For Jets to avoid rebuild, effective off-season with several big moves is a must

Kevin Cheveldayoff, general manager of Winnipeg Jets. (Chris Young/CP)

WINNIPEG — One thing Winnipeg Jets players can agree on is that they simply don’t have the appetite to push the reset button.

“I don’t think anybody in their mid-20s in this organization is at a point in their career where they’d want to be part of a rebuild,” Jets winger Kyle Connor said after the exit meetings were held. “I don’t think anybody in that locker room wants to be part of a rebuild. Or anybody, in general. Everybody wants to play for a Stanley Cup contending team. So yeah, that’s how I feel about it.”

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Which begs the question, how in the world does Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff avoid implementing a rebuild this summer?

There has been plenty of discussion inside and outside the market about the willingness for the community to support a potential rebuild, but the Jets are far more likely to try to move forward by reloading on the fly instead of opting for the alternative.

What that looks like exactly still depends on how some of the discussions with players and agents end up going, but what follows is a road map Cheveldayoff could attempt to navigate during what should be a highly entertaining offseason around these parts.

Before we delve into the hypotheticals and possible solutions, let’s get a few of the knowns out of the way.

The Jets have eight forwards ($37.7 million), six defencemen ($25.7 million) and one goalie ($6.167 million) under contract for next season, which leaves six unrestricted free agents to sort through: goalie David Rittich, forwards Vladislav Namestnikov, Saku Maenalanen, Sam Gagner, Karson Kuhlman and Axel Jonsson-Fjallby.

The restricted free agents include forwards Pierre-Luc Dubois, Morgan Barron, Kevin Stenlund and Alex Limoges, and defencemen Dylan Samberg, Logan Stanley, Declan Chisholm and Leon Gawanke, and goalie prospect Arvid Holm.

That means there will be holes to fill, regardless of some of the decisions made by players who may or may not be ready to make a longer-term commitment.

For the Jets to remain a playoff team in 2023-24, here are some of the moves that could be made:

Find the next Alexandar Georgiev (if necessary)

It’s not yet a foregone conclusion that Connor Hellebuyck won’t be back as the starting goalie for an eighth consecutive season. But should Hellebuyck not be interested in signing an extension, the Jets might have no choice but to move him in a potential blockbuster. If things reach that stage, there should be a long list of contenders lining up to make their best pitch. Depending on how things go over the next week or two, other clubs could end up on the list (both the Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers come to mind).

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Is it possible the Boston Bruins could be ready to move on from Linus Ullmark, the expected Vezina Trophy winner? Jeremy Swayman is a pending restricted free agent and is going to generate interest around the league as well, should he go somewhere for more of a starting role than a shared crease situation. The bigger issue for the Bruins when it comes to Hellebuyck beyond next season is that Charlie McAvoy is already making $9.5 million and David Pastrnak is starting a new deal that carries an AAV of $11.25 million, so trying to extend Hellebuyck would be a challenge. Last offseason, the Colorado Avalanche chose not to re-up Darcy Kuemper after he helped the organization win the Stanley Cup, then traded for New York Rangers backup Alexandar Georgiev, who then inked a three-year deal that carried a $3.4 million AAV. Georgiev showed he could handle the job, posting numbers that were similar to Hellebuyck’s in his first full season as a starter.

Goaltending is incredibly difficult to predict, and Hellebuyck will be tough to replace if that ends up being the path the Jets ultimately go down. The preferred path for the Jets would be to retain Hellebuyck, who led the league with 64 starts this season, but if that’s not possible, they’ll need to lean on the scouting staff because there is not an in-house candidate ready to slide into the starting job. A trade is more likely than a free-agent signing, but all options must be considered at this point.

Might the Florida Panthers be willing to part with Spencer Knight after Sergei Bobrovsky has seemingly turned back the clock during these playoffs? Stay tuned. Dominic DiVicentiis is coming off a fantastic season with the North Bay Battalion of the Ontario Hockey League (where he was named OHL goalie of the year), but he’s still one season away from turning pro, let alone working his way into the mix with the Jets.

Upgrade the backup goalie position

Rittich had a strong start to the season, especially when you consider he was fighting to stay in the league after a tough go with the Nashville Predators. Rittich finished with nine wins (9-8, a 2.67 goals-against average and .901 save percentage), but he gave up a couple of soft goals down the stretch and lost the trust of the coaching staff, to the point he made only one start after March 14 — and it came after the Jets qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs, in Game 81. Rittich is one of the pending UFAs and he’s not expected to be back. The Jets are going to need to find a No. 2 on the depth chart who can be counted on to make somewhere in the neighbourhood of 22-to-25 starts, at minimum (Rittich made 18 and had 21 appearances), next season to help keep the starter fresh.

Alleviate the logjam on the blue line

This is not a recording, even if it sounds like one. The logjam — especially on the left side — of the Jets’ defence corps has been an issue dating back to last offseason, but it’s definitely going to be coming to a head over the coming weeks and months. While it’s true that defensive depth is essential, the Jets need to graduate at least one D prospect (Chisholm, who is no longer exempt from waivers) and will either decide that Ville Heinola is ready or they will move him for an asset at the 2023 NHL Draft. That’s a start, but more moves are required on the back end.

Stanley, the 2016 first-rounder, asked for a trade before the deadline and is likely to find a new home this summer as well because he’s looking to play more. After that, the Jets need to decide if they want to try and lock down Brenden Dillon and/or Dylan DeMelo to a contract extension or move them (or just one of them) to a contender. Nate Schmidt has two years left on his deal (at $5.95 million) and figures to be back on the third pairing. After winning the competition for the sixth spot on the blue line, Samberg is ready for more minutes, and what happens with Dillon will signal whether or not he’s ready for a second-pairing role. Neal Pionk led the Jets in scoring in the playoffs after an up-and-down season. He needs to get back to full health, and then he’s likely going to anchor the right side, depending on what happens with DeMelo.

Josh Morrissey is coming off a season where he forced himself into the Norris Trophy conversation and he’s the clear-cut No. 1, but there’s a lot of uncertainty about what things will look behind him on the left side. What’s clear is that the Jets will be looking to change their mix. Minnesota Wild blue-liner Matt Dumba is probably going to be a salary-cap casualty as a pending UFA and his physical style would be welcome on the right side, regardless of what happens on the left.

Re-up Namestnikov and Niederreiter

The two prominent trade-deadline additions for the Jets helped change the complexion of the forward group for the better, adding a mix of skill and sandpaper that made their new team tougher to play against. Simply put, both are a pain in the behind to play against, while also augmenting the offensive attack.

Vladislav Namestnikov showed great chemistry with Nikolaj Ehlers and that’s a pairing that should be explored further. Namestnikov has lived a nomadic lifestyle during the past four seasons, suiting up for seven teams. Signing a multi-year extension has plenty of appeal for someone who clearly has the trust of Jets head coach Rick Bowness and can slide easily up and down the lineup and play all three forward positions. Given the state of the centre position, Namestnikov, 30, would be a capable second-line pivot and would clearly be more than just an insurance policy. A modest raise from the $2.5 million Namestnikov made this past season on a three-year deal should be enough to secure his services.

Nino Niederreiter, who will be 31 in September, still has one more season at $4 million left on his deal and will be eligible for an extension on July 1. He’s played for three teams during the past two seasons and might also be interested in the stability that would come with another two-year pact, provided the Jets are going to be competitive. Would two more years at $4 million get it done? Only his agent knows for sure.

Sign Ivan Barbashev or Max Domi

Both Ivan Barbashev and Max Domi have spent time in the Central Division recently, have been productive and are also difficult to play against. Barbashev, 27, was believed to be on the target list for the Jets leading into the NHL trade deadline but ended up with the Vegas Golden Knights, where he’s been an excellent fit. Barbashev has been used more on the wing than at centre, but his versatility qualifies as an obvious strength.

Domi, 28, has fit nicely with the Dallas Stars after a trade as well, picking up where he left off after a strong season with the Chicago Blackhawks to finish with the second 20-goal season of his NHL career. The Jets considered trading up to get Domi at the 2013 NHL Draft and he would fill an obvious need down the middle, and he figures to get a raise from the $3 million he made last season.

Find the next Chandler Stephenson or Kirby Dach

This likely falls under the category of the toughest task ahead for Cheveldayoff and company. Should the Jets need to replace both Mark Scheifele and Dubois, trading for someone who features the qualities of Chandler Stephenson (traded to the Golden Knights by the Washington Capitals) or Kirby Dach (traded to the Montreal Canadiens by the Chicago Blackhawks) could help fill the void. Both of those players went from supporting roles in previous stops to flourishing with their current teams, taking advantage of the change of scenery. Dach carried the weight of expectation with him as a third-overall selection in the 2019 NHL Draft, while Stephenson was more of a penalty-killing specialist/checking-line forward who has unlocked his scoring touch with the Golden Knights.

Identifying this type of player is also a difficult challenge, but those guys are out there — and many are waiting for the chance to slide into a top-six role and enjoy power-play time that wasn’t previously available. The candidates here aren’t obvious and every team in the NHL is looking for market inefficiencies and seeking the next breakout player, so the Jets will have ample competition here as well. The Jets could also be in position to be able to take a chance on a higher-salaried player who hasn’t worked out with his current employer, though those moves usually come with some level of risk attached.

Nick Schmaltz of the Arizona Coyotes is already a top-six performer, but remains an interesting name to monitor, though he’s been used more on the wing in recent seasons. Schmaltz, who played college hockey at the University of North Dakota, has three more seasons left on his contract, and that might not line up with when the Coyotes are going to be in their window of contention. Schmaltz has an AAV of $5.85 million, but his actual salary during the next three seasons is $7.5 million, $8.45 million and $8.5 million. Schmaltz has dealt with injuries the past two seasons but managed to eclipse 20 goals and 58 points in each of them — generating at a rate of nearly a point per game (58 in 63 games last season, and 59 in 63 games in 2021-22).

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