WINNIPEG — Before the trade market is fully explored and free agency shifts into gear, Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and his staff had another exercise to sort through.
Although this one is done in pencil, the Winnipeg Jets and the other NHL teams not named the Vegas Golden Knights have another event on the horizon that could have an impact on how the road to roster improvement proceeds.
With the NHL expansion draft for the Seattle Kraken expected to take place roughly one year from now, choices made this off-season must be taken into consideration with that in mind.
That’s not to suggest the event will prevent teams from loading up, either.
But with a flat salary cap and a global pandemic already at the forefront and threatening to make its presence felt on some budgets, this simply adds another layer of intrigue to the process.
For example, it’s more unlikely a team like the Jets would go out and add a pair of defencemen with term if they can only protect one of those guys.
To review, the Jets will be able to protect seven forwards, three defencemen and a goalie – or if they prefer, eight skaters and a goalie.
A group of young players (those with two seasons of experience or less) are exempt, which helps the Jets when it comes to guys like Ville Heinola, Dylan Samberg, David Gustafsson and even 2017 first-rounder Kristian Vesalainen.
Last time around, the Golden Knights were able to leverage many teams into making decisions they would eventually regret.
Many side deals ended up benefiting the Golden Knights greatly, like the one with the Anaheim Ducks for future Norris Trophy candidate Shea Theodore and the one with the Florida Panthers that landed them Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault, who made immediate contributions as top-six forwards and are still doing so.
The Jets were not immune from the side deal, which was required after veteran D-man Toby Enstrom was willing to waive his no-movement clause, so Winnipeg was able to utilize the 7-3-1 format instead of the 8-and-1.
In the short term, that decision was beneficial for the Jets — but not without consequence.
As part of the deal to prevent the Golden Knights from selecting Enstrom and chose pending unrestricted free agent Chris Thorburn instead, the Jets moved down 11 spots in the first round (from 13 to 24) and also gave up a third-round pick in 2019.
Vegas didn’t sign Thorburn, but used the 13th overall pick to select centre Nick Suzuki.
There’s no guarantee the Jets would have chosen Suzuki, but at a time when the franchise is still searching for a second-line centre, it’s impossible to ignore the possibility that the Montreal Canadiens pivot could’ve filled that void.
This exercise isn’t about hindsight, though. It’s about projection and trying to sort out any potential challenges the Jets could face this time.
With that in mind, let’s get the easy stuff out of the way: remember, the Jets’ roster could look decidedly different next month after what figures to be a fast and furious edition of free agency.
Jets captain Blake Wheeler is the only player on the active roster with a full no-movement clause and it’s a safe bet he won’t be asked to waive it.
The goalie position is easiest to take care of, where Vezina Trophy front-runner Connor Hellebuyck is the only answer here, no matter what happens with the backup position.
In terms of satisfying the rules for players to expose, both Eric Comrie and Mikhail Berdin fit the bill and will be restricted free agents at the end of next season.
On the blue line, the first two spots belong to Josh Morrissey, who is set to start the first year of the eight-year extension he signed last September, and Neal Pionk, who is set to wrap up his two-year bridge deal before becoming a restricted free agent in 2021.
The third spot is currently a mystery, though it won’t likely be for long, as upgrading the back end is at the top of the list of priorities for Cheveldayoff.
Keeping pending UFA and trade-deadline acquisition Dylan DeMelo is a priority for the Jets and he could easily be the guy behind Door No. 3.
Whether or not the Jets can land a big fish like St. Louis Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo or sign someone like Manitoba product Travis Hamonic remains to be seen.
What you can safely expect is that someone of that nature — whether acquired via free agency or a trade — will fill it.
For the time being, pencil in Sami Niku, who is a candidate to either become an NHL regular or to be traded this summer, as he won’t be exempt from waivers next season.
Tucker Poolman is an unrestricted free agent next summer, and while he’s a candidate to remain in the organization with an extension, it would be a surprise if he’s on the protected list.
Up front is where things get really interesting for the Jets.
The first spot was already taken by Wheeler and the next four are locks, barring something unforeseen.
The sixth forward spot should belong to Andrew Copp, who’s seeing a growing role and figures to take another step forward in the coming year.
Copp is going to be a restricted free agent next summer. He’s a valuable and versatile player and is a guy the Jets are going to try to lock up in his next deal.
But he’s going to be a year away from unrestricted free agency, so that could make for an interesting negotiation.
If the two sides don’t see the potential for a longer-term deal, that could complicate matters. But it’s difficult to imagine the Jets allowing Copp to simply be chosen in the expansion draft and get nothing in return.
So that leaves one available forward spot and several players who would be qualified to secure it.
At the top of that list and most likely to occupy it is 2015 first-rounder Jack Roslovic, who is coming off his best statistical season, as he bounced mostly between the second and third lines.
He’s the most likely choice here, at least for the time being.
Two other issues figure to be on the front burner when it comes to this list. The first pertains to the future of Adam Lowry.
Lowry has one more season left on a deal that carries an average annual value of $2.91 million.
He’s technically the third-line centre, but carries second-line responsibilities at even strength and is a valued penalty killer that brings size and physical play down the middle.
Although his production has dipped since recording 15 goals and 29 points in his third NHL season, his intangibles are off the charts and he’s a favourite of Jets head coach Paul Maurice.
The Jets want Lowry to be part of the future, but how they handle this contract negotiation figures to be fascinating.
Under normal circumstances, Lowry would be locked up this summer to an extension — even if that means exposing or moving someone like Roslovic.
But there’s nothing normal about things right now.
Can the Jets afford to wait things out, allowing Lowry to play out his contract, leave him exposed as a pending unrestricted free agent and then sign him in the summer/fall of 2021?
That seems like an incredibly risky proposition to me, especially since Seattle can afford to pay a premium for a guy like Lowry who could immediately be part of the leadership group of the expansion franchise.
Ultimately it’s Lowry who will decide how important unrestricted free agency is to him, by either committing to the Jets for the long term or not.
While a flat cap figures to cut into the middle class, Lowry is the type of player every general manager wants to have in the lineup.
He’s tough to play against and has the potential to put up points in the right situation as well.
The Jets won’t protect him if they haven’t signed him. But if they are able to come to terms before the expansion draft, he’s a lock to be on the list.
Another storyline to monitor is the future of veteran forward Bryan Little, who hasn’t played since suffering a head injury in early November.
An emotional Little isn’t sure if he’s going to be able to play again.
He has given a lot of thought to the next step, but is determined not to rush to make a decision and is going to need some additional time before that decision becomes clear.
When healthy, Little has been an important player. But his contract (four more years at $5.3 million) makes it unlikely for him to be a target for Seattle, even if he’s back to full health.
That leaves a pair of forwards who the Jets would like to keep, but won’t likely be able to protect.
Mason Appleton had a strong season and his best hockey is yet to come. The same goes for Jansen Harkins, who has done enough to go from fringe prospect to NHL regular.
Both of those guys would be the type of high-character and versatile players that fit the profile of young up-and-comers who could check a lot of boxes for the Kraken.
Appleton was set to become captain of the Michigan State Spartans before turning pro prior to his junior season, and he’s got the potential to be a double-digit goal scorer — while also being a smart penalty killer that can provide some physical play.
Harkins is a student of the game and a diligent worker who forced his way onto the Jets’ radar last season and can be used at centre or on the wing.
No matter what, Jets are going to lose a contributor — that’s the way expansion drafts are designed to work.
But as it stands right now, the Jets shouldn’t be in any danger of being backed into a corner or being forced to make a decision they might eventually regret.
The Sportsnet version 1.0 of the Winnipeg Jets protected list for Seattle Kraken NHL expansion:
G Connor Hellebuyck
D Josh Morrissey
D Neal Pionk
D Sami Niku
F Blake Wheeler
F Mark Scheifele
F Kyle Connor
F Patrik Laine
F Nikolaj Ehlers
F Andrew Copp
F Jack Roslovic