WINNIPEG — Blake Wheeler isn’t a big fan of weighing in on hypotheticals.
The Winnipeg Jets captain prefers to deal in absolutes and, when it comes to Monday’s NHL trade deadline, Wheeler probably knows deep down that the general manager is probably still wrestling with the decision of how to handle the hours leading up to it.
During the seasons when the Jets have been at or near the top of the standings in the Central Division, Cheveldayoff hasn’t hesitated to pull the trigger on deals involving guys to bolster the roster or, at the very least, stretch out the depth.
For a franchise that places a high value on drafting, developing and retaining players, first-round draft picks were used as currency and the same goes for prospects, so much so that the Jets currently only have picks in five of the seven rounds (missing a second, third and a fourth rounder — while getting a third back from the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2021 in the blockbuster deal that landed Pierre-Luc Dubois).
Given the up-and-down nature of this season, it’s been widely speculated during the past several weeks that the Jets would find themselves squarely in the seller category come Monday, the expectation being that needing to leapfrog as many as five teams at one point would simply be too steep a hill to climb.
The natural choice would be for Cheveldayoff to try and build up the bidding prices for pending UFA forwards Andrew Copp and Paul Stastny, with the goal to recoup some future assets to go along with a player or two that could also help the Jets immediately and possibly extend the window of contention at the same time.
But thanks to a convincing 7-3 victory on Tuesday night over a depleted and suddenly reeling Vegas Golden Knights team — one that has dropped five in a row and secured just three wins over the past 11 games — the Jets find themselves within two points of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
The Jets also hold a game on the Golden Knights, who visit Winnipeg again next Tuesday in the third and final meeting of the season between the two clubs.
A split in these two meetings with the Golden Knights wasn’t going to be good enough for the Jets, but securing the first game means they were able to keep hope alive - at least for the time being.
For the second time this month, Wheeler essentially declined an opportunity to join the thousands of people in the province playing the role of armchair GM during his post-game availability.
“If you gave me five guesses I couldn't tell you what day the trade deadline is. I mean, it's probably at the end of this month,” said Wheeler, who scored the opening goal of the game. “We're not talking a whole lot about it in our room. We're scratching and clawing and fighting for our lives right now.”
The probing wasn’t done there, though it was clear Wheeler wasn’t interested in going down this road, as he responded that he understood the question clearly, he just didn’t care to expand on his answer.
Wheeler was asked whether he viewed the stretch of two upcoming games as an opportunity to try and show management that this team deserves a vote of confidence and to be kept together.
“I just think it's a rhetorical question, because by virtue of continuing to win and taking care of our business, I mean, I think that would shed light on the fact that we're probably still in a position to be fighting for a playoff spot,” said Wheeler. “Whether that is good enough to keep the group together or not, I mean, like I said, we don't make those decisions. I told you a few weeks ago our team gets along great. We have a great room and that's the best answer I can give you. Honestly.”
The reality in sports is that when a team underachieves, changes often get made — be it during the season or during the off-season after the autopsy is complete.
Whether or not this recent stretch of 6-2-1 play is enough to convince Cheveldayoff to either stand pat or add around the edges instead of sell remains to be seen.
The Jets have passed the San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks, but still need to hop over the Vancouver Canucks (who are even in games played and hold a one-point lead), Dallas Stars (who hold three games in hand but have dropped three consecutive games, are playing without top D-man Miro Heiskanen and are one point up) and the Golden Knights.
It’s important to remember that the Jets still haven’t won three consecutive games since early January and they’ll get another opportunity to change that narrative on Friday when the Boston Bruins come to town.
When it comes to Copp, although Jets interim head coach Dave Lowry was non-committal when asked about the results of his latest evaluation, the belief is that a concussion was not suffered during Sunday’s collision with St. Louis Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist.
That would represent great news for Copp, especially when you consider his injury history, and the Jets when you consider the vital role he plays for the hockey club.
Copp is expected to skate on Wednesday — when the team takes the day off — and a more comprehensive update could be provided on Thursday, though this is the time of the season where injury information is carefully guarded.
Speaking of injuries to the forward group, Lowry did say on Tuesday after the game that Cole Perfetti “is still not close to skating yet.”
Whether Perfetti’s status impacts what the Jets decide to do before the NHL trade deadline is another storyline to monitor.
Another storyline: Jets left-winger Kyle Connor continued his torrid pace by scoring his team-leading 38th goal of the campaign and giving him goals in five consecutive games.
“Unbelievable. He's one of the premier goal scorers in the league,” said Jets centre Adam Lowry, who scored a beautiful shorthanded marker of his own and added 11 hits. “Everyone's starting to really take notice. We've been fortunate to watch him every day in practice. I see what he does every day for us in games and now I think he's starting to get that recognition, going to the All-Star game and going up with the other big stars.
“He's a guy that can score in a variety of ways. He's so quick, his release is so deceptive and he just finds the areas and the puck just seems to find him. He can beat you. He doesn't need a lot of time, he doesn't need a lot of space. He's hot right now and hopefully that continues.”
Connor had a goal and two assists, Nikolaj Ehlers scored a goal in his seventh game back from a knee injury and Pierre-Luc Dubois was highly engaged, chipping in an assist and adding three shots on goal.
Dubois and Ehlers were also responsible for drawing all three minors that led to Jets power plays.
The Jets also got a pair of goals from the line of Mark Scheifele (one goal, one assist), Paul Stastny (one assist) and Wheeler (one goal, one assist).
For a team that often struggled to provide enough run support for goalie Connor Hellebuyck, the Jets put up seven or more goals for the third time in the past eight games.
They’re up to scoring five or more goals 15 times this season and have lost just once in overtime (14-0-1) when hitting that mark, that coming in the third game of the season against the Minnesota Wild.
What's been the secret to the dramatic turnaround for a team that has gone from the bottom third in goals for to the middle of the pack, at 15th overall through 61 games?
“Well I think it’s just a continuation of trying to execute a plan. We have some high skill, some very high skill players that you know sooner or later they’re going to break loose,” said Dave Lowry. “It’s all about the perseverance part of it, and continuing to do what we deem right, and that’s shoot the puck and make plays in the direction of the net.”
Jets defenceman Logan Stanley also had a big impact against the Golden Knights.
After what had been a sluggish start for the Jets — who were outshot 6-0 at one point before turning the tables and finishing with a 10-7 in that department — Stanley dropped the gloves with Manitoban Keegan Kolesar in what was a spirited tilt.
Stanley chipped in an assist on Connor’s goal that made it 2-0, then completed the Gordie Howe hat trick by beating former teammate Laurent Brossoit with a high shot that chased the former Jets backup from the game after allowing his fourth marker on 13 shots on goal.
“I wouldn’t say I work on that one too much,” said Stanley. “I made a shot and luckily it went in.”
With each victory, the Jets are trying to show Cheveldayoff and his management team that they have the type of group that might be able to make some noise should they be able to sneak into the playoff party.
And although he didn’t come right out and say it publicly, you can bet Wheeler would love nothing more than to keep the band together during the stretch run.
Securing two more wins by the time Sunday night arrives would likely make that prospective decision a bit easier for Cheveldayoff to stomach.