WINNIPEG - The roster freeze is in effect, the protected lists are official and speculation is running rampant over who the Winnipeg Jets could actually lose in the Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft on Wednesday night.
While most of the decisions were pretty straightforward for Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, the final one on defence has generated a heated reaction from a vocal portion of the fan base.
No, this choice isn’t generating the type of headlines seen in other markets, where a franchise goalie like Carey Price was asked to move his no-trade clause or a captain like Mark Giordano was also exposed.
But the move to protect defenceman Logan Stanley instead of Dylan DeMelo is a divisive issue at this stage of the game.
There are a lot of relevant factors in this debate, including asset management, sunk cost and future projections, to name a few.
In protecting Stanley, the Jets are banking on further development from the 2016 first-rounder.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) July 18, 2021
While it’s true the six-foot-seven, 231-pound blue-liner only has 37 NHL games (plus eight in the Stanley Cup Playoffs) on his resume and that he was used in sheltered minutes last season, that’s not uncommon for an NHL rookie.
Some folks see Stanley’s age (23) and believe he’s already hit or quickly approaching his ceiling as a third-pairing guy, but he was a longer-range project and the Jets believe he’s merely scratching the surface. The Jets have invested heavily in Stanley’s development over the past five years and they weren’t willing to risk losing him.
As for DeMelo, he made a commitment to the Jets last October, choosing to forego his first crack at unrestricted free agency to put down some roots and find some stability after being traded twice in a three-year period.
For a franchise that hasn’t won a lot of bidding wars in free agency since returning to the NHL in 2011, exposing DeMelo wouldn’t have been an easy decision and it could come with its own set of consequences.
It’s important to remember that leaving DeMelo unprotected isn’t an assurance he will be chosen by the Kraken, though it’s easy to see why there would be interest in the services of a right-handed shooting defenceman who is under contract for three more seasons at very reasonable AAV.
DeMelo’s value stretches well beyond the traditional point totals and statistics and his work as both a defender and puck-mover is something all teams are (and should be) looking for.
The Jets went into the off-season with a clear priority of needing to upgrade the defence, so there is certainly a substantial risk attached to exposing one of the top two right-side options (with Neal Pionk) on the roster.
Potentially losing DeMelo would be a significant blow, especially when you consider the organizational depth is much stronger on the left side — even if some of those prospects were used on their off-side during the course of last season.
However, DeMelo isn’t the only player that will appeal to the Kraken and it’s also possible a side deal will be worked out between Cheveldayoff and Ron Francis to ensure he isn’t lost.
The cost to secure such a deal is believed to be high, so the anticipation will simply build for a few more days before the unveiling of the Kraken roster occurs on Wednesday night.
Defenceman Sami Niku could be an obvious sweetener, since he’s under contract for $775,000 for one more season and will be a restricted free agent after that, but he would only be part of a prospective package.
For a team that believes in its core group and expects the window of contention to once again be widening after winning only one playoff round since a run to the Western Conference final in 2018, navigating this expansion draft is an integral part of roster construction for the 2021-22 season.
Should the Jets lose DeMelo and not adequately replace him, Cheveldayoff will certainly leave himself open to criticism.
Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Adam Lowry, Andrew Copp (RFA)
Josh Morrissey, Neal Pionk (RFA), Logan Stanley (RFA)
Possible Seattle targets
RW Mason Appleton
The 25-year-old is coming off his best season as a pro (12 goals, 25 points in 56 games) and his ability to blossom in a middle-six role and contribute on special teams (especially on the penalty kill) only widens his appeal.
Appleton is under contract for $900,000 next season and will be a restricted free agent in the summer of 2022, so having cost-certainty and team control for multiple seasons in this flat cap world would have plenty of appeal for the Kraken — whose GM has already publicly proclaimed how much his team values the flexibility that comes with having salary cap space.
The only reason he’s available is due to the Jets’ forward depth and they have internal options ready to try and fill his shoes if he is selected.
G Mikhail Berdin
There are plenty of suitable choices available for Seattle to start building goalie depth, but if the organization is looking for a developmental option to be the No. 3 guy or the No. 1 at the AHL level, Berdin could check both of those boxes. He’s under contract for the next two seasons (the second year of the deal is a one-way contract worth $750,000), but he’s exempt from waivers and could benefit from one more year as a minor-league starter before he pushes for NHL backup work.
The only reason Berdin is exposed is because the Jets already employ one of the best goalies in the NHL in Connor Hellebuyck and he’s under contract for three more seasons before he can become an unrestricted free agent.
F Jansen Harkins
Going into last season, the versatile forward was close to the top of many prospective mock expansion draft lists and for good reason.
Harkins, a second-round pick (47th overall) in the 2015 NHL Draft, had worked hard to graduate to the NHL level through the AHL and seemed to establish himself as a full-time NHLer, bouncing up and down the lineup and even contributing a goal in the qualifying round series with the Calgary Flames.
But Harkins had trouble getting into the lineup last season and was limited to a goal and two points in 26 games while being used primarily in a fourth-line role. He’s a candidate for a bounceback season, whether trying to fill the shoes of someone like Appleton with the Jets or perhaps as a member of the NHLs newest team.
Salary Cap Outlook
The Jets have several pending unrestricted free agents (forward Paul Stastny and backup goalie Laurent Brossoit would top the list) that would be under consideration to return after the expansion draft process is complete, though those decisions would not really be impacted if it’s DeMelo ($3 million) or Appleton ($900,000) chosen by Seattle.
The Jets' top priority remains upgrading the defence corps and there should be money available to do so via trade or free agency — though a significant chunk of that available pie is expected to go to new deals for restricted free agents Andrew Copp and Neal Pionk.