Why Jets should look for internal solution to second-line centre hole

Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler. (Paul Sancya/AP)

WINNIPEG — Sometimes the solution can be found right before your very eyes — you just have to look a little harder or fine-tune your focus.

With the Winnipeg Jets officially in off-season mode and the buzz about filling holes nearing a fever pitch, there will be no shortage of suggestions for how general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff should proceed.

That comes with the territory in passionate hockey markets.

Water-cooler talk might be taking on a different form during this pandemic, but the chatter remains and the decibel level is sure to be on the rise during the coming weeks.

The two glaring areas of improvement for the Jets are easy to identify, even if filling the holes at second-line centre and defence remain at the top of the to-do list for Cheveldayoff and company.

As a new week got underway, speculation on talk radio was running rampant that the Jets could consider moving one of their talented wingers — Patrik Laine or Nikolaj Ehlers — as a way to tackle the problem.

My response to the suggestion is a simple one: don’t do it.

Not now — and probably not ever.

At least not until this next four-year window has closed or is nearing.

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Yes, this off-season figures to be one where creativity is required and bold moves could be in abundance. Such is life in a world where a flat salary cap is about to impact a number of teams on a variety of levels. But when it comes to the short-term future of the Jets, trading one of their high-end scoring wingers is not necessary.

Of course, in order to acquire the type of quality player all teams are looking for, shipping out a talented player would be required.

Fair and valid point.

It’s true the Jets do have more depth on the wing than they do down the middle right now.

That’s a fact you can’t dispute.

But moving someone who has racked up 138 goals in 305 NHL games is a recipe for disaster.

Laine, the second-overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, is coming off his best season as a pro — even though he had 44 goals and 70 points as a sophomore.

Not by raw numbers, of course. But in terms of impact and growth in his overall game.

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Don’t put much stock in Laine’s goal total dipping to 28. He was easily on pace to hit 30 goals for a fourth consecutive season, despite recording only eight goals with the man-advantage. He was more effective at even strength and set a career-high for assists (with 35 in just 68 games). His ice time was up and so was his engagement level.

Laine was given more responsibility and showed he could not only handle it, but flourish.

About the only things missing were the prolonged dry spells of a season prior — and that’s a testament to the work Laine put in both on and off the ice.

Why in the world would the Jets invest four seasons in the player and get him to buy into the other parts of his game, only to ship him off to another organization as more of a finished product?

Same goes for Ehlers, who was on the verge of his first 30-goal season at the time of the pause and was one of the most dynamic players in the Jets lineup during the qualifying round against the Calgary Flames.

The lazy narrative that Ehlers was not the type of guy who could produce in a playoff scenario was quickly put to rest. After watching every one of his shifts on video during the off-season, he made the necessary adjustments and made a habit of going to the hard areas. The results were evident for all to see.

Both Ehlers and Laine are the type of guys that would leave other teams salivating, were they to be made available.

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Ehlers is under contract at $6 million for the next five seasons. At a time when every dollar counts, that’s what GMs call cost certainty.

Laine’s situation is a tad more complicated, with him going into the back end of his two-year deal that carries an AAV of $6.75 million after the Finnish sniper bet on himself rather than locked in on a long-term deal like Kyle Connor did last September.

Consistent 30-to-40 goal scorers get paid and with another strong season, Laine would be due for a raise.

How big a raise is yet to be determined, but the time has come for the Jets to put even more on the plate of Laine.

It’s time to promote him full-time to the job of first-line right-winger.

In doing so, the corresponding move could solve the riddle at second-line centre.

Never mind trading for Paul Stastny, Kevin Hayes, Cody Eakin or a reasonable facsimile, Jets captain Blake Wheeler proved this season that he can do the job effectively.

Sure, the idea was borne out of necessity when Bryan Little went down with a head injury. But Wheeler was on board with the decision at the time and as someone who is motivated to win a Stanley Cup after turning 34 on Monday, you can bet he could see the benefit of doing it again.

Give him the job again — and this time, give him a bit more time to prepare for it.

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This is not about demoting Wheeler, it’s about making a move that gives the Jets their best chance at being more successful.

Don’t worry about production either. After chipping in eight points in his first 16 games last season, Wheeler was back to being a point-per-game player — with the bulk of those coming when he was anchoring the second line.

Wheeler is conscientious in his own end and strong enough to handle the defensive part of the job. He’ll still be the facilitator on the power play and the offence is going to be there.

All teams take pride in being strong down the middle.

How would you feel about a grouping that includes Mark Scheifele, Wheeler, Adam Lowry and David Gustafsson to start next season?

There’s plenty of size in that group and plenty of skill as well, not to mention having Andrew Copp, Jack Roslovic and Jansen Harkins in reserve if you need them in case of injury.

This move would allow the Jets to focus the bulk of the off-season work in bolstering the defence corps and perhaps adding some size and skill on the wall.

Instead of moving a franchise pillar like Laine or Ehlers to fill a void but create another, a more prudent course of action is looking within at an option that many other teams wish they had at their disposal.


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