WINNIPEG - In this summer of bold moves, Kevin Cheveldayoff has already made his mark.
One day after bringing back veteran forward Paul Stastny on a one-year deal and acquiring defenceman Brenden Dillon in a trade, the Winnipeg Jets added another blue-liner, shipping a third round pick in the 2022 NHL Draft to the Vancouver Canucks to acquire Nate Schmidt on Tuesday night.
Schmidt had been a target of the Jets in the past, but they were previously one of the teams on his 10-team no-trade clause.
Interestingly enough, Schmidt joins Stastny — his former Vegas Golden Knights teammate — in waiving his no-trade clause to join the Jets.
The Jets were looking for a significant upgrade of the defence corps this off-season and that’s exactly what they’ve accomplished, adding a pair of experienced top-four blue-liners with term on their respective contracts.
Schmidt, who turned 30 earlier this month, has four years left on a deal that carries an average annual value of $5.95 million while Dillon’s commitment is for three more seasons at $3.9 million.
The Minnesota product is a high-character player and a minute-muncher who is known for his positive, energetic nature.
Undrafted out of college, Schmidt has carved out a solid career for himself as a reliable two-way blue-liner. He’s mobile, tough to play against and has ample playoff experience. Known more for his defensive acumen, Schmidt has eclipsed 30 points three times and had five goals and 15 points in 54 games with the Canucks last season.
When it comes to the projected defence pairings, it’s clear Jets head coach Paul Maurice is going to have a number of options at his disposal.
Schmidt shoots left-handed but actually prefers to play on the right side, so he’s likely going to be used alongside either Josh Morrissey or Dillon (if Morrissey ends up with pending RFA Neal Pionk or Dylan DeMelo.
One thing to consider is that the addition of the veterans means that there is basically only one spot available on the third pairing for a group that includes Logan Stanley, 2019 first-rounder Ville Heinola and 2017 second-rounder Dylan Samberg.
Stanley was protected by the Jets in the Seattle Kraken expansion draft, so he has the inside track on the job as it stands right now — though he’s obviously facing competition for those minutes.
Heinola and/or Samberg could start next season in the American Hockey League with the Manitoba Moose, depending on how things play out.
Dillon was a salary-cap casualty for the Capitals, who needed to make room for the five-year contract Alex Ovechkin agreed to on Monday.
There was plenty of chatter about how Cheveldayoff would handle this off-season and it’s clear he’s made a serious statement to the core group of players that had already committed to the organization.
Since the current contracts of Jets captain Blake Wheeler, top-line centre Mark Scheifele and goalie Connor Hellebuyck all expire at the end of the 2023-24 season, the urgency to widen the window of contention is palpable.
Winning only one round since advancing to the Western Conference final in 2018 simply wasn’t good enough and the Jets have reacted accordingly.
The cost for the Jets is two-fold: they were willing to move some future draft capital - a second-rounder in 2022, a second-rounder in 2023 and a third-rounder in 2022 (they still own thee Columbus Blue Jackets third in 2022 from the Patrik Laine blockbuster) and take on significant salary and term at a time when salary cap space is at a premium.
Staring at a flat cap (or close to it for the foreseeable future), the Jets sacrificed some of the future for a shot at trying to win now.
You can be sure these moves will resonate with Jets players.
“Every year the ceiling’s obviously to win a Stanley Cup,” Stastny said before the deal for Schmidt was made. “I’ve said it before, that everyone thinks they’re one or two pieces away but when you have a goalie like (Hellebuyck) and you have the offensive firepower and some of the dynamic defencemen, you’re right there. There’s no perfect situation, no perfect team, and I think it just shows that’s the NHL these days. There’s probably 22 or 23 teams that think they’re going to win the Cup every year at the start of the year, maybe more, but that’s what makes it fun, that’s what makes it competitive, that’s what makes every game so impactful.
“You see the drive and the hunger through the guys and I think that makes a big difference, too. You look at teams on paper and you don’t really know the identity or the character of those players but then when you’re around these guys, you realize how bad they want to win. They were there a couple of years ago and they might have taken a step back because they had so many losses on the back end just through unfortunate, unseen events, but what happened last year, to kind of get a taste of what the potential could be and you want to keep building on that.”
Dillon, 30, had a similar message to reporters as he spoke with them for the first time since his trade became official.
“I’m going to a team that wants to win, thinks we can win, believes that we’re going to be right there and that’s exciting going into a season with those being the expectations,” said Dillon, who advanced to the Stanley Cup Final in 2016 as a member of the San Jose Sharks and has 75 playoff games on his resume.
Cheveldayoff explained last week the Jets were committed to improving and he’s backed up that statement with actions.
As free agency opens on Wednesday morning, the Jets will be looking to perhaps add a depth forward. Otherwise, the next order of business revolves around getting new deals for pending RFAs Andrew Copp, Pionk and Stanley taken care of.
The money available to the Jets is dwindling (just under $4.55 million with 21 of 23 roster spots spoken for) after this flurry of activity, but with centre Bryan Little expected to be heading to LTIR again next season, there is a bit of wiggle room (up to an additional $5.291 million) to take care of the other business.
In the meantime, Cheveldayoff has already crossed off a couple of pressing items on his to-do list — including the most important one.
As it stands right now, the Jets defence corps appears to have gone from a weakness to a potential strength in a span of fewer than 24 hours.