WINNIPEG -- As it turns out, Kevin Cheveldayoff was able to straddle the line of being both a buyer and seller -- even if he didn’t end up swinging for the fences.
The general manager of the Winnipeg Jets did end up moving his most prized pending unrestricted free agent in Andrew Copp after waiting patiently for his price to be met, but he kept veteran Paul Stastny instead of moving him for future assets.
When the dust settled, this was not an example of throwing in the towel on the current season, which makes sense when you consider the Jets entered Monday’s action just four points behind the Vegas Golden Knights in the chase for the final wild card berth in the Western Conference.
“The message that I wanted to send is that I didn't want to leave holes in this lineup,” Cheveldayoff said after his final two deals became official. “It was important that we helped this organization become deeper from an asset standpoint.
“I had to make a business decision, that was a very, very difficult one. It is unfortunate because we didn't want to be in this situation. We are.”
Did the Jets provide a high-impact boost to the middle-six forward group that makes them substantially better?
It’s hard to make that argument, though the addition of Mason Appleton from the Seattle Kraken and rugged winger Zach Sanford from the Ottawa Senators could combine to help offset the loss of Copp, especially since both players can be used on the penalty kill and should provide some energy given their style of play.
Not being able to get an extension done with Copp last off-season may very well end up being something the Jets ultimately regret, considering he provided seven solid seasons, blossomed as a player, ended up being an important part of the leadership group and wanted to stick around.
For a variety of reasons, the timing just never seemed to line up for the two sides and with his first crack at unrestricted free agency just around the corner, you can expect that Copp will be looking for a raise and some longer-term security after signing a series of bridge deals.
Keeping Stastny in the fold also helps the Jets in the short term, considering he’s playing top-line minutes right now.
One of the most interesting things to come out of the 23-minute and change Cheveldayoff presser was that he had no intention of moving Stastny.
Sure, some teams called doing their due diligence, but Cheveldayoff was committed to having Stastny play out the season with the Jets.
Much like Copp, Stastny has the ability to play centre or wing and can be effective playing up and down the lineup and he’s also a respected voice in the room.
The Jets also traded the contract of veteran centre Bryan Little to the Arizona Coyotes, which allows them to get themselves out of LTIR jail for the next two seasons after this one.
"It helps my greying hair slow down quite a bit,” said Cheveldayoff, noting that Little had to waive his modified no-movement clause to sign off on the trade. “It gives us the flexibility, if you want to call it that, in the salary cap world where we don't have to plan to be an LTI team to that extent. You never know what is going to happen in the future but it gives you so many more things, the opportunity for your cap space to grow at the deadlines and the different things like that. You could go on and on. For us, it was something that was important and fell into our lap."
But in order to accomplish that goal, the Jets had to provide promising forward prospect Nathan Smith, who let it be known on the weekend through his adviser that he had no intention of signing with the organization.
Smith is having an outstanding season with the Minnesota State University-Mankato Mavericks and was recently named a top-10 finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as the top player in US men’s college hockey.
The Jets also moved depth defenceman Nathan Beaulieu (who is currently out with a lower-body injury and on LTIR) to the Pittsburgh Penguins for a conditional seventh-rounder.
The Jets also added some size up front in Morgan Barron from the New York Rangers in the deal for Copp and minor-league depth on the blue line in Markus Phillips from the Los Angeles Kings.
Barron, 23, played collegiately for three seasons with Cornell University Big Red of the NCAA and is known as a dependable two-way forward with size that can play either centre or wing.
He’s never been a prolific scorer, but he’s been close to a point per game player in the AHL over 46 games with the Hartford Wolf Pack over the past two seasons and has suited up in 18 NHL contests with the Rangers.
As for future assets, the Jets managed to recoup a number of draft picks for 2022 and 2023 -- including a pair of second-rounders, one of which can become a first if the Rangers win two rounds and Copp appears in 50 per cent of the games.
All to say the Jets didn’t punt on the current season and embrace a rebuild, which is not a surprise.
But they are up to seven picks in the 2022 NHL Draft after going into the day with five.
This was always going to be more of a retool-on-the-fly situation for the Jets.
Replacing Copp, given his positional versatility and dependability, was always going to be the toughest task for Cheveldayoff and it remains unclear if the Jets have been able to do that.
It was worth noting that Cheveldayoff believes Barron is close to becoming an NHL regular and has some Copp-like qualities in his tool box.
Appleton is a guy the Jets are familiar with and he plays a similar role, though he has yet to be as productive offensively as Copp.
Cheveldayoff said he tried to re-acquire Appleton on multiple occasions this season and was finally able to get the deal done on Sunday night.
Sanford was part of the 2019 Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues team and is known for being tough to play against. He’s also on the verge of his third consecutive season of hitting double digits in goals, so he should provide a boost to the secondary scoring department.
He’s expected to be part of a new-look third line with Adam Lowry and Appleton, one that is expected to have a distinct identity of being both tough to play against but also able to contribute offensively.
Would the Jets have been better off picking up Jake DeBrusk from the Boston Bruins, especially after he signed a two-year extension with a $4 million AAV earlier in the day?
Possibly, but the Bruins probably weren’t going to consider that deal without an assurance that Copp would commit to an extension himself.
So, the Jets do have an element of risk in the return from the Rangers and are counting on one or more of the draft picks or Barron to pan out for the deal to be deemed a true success.
This wasn’t ever going to be an all-in trade deadline for the Jets, especially given how they’ve underachieved to this point with a record of 29-24-10.
The playoffs remain a long shot, though by handling the trade deadline the way that Cheveldayoff did, the Jets could have an opportunity to stay in the hunt while also giving themselves a few additional lottery tickets.
Ultimately, Cheveldayoff gave his core group another vote of confidence and it’s time to see how they are going to respond during the stretch drive.
If things don’t go well over these final 19 games, the likelihood of further changes to the composition of the Jets roster -- especially with the core group -- becomes not only necessary, but mandatory.