Jets off-season to-do list: Upgrading defence an urgent priority

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 - The Stanley Cup has been handed out and the road to this roster renovation is full speed ahead for the Winnipeg Jets.

Since being bounced from the playoffs by the Montreal Canadiens in a second-round sweep, the Jets management team has been busy preparing for what figures to be a high-paced off-season.

There are a number of potential potholes to navigate for Kevin Cheveldayoff and company, beginning with the submission of the protected list for the Seattle Kraken expansion draft.

That list (expected to include seven forwards, three defencemen and one goalie) is due on July 17, with the selection of players set for July 21 in Seattle.

The first round of the 2021 NHL Draft, which will be held virtually for a second consecutive year before heading to Montreal in 2022, is slated for just two days later, with rounds two through seven scheduled for July 24.

The Jets hold the 17th overall selection, then have choices coming in the second, third and fifth rounds -- so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a trade or two made to try and recoup some of the picks that were moved in prior deals.

By the time free agency opens on July 28, this stretch figures to hit a crescendo, especially when you consider some big names appear to be available via trade -- which could lead to a blockbuster or several around the league.

How busy do the Jets figure to be?

This won’t be a massive overhaul, but several upgrades are required to augment a core group that advanced to the Western Conference Final in 2018 but has won only one round since then.

The list of priorities for the Jets is fairly easy to identify, but how much movement is on the horizon is still a bit tough to nail down.

With that in mind, here’s a quick look at what is on the horizon for the Jets:

Finalize the protected list

Chances are pretty good the debate within the organization has already been settled, but the anticipation among the fan base will continue to build until those lists are made public.

While the creative suggestions have been flowing from the many armchair general managers, most of the choices are pretty straightforward.

Connor Hellebuyck, Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers, Kyle Connor, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Adam Lowry, Andrew Copp, Josh Morrissey and Neal Pionk can be written in pen, while the final spot figures to go to Dylan DeMelo or Logan Stanley.

DeMelo chose to forego unrestricted free agency last off-season to sign a four-year deal worth $12 million with the Jets, citing stability as one of the reasons he made the choice.

Although he doesn’t put up eye-popping statistics, DeMelo provides stability to his defence partner.

The Jets have also made a substantial investment in the development of Stanley, the 2016 first-rounder who was chosen 18th overall.

Stanley had a breakthrough season in his third year as a pro, taking advantage of a lengthy off-season to become an NHL regular.

He’s a high-volume shooter known for his size (six-foot-seven, 231 pounds) and while he brings a physical element, Stanley also showcased his hands on a number of occasions.

After seeing Stanley start to show glimpses of his potential, it’s unlikely the Jets want to see the more finished product move to a new team, especially without getting an asset in return.

The Jets could consider making a side deal similar to the one made with the Vegas Golden Knights in 2017, but that depends on what the asking price is from Kraken GM Ron Francis.

Is it possible the Kraken might have some interest in someone like defenceman Sami Niku, forward Jansen Harkins or even goalie prospect Mikhail Berdin?

It’s not out of the equation, but right-winger Mason Appleton is a prime candidate to be chosen, barring an unforeseen turn of events -- or one of those aforementioned side deals.

Figure out where things stand with Copp

The versatile Jets forward is a restricted free agent and he’s expressed his desire to become the latest core piece to commit to the organization. Copp made it clear following his exit interview that he’s open to all options when it comes to his next contract.

What that potential deal looks like remains to be seen.

The AAV figures to be north of $4 million, depending on how many years Copp signs for and how many years off unrestricted free agency the Jets are buying.

Copp, 27, is coming off a career season that saw him produce 15 goals and 39 points in 55 games, while averaging 18:15 of ice time per game (up nearly five minutes from his career average).

He plays a regular shift as a middle-six forward who can play either centre or wing, is part of the top penalty-killing unit with frequent linemate Adam Lowry and was also part of the highly effective second power play unit.

Just one year away from pending unrestricted free agency, Copp is arbitration-eligible but that’s a road the Jets won’t care to go down again.

The priority for both sides is to get a deal done, but if common ground can’t be found, the Jets could investigate the prospect of moving Copp in a deal to...

Upgrade the defence

This isn’t a new priority, but the urgency has reached a new level.

Jets head coach Paul Maurice spoke openly about the need to improve on the back end and this must be done, whether that’s through trade, free agency or a combination of both.

Based on recent history, it would be an interesting turn of events for the Jets to win a bidding war for a top-tier free agent like Dougie Hamilton, but guys like Jake McCabe and Jamie Oleksiak (among others) should be on the radar.

There figures to be some internal improvement with the arrival of top prospects Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg and it’s important not to read too much into the comments made by Maurice regarding the balance between playing young players and winning.

Maurice wasn’t necessarily making a bold proclamation about there not being enough room in the lineup to have Heinola and Samberg join Logan Stanley in the regular rotation.

Maurice has never been one to make a public declaration or hand a spot to a young player before or even during training camp.

It doesn’t mean they can’t all win a job either.

Decide if it’s short-term or longer-term for Pionk

Speaking of restricted free agents, defenceman Neal Pionk has put together two outstanding seasons since coming over from the New York Rangers in the trade for Jacob Trouba.

Pionk is also eligible for arbitration and figures to be in line for a significant raise after earning $3 million on his two-year bridge deal.

After recording nine goals and 77 points over 125 games with the Jets, Pionk is a candidate for a long-term pact, but given where the organization is in their window of contention, it’s possible both sides might prefer to look at a two-year deal -- even if it means going to arbitration.

Hire a head coach for the Manitoba Moose

The departure of Pascal Vincent to the Columbus Blue Jackets (where he joined the staff of Brad Larsen as an associate coach) was a blow for the organization.

Vincent had spent the past decade in the Jets organization, the first five as an assistant under Claude Noel and Maurice and then the past five as the Moose bench boss.

Vincent has been praised on countless occasions by both Maurice and Cheveldayoff for his ability to help prepare players to be promoted to the NHL and has built a great reputation as both a teacher and communicator.

During the off-season, Vincent interviewed for the head coaching vacancies in Columbus and Arizona and he’s viewed by many as a candidate to run his own NHL bench sooner than later.

The Moose job is an attractive one and figures to draw a number of high-end candidates.

Kevin Dineen became a free agent when the San Diego Gulls hired Joel Bouchard on Friday and he has ample experience behind the bench in both the NHL and AHL following his extensive playing career.

Mark Morrison is someone who could be in the mix as well, as he spent six seasons as an assistant coach with the St. John’s IceCaps (four seasons) and Moose (two seasons) before spending the past four seasons with the Anaheim Ducks.

Morrison also spent five seasons as the head coach of the Victoria Salmon Kings of the ECHL when they were an affiliate of the Moose, so the folks at True North Sports and Entertainment would be very familiar with his work.

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