WINNIPEG — Kevin Cheveldayoff is no stranger to keeping his cards close to the vest, though it won’t be long before we see how confident he is in his current hand.
As the frequency of pre-emptive strikes began to increase on Wednesday, with the Calgary Flames and Florida Panthers making deals, the general manager of the Winnipeg Jets finds himself just a few days away from a critical decision on the direction he plans to take this group leading into and beyond Monday’s NHL trade deadline.
Just one week ago, the Jets were lethargic in a 5-2 loss to the New York Islanders and it was beginning to look like the organization would be shifting over to the seller aisle, ready to move a couple of pending unrestricted free agents and perhaps listen to offers on a few other players.
However, with convincing victories over the St. Louis Blues and Vegas Golden Knights this week, the Jets suddenly find themselves within two points of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
No, the math still isn’t great for the Jets but there are now only three teams to try and jump over compared to the five they were once looking up at.
With 21 games left to go in the regular season (including Friday’s tilt with the Boston Bruins) and two before Monday’s pending deadline, the expectation is that the Jets won’t likely make their declaration until after Sunday’s game with the Chicago Blackhawks.
A split of those games would only further complicate what is a complex situation for Cheveldayoff and his management team.
This isn’t just recency bias having an influence either, though a 6-2-1 stretch — coupled with a rough patch for both the Golden Knights and Dallas Stars — has certainly lifted the Jets spirits with roughly a quarter of the campaign left to complete.
The Jets had high expectations going into the season and to say it’s been a roller coaster for them is a massive understatement.
But with the return of Nikolaj Ehlers to the lineup seven games ago, the Jets seem to be showing signs of potential.
Puck management remains a work in progress for the group, however, the goal-scoring woes have not only been alleviated but include some recent offensive outbursts, including Tuesday’s seven-goal showing against the Golden Knights.
With that in mind, Cheveldayoff must make a difficult assessment about whether or not he believes this group as currently constructed has what it takes — first to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs and then to defeat a team like the Colorado Avalanche in the first round.
There is another issue at play for the Jets — and many other teams, especially those in Canada.
When you consider the revenue lost by playing in empty buildings or even reduced capacity during the pandemic, there are significant financial implications at play here as well.
The Jets have yet to play in front of a sold-out crowd and you can’t underestimate what a playoff race and the chance for playoff gates would do for the bottom line of a team that is currently spending beyond the salary-cap ceiling and into LTIR.
Might that be worth standing pat or perhaps even adding some depth pieces around the periphery of the roster?
Only Cheveldayoff knows for sure, but he also must wrestle with the fact the Jets are deficient when it comes to draft picks in the 2022 NHL Draft, currently holding only five selections (missing a second-rounder and a fourth).
But with a mostly veteran core group, just bringing back a few draft picks and not any roster players could result in a step backward for the Jets in the Central Division.
While the goal for the Jets is to capture the Stanley Cup and not just to squeak into the post-season, there is a case to be made for trying to maximize assets, provided the return in those deals can help the Jets over the long term.
Finding a way to try and extend the window of contention has to be a consideration.
Cheveldayoff doesn’t want to fold his hand on the current season, but if a team gets desperate enough in an effort to win a bidding war, he may have no choice but to pull the trigger on a deal or two.
Several members of the Jets have spoken recently about trying not to worry too much about the speculation that comes with being in the position the team is in.
“It’s one of those things that it comes around every year and the anticipation kind of starts to ramp up,” said Jets centre Adam Lowry. “Every sports channel, especially in Canada, is talking about it and things like that. It’s important that you stay focused on who you are playing that night and the week ahead, as opposed to looking too far down the road. Anytime you are distracted from the task at hand, it takes away from your mindset and your focus on what you need to do. Maybe you’re not as sharp as you could be.
“The distractions are out there, the noise is out there. There’s no question that there’s a lot of talk surrounding our team. It’s one of those things that you look at your opponent that day and kind of mute what you guys are all saying. The deals will happen, that stuff will all fall into place and you just have to take it in stride and move on.”
Jets defenceman Brenden Dillon has first-hand knowledge of what it’s like to be moved at the trade deadline, as he was traded by the San Jose Sharks to the Washington Capitals in 2020.
Dillon was one of the Jets targets that year as well, but they ended up swinging a deal for Dylan DeMelo.
Being involved in speculation as a pending unrestricted free agent isn’t easy, but it comes with the territory.
Dillon is happy to provide advice to anyone who asks about how to best handle the rumour mill in the days leading up to the deadline.
“For me, that was really the first time that I’d been in that situation and I wanted to stay (in San Jose). I loved my time there,” said Dillon. “San Jose is a great hockey market, but it’s not the same as being in Canada. At that time, I found it to be quite a bit (to handle). Now there’s more social media and all of that stuff. It’s probably not the easiest thing (to handle). Once (a trade) happens, it’s a relief because you know where you’re going to be for the rest of the season at the very least.
“That’s one less thing that you have to worry about.”
With Ben Chiarot coming off the board on Wednesday in a deal between the Panthers and Canadiens, it wouldn’t be a surprise if other teams that were in the running to acquire the former Jets blue-liner might turn their attention toward Dillon.
That doesn’t mean the Jets are interested in moving Dillon, but the logjam on the left side of the depth chart at both the NHL and AHL level would suggest there are other options that could be under consideration over the coming days.
According to Puck Pedia
Projected deadline cap space (plus LTIR): $-6,805,449
Current cap space; $1,532,501
LTIR pool: $8,159,646
Cap space committed to 2022-23: $69,745,356 for 15 players, including Bryan Little who is on LTIR and is expected to be there again next season.
2022: WPG 1, CBJ 3, WPG 5, WPG 6, WPG 7
2023: WPG 1, WPG 3, WPG 4, WPG 5, WPG 6, WPG 7
Provided Cheveldayoff decides not to simply stand pat, the Jets could be in the market for forward help while also looking to replenish a few draft picks that were moved to bring in the likes of Nate Schmidt and Brenden Dillon on defence.
Jake DeBrusk, Boston Bruins
It’s been a challenging few seasons for the Edmonton product, but he’s regrouped nicely after his trade request went public. DeBrusk is up to 15 goals and 25 points in 56 games this season, but he’s recorded only one point during the past eight games and could benefit from a change of scenery. He would bring size, skill and scoring ability as someone who has hit 15 or more goals in four of his five NHL seasons (the exception coming last season when he had five in 41 games during the condensed campaign). DeBrusk is a pending RFA with arbitration rights and carries an AAV of $3.675 million and a salary of $4.85 million this season.
Owen Tippett, Florida Panthers
The Panthers are definitely all-in on this pursuit of the Stanley Cup and one of the prospects that has been pushed to the minors is right-winger Owen Tippett. At six-foot-one and 207 pounds, the right-handed shooting forward would bring size and scoring ability to a position the Jets are somewhat thin at. He was chosen 10th overall in the 2017 NHL Draft and has been on a tear since joining the Springfield Thunderbirds, recording 12 goals and 18 points in 12 AHL games. Tippett is a pending restricted free agent without arbitration rights, so he would fit nicely as a player who would be under team control for multiple seasons.
Jack McBain, Minnesota Wild
It’s been a breakout senior season for the Boston College forward, who has already posted career highs in goals (19) and points (33) in 24 NCAA games this season. McBain has let the Wild know it is unlikely he will sign with them, but Bill Guerin is asking for a second-round pick in return for the rights to McBain, the son of former Jets winger Andrew McBain. The Jets don’t currently own a second-rounder, but might the Wild be interested in one of the Jets pending unrestricted free agents instead of a pick or prospect?
It’s unlikely the Jets would want to help a Central Division rival, but McBain is six-foot-four, 208 pounds and would be an appealing option to add to an already talented group of forwards. Colleague Elliotte Friedman reported earlier this week that the Montreal Canadiens and Arizona Coyotes are among the other teams involved in the sweepstakes for the centre who also suited up for Canada at the recent Olympics, where he chipped in a goal and an assist.
ASSETS TO TRADE
The 27-year-old can play centre or wing and be used up and down the lineup. He also contributes to the penalty kill and the power play and is one of the most conscientious players when it comes to defensive awareness. That makes the pending UFA appealing to any contender, especially one that thinks it might be able to sign Copp to an extension.
With 13 goals and 32 points while averaging nearly 20 minutes of ice time per game, Copp could provide an infusion of secondary scoring to a team that acquires him. The Bruins are believed to be the front-runner, the Avalanche are a stealth option, while the New York Rangers, Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers could also be in the mix. The potential return for Copp could be increased if the Jets retain 50 per cent of the remaining salary. Copp left Sunday’s game against the Blues with an undisclosed injury, but the belief is that he did not suffer a concussion from his collision with Oskar Sundqvist.
The 36-year-old is enjoying another solid season, with 17 goals and 31 points in 50 games and he is on the verge of hitting the 20-goal mark for the first time since the 2013-14 season. Like Copp, Stastny has the versatility to play centre or wing and can slide up and down the lineup without missing a beat. However, his status as a pending UFA also means that he could be on the move like he was in 2018 when he waived his no-trade clause to join the Jets for the run to the Western Conference Final.
The Rangers have been watching the Jets closely of late and in this game of connect-the-Jets, Broadway Blueshirts head coach Gerard Gallant was a fan of Stastny’s game when both were with the Golden Knights, so a reunion would make sense on a number of levels. As would a return to the Avalanche, where Stastny began his career after being chosen in the second round of the 2005 NHL Draft.
The 28-year-old blueliner is playing on the Jets' top pair with Josh Morrissey and is enjoying another steady season. While the aforementioned logjam is on the left side, there’s a chance one of Ville Heinola, Dylan Samberg or even Brenden Dillon could shift over to the right. If that happens eventually, DeMelo’s $3 million AAV for two more seasons would make him appealing to a number of teams.
It’s not like the Jets would be in a hurry to move DeMelo, but they did leave him unprotected in the Seattle Kraken expansion draft, so it is possible they would consider trading him either now or during the off-season if they got the right offer. The Bruins might be an option here as well if a larger deal is consummated.