WASAGAMING, Man. — When is the next shoe going to drop?
With the calendar officially passing the midway point of August and with training camp roughly one month away, the Winnipeg Jets still haven’t addressed the surplus on the defence corps, and they haven’t upgraded or augmented the forward group.
To this point, it’s been a quiet offseason for Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, and that has plenty of fans curious about the direction the organization is taking going into the 2022-23 season — and plenty of folks expressed some frustration about that strategy in their questions for the August edition of the mailbag.
A Calgary Flames team that was tops in the Pacific Division during the regular season, but was bounced in five games in the second round in the Battle of Alberta, has made significant changes to the core group. While several were out of necessity (with neither Johnny Gaudreau nor Matthew Tkachuk willing to commit to the franchise long-term) the boldness was noticed and appreciated by many — including fans of the Jets.
With Nazem Kadri finally off the board in free agency, the expectation is that a few dominoes should be set to drop around the league and the next tier of free agents — plus a few trades — could end up being made here during the coming weeks after one of the top remaining players available on the open market was signed.
What impact that has on the Jets remains to be seen, but my opinion remains the same as it did going into this offseason and no matter how much confidence Cheveldayoff and new head coach Rick Bowness have in this core group, something is still going to be done before the season gets going on Oct. 11 against the New York Rangers.
Onto your questions:
Is Paul Stastny coming back to the Jets and if not, why? — @Bobcatbobby88
Speaking of free agents, Stastny is one of those players who has been waiting patiently for Kadri to decide where he was going to go. Although the door is not officially closed as it pertains to a potential return to the Jets, it’s feeling more and more like the veteran forward is set to move on as he prepares for his 17th NHL season.
Stastny is coming off a season where he produced 21 goals (his highest total since producing 25 with the Colorado Avalanche during the 2013-14 season) and had 45 points in 71 games and it’s clear he can still be an effective player.
Stastny made it abundantly clear he was going to be patient heading into free agency for the first time since 2018 — when he left the Jets and signed a three-year pact with the Vegas Golden Knights after giving strong consideration to sticking around — but one would expect him to decide on his future sooner rather than later.
A reunion with the Avalanche makes a lot of sense and not just for circle of life reasons. He’s a conscientious two-way player and while he doesn’t play the up-tempo game the Avalanche are known for, Stastny’s smarts and versatility make him a fit on a short-term deal. What the AAV ends up being will be interesting, but Stastny wants to win and the expectation is that he’ll end up taking less than the $3.75 million he made with the Jets last season. The Avalanche are projected to have just under $4 million in cap space, so something in the $1.75 to $2 million range is still a possibility.
As for why Stastny may not be back with the Jets, it would have more to do with his pursuit of getting his name engraved on the Stanley Cup than anything else. Stastny was happy about coming back after the trade with the Golden Knights in the summer of 2020 and he re-upped with the Jets last offseason after suiting up in his 1,000th NHL game with the organization. Stastny was a productive player and was outspoken last season, but that wouldn’t be why he wouldn’t return. His candid nature was appreciated by his teammates and his leadership was valued so much that Cheveldayoff didn’t take calls on him at the trade deadline.
His pending departure will be felt, but Cole Perfetti is poised to take on a bigger role this season after returning to full health. However, if Stastny isn’t back the Jets should be in the market for another middle-six forward either in free agency or trade.
Where do you think the following Jets prospects will start the upcoming season? Ville Heinola? Chaz Lucius? Brad Lambert? — @mb_jfb
Although Heinola remains exempt from waivers, it’s hard for me to envision him starting the season anywhere other than with the Jets. Part of the reason Rick Bowness was brought in as head coach relates to his ability to integrate young blue-liners and it’s time for Heinola to be in the everyday lineup, provided he has a strong training camp. It’s important to remember Heinola is just 21 years old, but his vision and puck-moving ability are two qualities that should be on display in the NHL this season.
Lucius was unable to participate in the summer world juniors in Edmonton as he continues to recover from his ankle injury, but the expectation is that he’s ready to begin his pro hockey journey with the Manitoba Moose in the American Hockey League this fall. That’s the most likely destination for him and while his Western Hockey League rights are held by the Portland Winterhawks, it would be surprising if Lucius didn’t spend the majority of the campaign with the Moose.
As for Lambert, he’s had an interesting start to the world juniors while suiting up for Finland that includes some flashes of brilliance and a benching. He’s undergoing the process of repairing his confidence after a frustrating season in Liiga and the best bet is that he’ll be in the WHL suiting up for the Seattle Thunderbirds this fall after attending his first NHL training camp.
Hey Ken, not too much chatter about Chaz Lucius with most folks focused on newer prospects. With the Jets short on right-shot forwards, how likely is it that he gets an extended look with the big club or makes the team outright? — @Prim1tiv0
I don’t think Lucius is being overlooked by any means, but he’s missed so much time during the past several seasons because of injury that it’s hard to imagine him being ready to jump right into an NHL lineup.
I had the opportunity to watch him suit up for the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers in a game against the University of North Dakota last November and he stood out in a good way. He was around the puck a lot, showed great hockey instincts and is a natural goal scorer. But he missed out on the opportunity to play in meaningful games during the Golden Gophers' run to the NCAA Frozen Four.
And as someone who covered the AHL for a decade, no matter what he shows during his first NHL training camp, he’s going to require some additional seasoning to adapt to the pro game before he’s ready for NHL action. Being able to participate in the 2022 Young Stars Classic in Penticton, B.C., will also be a good experience for Lucius.
What are your predictions for the Jets this season? Playoffs? Standings? Central Division and Western Conference? — Gary O @Pegger60
Predictions in August — or even early October for that matter — often aren’t worth the paper (or virtual screens) that they’re printed on, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a fun exercise to look into the crystal ball, even when it’s cloudy. This is a topic that will require further exploration after training camp begins and some of the final free agent signings and trades are made around the league.
However, my initial thoughts are that the Jets currently look like a bubble team. What does that mean in terms of the standings in the Central Division? Well, the Chicago Blackhawks and Arizona Coyotes are both openly rebuilding so that will impact the standings. The Avalanche are the gold standard in both the Central and the Western Conference as the defending Stanley Cup champions, and the St. Louis Blues gave them a good push in the second round, so they remain one of the teams to beat. The Minnesota Wild had a disappointing playoffs after a strong regular season and will be intriguing to watch. The Dallas Stars made a coaching change but are banking on taking another step after Jake Oettinger’s stellar play in net and the big strides taken by forwards Roope Hintz and Jason Robertson. The Nashville Predators remain an interesting team as well, with Juuse Saros providing excellent goaltending and Roman Josi anchoring the blue line. The Preds got a renaissance season from Matt Duchene and were able to retain the services of Filip Forsberg, plus they play incredibly hard, so they’ll continue to be a tough out.
My early prediction is the Jets are in a group of teams behind the Avalanche and Blues that can compete for a wild card spot. Right now, that would leave them between fourth and sixth in the Central (let’s say fifth). Depending on what happens in the Pacific Division, it will be interesting to see if that’s enough for the Jets to get back into the playoffs after finishing 10th last season.
If the #NHLJets are five-to-eight points out of a playoff spot by U.S. Thanksgiving, do you see them start selling? Seems like a better time to do it than at the end of the season. — Jonathan (Middy) @Middy115
Ken, if the season starts badly (on a big losing skid for example), do you think the “tune” changes quicker than planned, as in maybe rethink still “going for it” and maybe start selling off assets to retool sooner? — J Seven (@nevsey86)
If the Jets were planning to retool, the process would probably be well underway. The Jets didn’t decide to stick with the majority of the core group and overhaul the coaching staff to pull the pin on the season 20-to-25 games in. And while the U.S. Thanksgiving target often represents the point where the majority of playoff teams have started separating themselves in recent years, it’s unlikely that a fire sale would begin at that stage of the proceedings.
The Jets definitely have a tough schedule out of the gate and could face some early adversity, but it’s important to remember how quickly things can change. Just last season, the Jets went 9-3-3 before things began to unravel. So, a hot start or a poor one doesn’t necessarily dictate how a season is going to play out.
With the aforementioned new coaching staff, one would expect a bit longer leash to be given before any drastic decisions are made about changing the direction. It’s clear the Jets are not rebuilding and plan to try and compete for a playoff spot.
However, with a number of important players just two years away from the prospect of unrestricted free agency, Cheveldayoff could at some point be looking at trying to move some of those players to a contender if things don’t go well — since acquiring a player for as many as two playoff runs could enhance the value in a trade.
With so many teams already at, near or above the ceiling, in-season trades with contenders will continue to be a challenge. A lot of teams with limited cap space that are not into LTIR often need to wait until closer to the trade deadline to make every dollar count. That’s why the bulk of the activity happens around that time. But if running it back isn’t working and it becomes clear at some point that a change needs to be made to the Jets roster, a trade could happen regardless of what the team’s record is or where they are in the standings.
While your point about trying to get ahead of the curve is a good one, there are going to still be a number of important decisions looming during the summer of 2023 given the contract status and uncertain future of several core pieces.
How many starts do you think Connor Hellebuyck will get in the upcoming season under new coach Rick Bowness? — Joe from Winnipeg (@WpgJoe)
If past behaviour is an indicator of future behaviour (often it is), you can expect Hellebuyck to once again carry a heavy load for the Jets this season — and that’s just the way that he likes it.
However, one would expect Hellebuyck to start fewer than the 66 starts he made last season (which was a career-high in starts and one off his career-high for appearances, set in 2017-18).
Hellebuyck enjoys high volume, but the Jets are going to need incoming backup David Rittich to handle somewhere in the neighbourhood of 20-to-22 starts this season. Eric Comrie posted 10 wins last season and Rittich is likely going to need to eclipse that number in order for the Jets to contend for a playoff spot. Rittich appeared in only 17 games last season and made 12 starts, yet managed to post six wins (6-3-4 for the Predators) and he’s also looking forward to an increase in workload.
Speaking of past behaviour, as injuries to Ben Bishop and Braden Holtby opened the door for Oettinger to become the Stars starter last season, he made 48 starts in the NHL but also made 10 in the AHL, so he would have been tracking for somewhere in that 55-to-60 range under Bowness. During the prior season, the Stars went with a job share situation, with Anton Khudobin making 32 starts and Oettinger appearing in 29 but it’s important to note that it was Oettinger’s second pro season and he was only 21 years old.
Regardless, look for Hellebuyck to be at or north of 60 once again.
Armchair GM time: What about sending Neal Pionk to the New Jersey Devils for fellow defenceman Damon Severson? — Nocturnal Manifesto @MorningWalkNews
This is an interesting proposal, but there are a number of reasons why I don’t think this makes sense for the Jets. Yes, both players are right-shot defencemen and play an important role with their respective teams.
However, Severson has only one more season left at $4.167 million while Pionk has three more at $5.875 million, given where both teams are at, acquiring Severson and risking losing him for nothing as a pending unrestricted free agent — or moving him at the deadline doesn’t do much to alleviate the Jets’ logjam, other than bringing in a player who makes less money in the short term.
Also, Pionk is a strong candidate for a bounce-back season and it’s unlikely the Jets would give up on him so quickly after signing him to a long-term deal last summer. The Devils would probably like to add someone with some additional term since they look like a team that could be on the rise during the next few seasons. They would also be familiar with Pionk from his time with the New York Rangers.
Severson is coming off a career season (11 goals, 46 points in 80 games), so it’s likely the Devils will be looking to extend him — and that he’ll be getting a raise in the neighbourhood of what Pionk is making (or potentially higher).
What can Canadian teams in general, and Winnipeg in particular, do to offset the perceived disadvantages of playing in Canada such as high taxes, mediocre health care, and for the prairie teams, brutal climate? The Jets have become Minnesota North to offset climate and enable players to play closer to home. Should they also be focusing more on Western Canadian-born players? — Don Carson
It’s an interesting debate and ultimately it comes down to a few things. Many of those Canadian teams, including but not limited to those on the prairies, have to create a culture of winning that attracts players and make it a place people want to play.
Whether it’s dealing with the weather or the taxes, if teams like the Jets are going to compete for top free agents, they’ll likely have to raise their offer (AAV) or add an extra year or two. During the past several seasons, the Jets' draft, development and retention model has taken a few body blows for sure, but the best chance to show players what type of place Winnipeg is by choosing them in the draft and showing them what the city and the organization has to offer. It’s never going to be the place individuals choose for climate or high-end shopping.
As for the topic of pursuing more Western Canadian-born players, it’s an interesting theory. The Jets have always maintained that the passport doesn’t matter when it comes to drafting or looking at players to bring in via trade or free agency. In general, it shouldn’t be a deciding factor but it’s easy to understand the argument that it might be more appealing for someone from the prairies to want to play for a team on the prairies. That doesn’t mean going after a player solely because he’s local if he’s not talented enough though either.
Do you expect the Jets to bring in any forwards to training camp on a PTO? — @AavcoCup
It’s an interesting question and given the composition of the current roster, yes it seems like a distinct possibility the Jets could be bringing in a forward or two to training camp on a Pro Tryout Offer like they did with Trevor Lewis a few seasons ago.
It would have to be someone who would sign a contract for a lower number, but an experienced penalty killer or a checking-line guy with some size could be on the radar here during the next several weeks, especially with so many teams in tough cap situations and the lower-to-middle class of player currently being squeezed a bit.
Don’t have any predictions on this front yet, but will continue to monitor. It could also be someone who could be a fit as a depth player who may consider a two-way deal even if there isn’t an NHL spot available out of the gate.