WINNIPEG - The moment of truth has arrived for Kevin Cheveldayoff and the Winnipeg Jets.
With his team riding a three-game winning streak and back in second place in the North Division, the Jets general manager has surveyed the landscape and taken stock of which players are available leading into Monday’s NHL trade deadline.
With the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers among the teams to make pre-emptive strikes to bolster their respective defence corps, it won’t take long to find out what the Jets are going to do.
Long before Saturday’s decisive 5-0 victory over the Montreal Canadiens, the belief was that the Jets would be looking to add at least one player on the back end.
What’s still not abundantly clear is whether the Jets are going to pull the trigger on a deal for a top-four D-man or if they look at adding a depth piece instead.
It’s entirely possible they do both, depending on what happens with the prices.
David Savard was a player who piqued the interest of the Jets before ending up with the Lightning, but the belief is that the Jets are looking to add a blue-liner with term if they take a bigger swing.
Ultimately, the price tag for Savard was simply too high.
Although the Jets value prospects and draft picks, Cheveldayoff has shown at past deadlines that he’s willing to spend premium assets on what he considers to be high-end players at a position of need.
Although the Toronto Maple Leafs have established a six-point cushion at the top of the North Division, the Jets are right in the heart of the race and when you consider the age and experience level of the Jets' core group, it would surprise no one if Cheveldayoff made an impact move to trying and strengthen his team’s chances.
In recent years, when the Jets believed they had an opportunity to make a significant upgrade, Cheveldayoff took a swing.
Look no further than the addition of Paul Stastny from the St. Louis Blues in 2018 and Kevin Hayes from the New York Rangers in 2019.
There’s an additional layer for the Jets - and many other teams that are currently dipping into the LTIR (Long Term Injury Reserve) pool - to consider this time around.
Creativity will be required when it comes to those salary cap complications, as the Jets have just over $3.5 million available to them in that LTIR pool right now.
That number could rise another $1.25 million if defenceman Nathan Beaulieu is moved to LTIR after undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery.
With the Jets in the midst of a five-game road trip, with the next game coming on Monday against the Ottawa Senators, the needs at the top of the wish list aren’t overly difficult to identify.
Unlike the past three deadlines, the Jets won’t be looking to address the second-line centre position.
The off-season acquisition of Stastny from the Vegas Golden Knights and the in-season move to obtain Pierre-Luc Dubois from the Columbus Blue Jackets already took care of that.
The Jets won’t likely be focusing on the forward position in a potential trade, but with captain Blake Wheeler sidelined indefinitely after being diagnosed with a concussion, there’s always a chance some additional depth will be brought in before the deadline passes.
Which brings us back to the moment of truth for Cheveldayoff.
How much is he willing to spend and what kind of assets is he willing to part with?
Although it’s considered to be a buyer’s market - given the limited number of teams with either the flexibility to add salary or the green light to take on additional expenses during this pandemic season - the remaining headliners would still come at a considerable cost.
To put that into the simplest terms, it means a team like the Jets is probably going to have to be willing to part with a prized prospect and/or a first-rounder in either 2021 or 2022 to secure another blockbuster deal.
The price tag goes down if Cheveldayoff opts for a depth piece or two instead of taking that big swing.
What is the tipping point ultimately going to be?
That’s the decision that must be made before Cheveldayoff makes his best offer and finds out whether the price is actually going to be enough.
Here's a closer look at what Winnipeg is working with heading into Monday's deadline.
Cap Hit: $83,657,942
LTIR Pool: $5,291,667
Current LTIR Available Space: $3,542,501 (could rise by $1.25 million if Nathan Beaulieu is placed on LTIR)
• C/LW Andrew Copp, 26, $2.28 million (has arbitration rights)
• D Neal Pionk, 25, $3 million (has arbitration rights)
• D Logan Stanley, 22, $1.08 million
• G Eric Comrie, 25, $700,000 (has arbitration rights)
• C Paul Stastny, 35, $6.5 million
• C Adam Lowry, 27, $2.916 million
• LW Mathieu Perreault, 33, $4.15 million
• C Nate Thompson, 36, $750,000
• RW Trevor Lewis, 34, $750,000
• C Dominic Toninato, 27, $700,000
• D Derek Forbort, 29, $1 million
• D Tucker Poolman, 27. $715,000
• G Laurent Brossoit, 27, $1.5 million
2021: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th
2022: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 3rd (Columbus Blue Jackets), 5th, 6th, 7th
Right now, the Jets are set in goal and have ample depth up front (even without Wheeler). Adding a defenceman or two is the most likely outcome.
The belief is that the Jets prefer a player with some term on his deal or some element of team control (perhaps a pending RFA), though that could change depending on whether or not an unexpected player ends up on the trade market - like in 2018 when the Jets acquired Stastny.
The primary target in 2021 was thought to be Mattias Ekholm of the Nashville Predators, but he’s essentially been pulled off the market - or the potential cost of acquisition has skyrocketed) since his team has played well enough to get above the playoff line in the Central Division.
Jamie Oleksiak would be a target if the Dallas Stars make him available, but that's also unlikely, even if he's a pending UFA.
A player with term on his deal who could make sense for the Jets is Anaheim Ducks blue-liner Josh Manson. The 29-year-old has one season left at $4.1 million and has bounced back nicely after missing considerable time with an oblique injury.
Connor Murphy of the Chicago Blackhawks is another player to keep an eye on. The Blackhawks are likely to protect Duncan Keith and Nikita Zadorov in the Seattle Kraken expansion draft, so that leaves the third choice between Murphy and Calvin de Haan.
Should the Blackhawks be leaning towards protecting de Haan, Murphy is a guy who makes a lot of sense for the Jets.
Murphy, 28, would bring a nice blend of size and mobility, while also playing with some edge. He has one season left on a deal that carries an AAV of $3.85 million (salary of $4 million) before becoming an unrestricted free agent.
Ryan Murray of the New Jersey Devils is having a solid season and is known for his ability to move the puck and defend, but he’s on an expiring contract (with an AAV of $4.6 million) and is a pending UFA. The second-overall pick in the 2012 NHL Draft has managed to overcome some run of misfortune on the injury front during his time with the Blue Jackets to chip in 10 assists in 31 games this season.
Murray, 27, primarily plays the left side, while Manson (who has a modified no-trade clause) or Murphy could fill a spot on the right in the top-four.
When it comes to guys who fall more into the third pairing or depth category, Mike Reilly of the Ottawa Senators, or Ben Hutton of the Ducks might be on the radar.
A reunion with Dmitry Kulikov (Devils) could also merit some consideration, given the type of season he’s having.
Potential Assets To Move
Despite some recent strains on the draft, development and retention model, the Jets appear ready to consider moving their first-rounder in 2021 or 2022 for a high-end acquisition on the back end.
Given the calibre of player the Jets seem to be exploring to bolster the top two pairings, a first-rounder looks like it’s just going to be the starting point, not the sole piece required to close the deal.
Top defence prospect Ville Heinola is squarely in the untouchable category, while fellow blue-liner Dylan Samberg and versatile forward Cole Perfetti probably aren’t far behind him.
For the time being, let’s operate under the premise that Perfetti is not available either because the Jets are a bit thinner when it comes to forward prospects, especially at centre (even if he might break into the NHL as a winger).
Asset No. 1
D Dylan Samberg - The second-rounder from the 2017 NHL Draft is enjoying a steady season as a rookie pro. Although he missed the last three games with an injury, Samberg is playing big minutes and while his offensive production has been limited, that’s not an indicator of the type of performance he’s been delivering at 22 years old.
In a recent interview, Manitoba Moose head coach Pascal Vincent was raving about the strides Samberg is taking. Given his size, mobility and puck-moving ability, Samberg projects to fill a Top-4 job, likely in a shutdown role. The Jets aren’t shopping Samberg by any means and they still view him as a critical part of their long-term plans, but you can be sure he’s the type of player teams are asking for when Cheveldayoff makes an inquiry.
The two-time NCAA Frozen Four champion from his time with the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs should be ready for full-time NHL duty by next season. He’s got a high ceiling even if he’s not going to be a big point producer and the only reason his name would potentially be under consideration internally is because the Jets could feel they have some organizational depth in the pool at left defence.
In addition to Logan Stanley, Heinola and Samberg, the Jets have 2018 fifth-rounder Declan Chisholm also playing well as a rookie pro in the AHL. Samberg won’t likely be moved, unless it’s for a top talent with some term left on his deal.
LW Kristian Vesalainen - The Finnish forward has clearly taken strides in his development, showing well during an eight-game audition before he was assigned to the AHL. The 2017 first-rounder can skate and shoot and looks much more comfortable than he did when he made his debut during the 2018-19 season.
He projects to be a middle-six forward and he’s exempt from the expansion draft, which could enhance his value to a team with protection issues.
LW/C Jansen Harkins - Just last season, the versatile forward was one of those heartwarming stories, a prospect that showed incredible determination and forced his way back into the equation as he rose from AHL scoring leader to a job as an NHL regular who saw spot duty in the top-six.
Harkins showcased his dogged determination and playmaking ability and appeared in three qualifying round games. But he was slowed in training camp by a lower-body issue and he’s been limited to 14 games this season, recently returning from a lengthy run of healthy scratches after the injury to Wheeler.
D Sami Niku - Although some progress has been made in terms of his development, Niku has spent most of this season as the seventh or eighth D-man. Considering Stanley is establishing himself with increased opportunity on the third pairing with Dylan DeMelo and the two top prospects are already knocking on the door in Heinola and Samberg, the Finnish blue-liner looks like he could be a sweetener in any deal. The mobile blue-liner has been limited to six games this season and hasn’t played since Mar. 1.
Seattle expansion considerations
The expectation is that the Jets will go with the 7-3-1 format and the majority of the decisions are pretty straightforward.
Connor Hellebuyck will be the goalie protected, while the seven spots up front appear to be spoken for, with Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers, Kyle Connor, Dubois, Andrew Copp and Mason Appleton headlining the list.
Where things could get complicated would be if the Jets are able to work out an extension for Adam Lowry and/or Stastny.
For those who suggest the Jets should just wait until after the expansion draft is held before signing either player, it’s a fine theory - unless the Jets were unable to close the deal or were outbid by another team.
There’s a rolling-the-dice element to that approach and it’s doubtful the Jets want it to reach that stage.
On the back end, it’s been believed for quite some time that the logical candidates to protect are Neal Pionk, Josh Morrissey and DeMelo.
What role will the development of Stanley — the towering third-year pro and 2016 first-rounder — have in the proceedings, given his size and skill set?
It's certainly possible he could wind up being protected given his progression, especially when you consider what the Jets have already invested in him.
And how might a potential new acquisition fit in the grand scheme of things, depending on whether the player has term on his contract or is viewed as more of a rental who could also choose to stick around like Drew Stafford did after he was acquired from the Sabres in 2015.
The Jets were one of the teams to swing a side deal with the Golden Knights back in 2017 and it wasn’t as costly as some of the ones made by other teams.
The cost of protecting veteran defenceman Toby Enstrom (who agreed to waive his no-movement clause) ended up being reasonable - dropping 11 spots in the first round of the 2017 draft and giving up a third-round pick in 2019 in order for the Golden Knights to select pending UFA forward Chris Thorburn (who didn’t sign with Vegas).
It would not be a surprise if the Jets try to work out a deal with Kraken GM Ron Francis once again, but what seems apparent is the Jets are likely to lose a solid player - which is essentially the intention of trying to allow Seattle to ice a competitive team.
So while the expansion draft is definitely a consideration, it shouldn’t serve as a major impediment for the Jets when it comes to trying to finalize a big deal.