WINNIPEG -- Kevin Cheveldayoff isn’t completely sure how the Winnipeg Jets taxi squad is going to be constructed.
As one of the few teams with an American Hockey League affiliate located in the same city (and arena), the Jets should have the ability to have a bit more flexibility than some other clubs that would otherwise be dealing with quarantine restrictions.
However, when it comes to balancing the benefits of having prospects or veteran depth guys skating with the big club or participating in game action down on the farm, let’s just say there are still plenty of things to work out -- not to mention some moving parts.
And with the start of the Ontario Hockey League season delayed indefinitely, it could open the door for a prospect like Cole Perfetti to be sent to the AHL, at least until the junior circuit is up and running.
“We are trying to understand where the American Hockey League will fit in and how it might have to operate for us this year. There is a lot of behind-the-scenes discussions that are still ongoing there,” Cheveldayoff said during a Zoom call with reporters earlier this week. “There is so much information that you are taking in and compiling. But the most important information is going to happen on the ice. Seeing where everybody is at, with respect to the stages of their careers and obviously, we are going to look at what is going to be best for our players’ development.
“The taxi squad will be a unique situation. We have never really seen it before having players that are just practicing and not playing. We have to take some things into consideration from a player development standpoint as well. There will be lots of information-gathering, lots of discussions still ongoing and lots of decisions that will be made once the players hit the ice and compete for a spot in training camp.”
Speaking of Perfetti, he’s one of three Jets prospects suiting up at the 2021 World Junior Hockey Championship in Edmonton. In fact, he and his teammates on Team Canada bested two of his future teammates — 2019 first-rounder Ville Heinola and 2019 fourth-rounder Henri Nikkanen — in a game against Finland on New Year's Eve. Heinola, unfortunately, was unable to finish the game due to an apparent hand injury and his status for the medal round is currently unknown.
Which brings us to your questions for the sixth edition of the Jets mailbag:
With the world juniors finishing up right before the start of the new season, and Ville Heinola getting meaningful play time with Finland, would you give Ville the edge over a guy like Dylan Samberg or Sami Niku to start the year with game time? -- Dustin Waleff
Under normal circumstances, having game action like Heinola has enjoyed in Liiga and following that up with an appearance at the World Junior Hockey Championship would provide him with a leg up on the competition.
But these are not normal circumstances in the midst of a pandemic and with Heinola needing to pass four COVID-19 tests over seven days during his quarantine upon returning to Winnipeg, one might make the case that having seven days off the ice might hurt his chances (at least in the short term).
Heinola has the benefit of being up to game speed, but Samberg and Niku will have had the ability to make an early impression during the early days of training camp. And of course, Heinola's injury suffered against Canada at the world juniors could factor into this decision, too.
And where do you put Ville Heinola and Cole Perfetti’s chances at cracking the lineup? -- Jason McMannis
Because of the quarantine they’ll be facing and the fact there are no exhibition games to potentially shine in, the cards seem to be stacked against Heinola and Perfetti cracking the opening-day lineup.
Don’t dismiss their chances entirely, but barring an injury or two creating an opportunity, it’s going to be difficult for either player to steal a job.
However, depending on how things progress with unsigned restricted free agent Jack Roslovic, there could be some temptation for the Jets to see what Perfetti might be able to do on the third line with Adam Lowry and Andrew Copp.
Heinola has looked very smooth in the early stages of the tournament and his ability to move the puck, combined with his hockey sense should have him pushing for a spot on the back end.
What do you think the Jets will do with Mathieu Perreault’s contract that is a bit high for his role on the team this season? -- Tom Hanke
Perreault’s ability to move up and down the lineup has served him well since he originally signed as a free agent with the Jets in the summer of 2014 (three years, $9 million with an AAV of $3 million).
Last season was injury-plagued for Perreault, who was on the receiving end of a couple of questionable hits, and he spent the majority of his time on the third and fourth line as his production dipped considerably.
It’s true that Perreault is now more of a luxury item at his AAV of $4.125 million ($4 million salary), since he’s projected to be used once again on the third or fourth line.
But now that he’s back to full health, he’ll be motivated to have a strong season and show that he can still create some chaos in the offensive zone on the forecheck and deliver some secondary scoring.
With the shortened season, very tough division, few playoff spots (!), do you see Connor Hellebuyck playing 50/56 games? -- Reald Guyout
Although there will be plenty of questions about how this season shakes out, one thing you can count on is that Hellebuyck is a workhorse and someone who thrives on a heavy workload.
Hellebuyck is going to play the bulk of the games this season, but finding the sweet spot when it comes to monitoring his rest and staying sharp is going to be one of the most critical situations made.
The Jets are counting on Laurent Brossoit to return to the form he showed during the 2018-19 season and he’s likely going to require a bit more regular work to achieve that goal.
To answer your question, 50 games in a compact schedule is too many, even for Hellebuyck.
But if you would have said 40, it would be a safe bet to take the over.
My guess would be roughly 43 starts for Hellebuyck, 13 for Brossoit.
Just inquiring if Canadian teams can trade during the season to teams in other divisions? -- Johnny Elias
The Jets and other six teams in the North Division will be free to make trades with teams in other divisions, but unless things change, the players acquired will be subject to the quarantine rules that are in place.
Even if the modified quarantine or exemptions remain in place, it could be at least eight days before a player picked up in a trade or on waivers would be eligible to suit up with a new team in the North Division.
That could certainly have an impact on how teams in the North Division operate, but Cheveldayoff didn’t seem overly concerned when asked about that prospect.
“Again, it will factor into your decision-making process and then it will become normal,” said Cheveldayoff. “We have to find a new normal way of doing business. You read the protocols, you understand the protocols, and then you adapt and find a way to do your business.”
Adapting is going to be an important buzzword for all teams this season and when it comes to shopping ahead of the NHL trade deadline, the importance of striking early might provide an advantage for teams trying to augment the roster.
What about the option of the Jets going 11F and 7D like Tampa Bay did in the bubble? I love the thought of it to get their young D more game time and avoid getting stuck in the press box like has happened to guys like Niku in the past while maximizing ice time of their top forwards doing the occasional double shift. But, Paul Maurice seems to be a very “old-school” coach. Could Maurice stray from traditional thinking on this? -- Matt Bergen
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper feels differently about the 11 and seven compositions than Maurice does, but this is more about personal preference than anything old school vs. new school.
Given the limited ice time the Jets have generally reserved for the fourth line, it also makes plenty of sense to try to find some additional ice time for a guy like Nikolaj Ehlers in a double-shift situation.
However, given the compressed nature of the schedule, the Jets are going to need to find a fourth line that they can play regularly, one that won’t just tread water but can contribute.
You can’t argue with the results delivered by the Lightning, but I don’t see this as the latest craze in what is often a copycat league.
Although there is a case to be made for dressing an extra D-man in order to find ice time for one of the younger blue liners, the reality is that it’s hard for the entire defence corps to get into a real rhythm with seven instead of six.
The other part of that equation is that one of the reasons it’s worked for the Lightning is the veteran D are the ones sharing the ice time. Often younger D-men find it tougher to get into the game when they’re not in more of a regular rhythm.
So while I don’t dispute the premise, putting it into practice and having success with it is more challenging than it appears on the surface.
If Heinola or Samberg aren’t in a top-six situation, they would both see greater benefits from playing 20-plus minutes per game and being used in important situations in the AHL rather than limited minutes on the third pairing or rotating in and out of the lineup.
The taxi squad doesn’t make sense for them either, other than maybe at the beginning of the season as a way to make those players more comfortable until they’re ready for a more permanent recall after spending some time in the minors.