Jets Mailbag: Will Winnipeg target a No. 1 defenceman in the off-season?

Sean Reynolds and Ken Wiebe discuss the future of Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice, the lack of depth on the blue line proving costly in the playoffs, and what GM Kevin Cheveldayoff does in the off-season.

WINNIPEG — Paul Stastny isn’t in a hurry to figure out what the next chapter is going to look like.

The Winnipeg Jets veteran forward knows precisely what we would be in for, should he choose to stick around.

About the only thing to sort out would be the dollars on a short-term deal.

Stastny has also been around long enough to realize any new contract — with the Jets or a new suitor — would be signed after the Seattle Kraken expansion draft on July 21.

With difficult choices coming for the Jets — and plenty of other teams — Stastny will take the necessary time with his agent and his family to see what fits best for him.

“Now that I’m older, options are probably more limited, but you have an idea of what’s best for me, what’s best for my family,” said Stastny. “There’s no rush. You kind of have an idea of what places you want to play at. You want to be where it’s a good fit for you and you want to go somewhere you’re wanted, too.

“I have nothing but good things to say here. I know the future has always been bright (for the Jets), it continues to be bright and there’s always going to be a chance (to win) here. That’s a really important piece to picking a team you want to play (for).”

Much like the last time Stastny arrived on the Winnipeg scene in 2018, there are going to be options for him to consider.

At 35 years of age and with more than 1,000 NHL games on his resume, he remains a productive player who is a low-maintenance leader and who's determined to win.

Acquiring Stastny from the Vegas Golden Knights on Oct. 9 for a conditional fourth-round pick and defenceman Carl Dahlstrom was a smart move by Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff.

In his second tour of duty, Stastny was everything the Jets could have asked for — providing stability at the second-line centre position out of the gate and then showing his versatility by moving to the wing on occasion after Pierre-Luc Dubois was acquired.

Stastny can play up and down the lineup and remains a valuable contributor on the power play, while also serving as a mentor.

Bringing him back to fill those roles is definitely something the Jets will give serious thought to doing.

Stastny realizes he’s looking at a reduction to his salary, and while he isn’t necessarily going to land in Joe Thornton league-minimum territory, his primary goal is to be somewhere he believes he has an opportunity to win.

The Jets will receive strong consideration, but a reunion with the Colorado Avalanche would also make sense on a number of levels.

That’s where Stastny began his NHL journey and Denver is also where he spent two seasons of his college career.

Given where the Avalanche are after a disappointing second-round exit, Stastny’s calming presence might be a welcome addition for an organization trying to take the next step.

Speaking of the Kraken expansion draft, that was a subject that generated plenty of buzz for this month’s Jets Mailbag, so let’s get to your questions:

Dan Sudfeld: What are your predictions on the Jets protected list?

This remains a moving target and could depend on a number of factors, including negotiations on a new deal for Andrew Copp and what the potential cost of a side deal might be to protect an extra D-man. However, without knowing those things, my belief is that Copp will get an extension signed for somewhere in the neighbourhood of four years at between $4 to 4.5 million AAV, and be among the seven forwards protected. The others will be Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Nikolaj Ehlers, Kyle Connor, Adam Lowry and Dubois. Connor Hellebuyck is the protected goalie, while the D-men protected are going to be Josh Morrissey and Neal Pionk.

The final spot open is generating the greatest debate. DeMelo has three years left at $3 million and played some of the best hockey of his career against Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, and his presence was missed mightily in the second round after he suffered a groin injury on the opening shift against the Montreal Canadiens. Logan Stanley made great strides in his development this season and the Jets have made a major investment in him, so they wouldn’t want to lose him in expansion either. But while Cheveldayoff talked openly about lessons learned from the 2017 Vegas Golden Knights expansion, it’s too early to rule out the Jets making a side deal to ensure Stanley isn’t lost. Given where the Jets are in the window for contention and the organizational depth up front, losing a forward like Mason Appleton — even after a career year and some important development of his own — would appear to be easier to withstand than losing a blue-liner like Stanley or DeMelo. Of course the Jets would like to keep all three of those players, but right now, that doesn’t appear to be a possibility.

Peter Tavares: In order to protect Stanley, is there any chance the Jets gamble that Seattle won’t take Morrissey and his contract (seven more years at $6.25 million)?

While the theory has been proposed before, it’s not a viable one for the Jets. Has Morrissey endured some tough times during the past two seasons? Absolutely and he’s been the first person to express those thoughts. But it’s also been a revolving door of defence partners for him since Jacob Trouba departed in a trade with the New York Rangers and Morrissey played some of the best hockey of his career when reunited with DeMelo in the opening round against the Edmonton Oilers. The Kraken have no issues whatsoever with the salary cap and would pounce at the opportunity to add a blue-liner like Morrissey, who is also an important piece of the leadership group with the Jets. A team that’s looking to upgrade the defence corps can’t afford to potentially lose a top pairing blue-liner. To me, that’s creating an even bigger hole on the back end, not solving an issue by clearing salary-cap space.

Mark Morris: Do the Jets offer the Kraken a sweetener to not take Appleton?

This is also a question that would be batted around by Jets management in meetings to prepare for the expansion draft. Appleton had a breakout season, chipping in 12 goals and 25 points in 56 games, playing primarily on a line with Lowry. Appleton spent part of the season in a penalty-killing role and figures to increase that role moving forward. There’s offensive upside as well and he clearly showed he can be a guy in that 15-plus goal range across a full season. He’s shown the speed to drive the net and can create some chaos on the forecheck as well. The Jets would love to keep him in the fold, but at what cost? Without knowing what Kraken general manager Ron Francis is asking in return, it seems likely that Appleton will be the player lost in the expansion draft. But a side deal is always a consideration, if it doesn’t mortgage too much of the future.

Lee Davis: Will the Jets target one BIG signing for a No. 1 defenceman in free agency or through trade? Or will they try to add two other No. 3 or 4 D-men?

A top-pairing D-man is a priority for the Jets, but those guys aren’t readily available either in free agency or trade. Should Dougie Hamilton not remain with the Carolina Hurricanes and test the market, there will be plenty of competition for his services, which means that teams are likely going to have to pay a premium to get him. The Jets do have a bit more flexibility when it comes to the salary cap, but there are also raises coming for Pionk and Copp. With Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg ready for NHL competition, adding one high-end blue-liner remains a priority. Should the Jets lose a D-man to Seattle, then bringing in two players via trade or free agency becomes a very real possibility.

Darren Ross: Does it matter if the coach’s message is still being heard, or if the coach’s message just isn’t working? I, for one, think it’s time for a change. Maurice’s systems and game planning are no longer effective. So whether he is still respected is moot to me.

Numerous Jets players have publicly disputed the theory Maurice “has lost the room” and that’s definitely important when it comes to the relationship between those players and the coach. Once the message becomes stale, a change is just around the corner. It’s tough — if not impossible — for a team to win without respecting the coaching staff, no matter how talented a group it is. Systems are almost always installed to fit the personnel, and the Jets spent the past two seasons trying to offset a “thin” defence corps. As for whether or not the message isn’t working, that’s open to interpretation. There’s no doubt the Jets endured some serious struggles down the stretch, dropping seven consecutive games and nine of 12 to end the campaign. Some of that was related to tactics, some of it related to execution. It’s a shared responsibility. There’s no doubt the Jets will be looking to tweak some of the things they do stylistically next season as they return to the Central Division and the strengths of the group should remain the same: an elite goalie with some highly skilled forwards with depth at the position group. As mentioned before, in most cases coaches are fired when the team underachieves. While there is plenty of room for improvement for the Jets, they were a bubble team going into the season. Qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs and winning a round wouldn’t fall into the category of underachieving, even if some flaws were exposed in a sweep to the Canadiens. Having said that, this will go down as a missed opportunity for the Jets.

Kevin Long: What are your thoughts on the Jets' depth at right wing? With Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic traded for a lefty (Dubois), it feels pretty thin when someone gets hurt. Is this another item for free agency?

With Laine and Roslovic in Columbus with the Blue Jackets and Appleton a potential target for Seattle, right-wing depth would be an area the Jets are looking to upgrade either in free agency or trade. It depends on whether Ehlers is used at right wing or left. The Jets had a number of players take turns on the off wing this season and that could be an option once again this fall, but adding a right-winger with size and skill would most definitely be on the Jets to-do list. As for who might be on that list, that’s an area that requires further exploration in the weeks leading up to free agency and after the expansion draft is in the rearview mirror.

@OlyBackstrom: What are your predictions for Kristian Vesalainen and David Gustafsson?

The crystal ball shows full-time roster spots for Vesalainen and Gustafsson next season. Vesalainen didn’t play as many games as he would have probably liked, but showed progress. The next step for him is finding a way to generate more shooting opportunities — because his shot is one of his biggest weapons. Gustafsson had another strong showing with the AHL's Manitoba Moose and is ready to embark on his first full season in the NHL. He’s got the size and smarts to jump into the lineup and secure one of the PK jobs that have been a bonus for those on the fourth line. Gustafsson is defensively responsible and has some offensive upside as well — perhaps as importantly, he makes the players around him better. Gustafsson and Vesalainen have shown chemistry together in the AHL and could be used on the same line next season — if Vesalainen doesn’t move onto the third line if pending UFA Mathieu Perreault doesn’t return, or if Appleton is claimed in the expansion draft.

Kendra Danielson: What’s the latest update on Bryan Little?

Cheveldayoff was asked about the status of Little during his season-ending Zoom call Friday and there wasn’t much new to report on that subject.

“Bryan, obviously, has gone through a lot of different medical procedures and until the doctors or Bryan ever really feel comfortable with updating or upgrading his status, he basically remains a player who isn’t available to us,” said Cheveldayoff. “I’m not certain he would use the words retirement but, at the same token, there are no medical opinions saying that he should play.”

Little hasn’t suited up since suffering a head injury in a game against the New Jersey Devils in November of 2019, and it seems clear the Jets are going to give him as much time as he needs in order to make a decision about his future.

Having said that, a return doesn’t appear to be imminent and unless something changes, it seems like Little has probably played his last NHL game — which would be an unfortunate ending for someone who gave so much to the sport he loves.

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