an offer sheet target. Of course, offer sheets have been a rarity but these are different times, so everything is on the table. For the sake of context, prior to Sebastian Aho signing one with the Montreal Canadiens last summer, the last one before that was given to Ryan O’Reilly, then of the Colorado Avalanche, by the Calgary Flames in 2013. The last successful offer sheet occurred in 2007 when the Edmonton Oilers signed Dustin Penner to a five-year deal worth $21.5 million and the Anaheim Ducks chose not to match.

If an offer sheet isn’t the road Cheveldayoff is interested in going down, given the number of picks the organization would have to give up, the Jets could also pursue a trade for Cirelli.

Tyler Johnson, Tampa Bay Lightning

Age: 30
Height: Five-foot-eight
Weight: 183 pounds
2019-20 totals: 65 GP, 14 G, 17 A, 31 P, 113 SOG, 14:33 TOI
Career NHL totals: 534 GP, 153 G, 186 A, 339 P, 1,154 SOG, 16:59 GOI
Contract status: $5 million AAV through 2023-24
The skinny: Should Lightning GM Julien BriseBois choose to commit to Cirelli (which would surprise no one), he’s probably going to have to move one of his versatile guys and Johnson could be a candidate — though he has a full no-movement clause this summer and would have to sign off on any trade.

What he could be on the Jets is a skilled forward with excellent vision who can also generate shots for himself. Johnson would complement the likes of Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers or whoever he was used with. He can play all three forward positions and plays a tenacious game even though he’s not big in stature. His ice time and production was down this season, so perhaps he would welcome a chance to play top-six minutes again. Johnson would also bring cost certainty as he’s under contract for $5 million for the next four seasons.

Phillip Danault, Montreal Canadiens

Age: 27
Height: Six-foot-one
Weight: 185 pounds
2019-20 totals: 71 GP, 13 G, 34 A, 47 P, 131 SOG, 18:51 TOI
Career NHL totals: 339 GP, 50 G, 125 A, 175 P, 564 SOG, 16:29 GOI
Contract status: $3.08 million through 2020-21, then a pending UFA
The skinny: There’s plenty of intrigue surrounding the Canadiens and what they might do this summer. GM Marc Bergevin is armed with plenty of draft picks and the team is feeling good about its showing in the qualifier against the Penguins and playoff round against the Philadelphia Flyers. But with the emergence of Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Danault could find himself in a third-line, checking role and that’s something he isn’t interested in — not after anchoring the top line for much of the past two-plus seasons.

Danault isn’t a big point producer (his career-highs are 13 goals and 53 points), but he’s a play driver and makes his linemates better while also contributing as a responsible defensive player. What’s the cost of acquisition and what will Danault’s next contract look like? Those are the only two impediments for the Jets right now. But given his age and skill set, Danault is worth pursuing — as long as the deal comes with a window to get an extension taken care of.

Erik Haula, Florida Panthers

Age: 29
Height: Six-foot
Weight: 193 pounds
2019-20 totals: 48 GP, 12 G, 12 A, 24 P, 92 SOG, 15:50 TOI
Career NHL totals: 405 GP, 85 G, 90 A, 175 P, 674 SOG, 13:54 TOI
Contract status: Pending UFA ($2.75 AAV last season)
The skinny: The Jets are familiar with the speedy Finnish forward from his time in the Central Division with the Wild and also with the Golden Knights. Though he’s known more for his checking ability, he has some offensive upside — as shown by the career-high 29 goals and 55 points he produced for Vegas during the 2017-18 campaign. He would provide a big boost to the penalty kill and has the ability to be effective while playing up and down the lineup. Could be a cost-conscious move that allows the Jets to use a bit more money to bolster the defence corps.

Nolan Patrick, Philadelphia Flyers

Age: 21 (22 on Sept. 19)
Height: Six-foot-two
Weight: 198 pounds
2019-20 totals: Did not play
Career NHL totals: 145 GP, 26 G, 35 A, 61 P, 242 SOG, 14:24 TOI
Contract status: Restricted free agent ($925,000 cap hit and $3.575 AAV with bonuses last season)
The skinny: The Winnipegger and former Brandon Wheat Kings standout sat out the entire season with a migraine disorder and he’s also dealt with concussions in his young career. Things have not gone smoothly for the second overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, but when healthy, he has the ability to be a key contributor.

He could certainly be rejuvenated by the opportunity to skate alongside two of the talented wingers on the Jets, in his hometown no less. The Flyers have Sean Couturier and Kevin Hayes occupying the top two centre spots, so maybe a change of scenery would benefit both parties. Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher didn’t draft Patrick and he would be familiar with the Jets roster from his time with the Wild. So, perhaps there’s a deal to be made.

Paul Stastny, Vegas Golden Knights

Age: 34 (35 on Dec. 27)
Height: Six-foot
Weight: 193 pounds
2019-20 totals: 71 GP, 17 G, 21 A, 38 P, 136 SOG, 17:08 TOI
Career NHL totals: 945 GP, 250 G, 476 A, 726 P, 2,004 SOG, 19:04 TOI
Contract status: $6.5 million AAV through 2020-21, then pending UFA
The skinny: Speaking of cap crunches, the Golden Knights figure to have one of their own, especially if Robin Lehner sticks around. And with top prospect Cody Glass likely ready for the second-line centre role, it might be tough for Vegas to have Stastny on the third unit.

Should a deal be worked out with the Jets, Stastny could either be reunited with Laine and Ehlers or used with captain Blake Wheeler, as the two played together in Germany during the lockout in 2013. Stastny has a modified no-trade clause, but he’s agreed to be traded to the Jets once and perhaps he would do it one more time. The Jets haven’t been able to fully replace Stastny since his departure after the 2018 deadline deal, so this could be worth a shot. Stastny’s familiar with the system, the coaching staff and many of the players and is determined to capture a Stanley Cup. He’s up to 96 games of playoff experience (25 goals, eight game-winners and 66 points), which would be welcome for a group looking to regroup after two early exits since he left for Vegas.

Derick Brassard, New York Islanders

Age: 32
Height: Six-foot-one
Weight: 202 pounds
2019-20 totals: 66 GP, 10 G, 22 A, 32 P, 110 SOG, 13:42 TOI
Career NHL totals: 852 GP, 186 G, 297 A, 483 P, 1,714 SOG, 16:10 TOI
Contract status: Pending UFA ($1.2 million AAV last season)
The skinny: Brassard was actually the initial target for the Jets at the 2018 NHL trade deadline before Stastny became available and was acquired. That year Brassard went to the Penguins instead, with the Golden Knights providing a bit of salary-cap relief while also getting Ryan Reaves in the deal.

Brassard has been used in more of a complementary role since that time, but still possesses the vision and skill set to be considered — even if his production has dropped along with his ice time. Chemistry can do wonders for production and even if it doesn’t work out in a top-six role, Brassard has shown he can chip in for Barry Trotz’s Islanders in a checking role. A one-year deal would be worth investigating.

The sixth overall selection in the 2006 NHL Draft is also known for having big games when it matters most, delivering 25 goals (including five game-winners) and 68 points in 116 career playoff games while going to the conference final four times and the Stanley Cup Final once — so far.

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