WINNIPEG – With the Stanley Cup awarded and the offseason officially underway, we are approaching the point of peak rumour mill season.
The 2022 NHL Draft is right around the corner, followed by the opening of the annual swap meet known as free agency, so that means that managers around the NHL are doing their diligence and trying to get a head start on roster improvements or trying to dump salary for teams who happen to be in – or considering entering – the rebuilding mode phase.
It’s the time of year when that combination of patience and creativity can often be rewarded, though that’s no sure thing either.
The splashy trade or signing is often the one that gets the headlines, but it doesn’t always yield immediate or even future dividends.
Although the Winnipeg Jets‘ top priority is to complete this second round of interviews with prospective head coaching candidates and find the individual to replace Paul Maurice, it’s not the least bit surprising that other GMs are calling Kevin Cheveldayoff to try and get a read on what direction he plans to take things this offseason.
Do the Jets believe that they’re just a couple of moves away from being right back in contention in a Central Division that now includes the Stanley Cup champion?
Or is this going to be a more thorough process of roster revamping?
The latest Jets player to attract interest is centre Pierre-Luc Dubois, a pending restricted free agent with two more seasons of team control before he can test the open market.
Dubois had a strong showing at the 2022 IIHF men’s World Hockey Championship after recording a career-high in goals (28), while finishing one point (60) behind his career high while finishing among the league leaders in penalties drawn and penalties taken.
He took on a leadership role and was starting to look like someone who would soon be wearing a letter on his jersey.
Then came recent news from colleague Elliotte Friedman that Dubois intends to test unrestricted free agency when he is eligible in the summer of 2024.
That doesn’t mean he’s suddenly soured on Winnipeg, it just means he’s not ready to go to the altar for a long-term commitment without getting a better idea what direction the Jets are going – with regards to the coaching staff and personnel.
A report from Francois Gagnon of RDS on Wednesday had members of Jets Nation fired up, since it linked the New York Rangers as the latest team interested and actually having conversations about what it would take to acquire him, noting a high interest level from GM Chris Drury.
Here’s the thing, nearly every GM in the NHL should be interested in Dubois, who is about to turn 24 years old and brings a lot of qualities that winning teams are looking for.
The Rangers have also been linked to Jets centre Mark Scheifele as a potential option to forge a 1-2 partnership down the middle on Broadway with Mika Zibanejad – especially with Ryan Strome and former Jets forward Andrew Copp both looking like they’re heading towards testing unrestricted free agency.
Any deal with the Jets would include discussion about centre Filip Chytil, wingers Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko and defenceman Braden Schneider.
Another option on the back end would be prospect Nils Lundqvist, who is a mobile puck-mover and was on the Jets’ wish list when negotiations for Copp were ongoing.
Chytil, who had eight goals, 22 points in 67 games but added seven goals and nine points in 20 playoff contests, endured some up-and-down moments this season that included healthy scratches but he emerged as an excellent complementary player in the postseason.
Lafreniere (19 goals, 31 points in 79 games) and Kakko (seven goals, 18 points in 43 games) also had moments of brilliance mixed in with some inconsistency, with Kakko ending the playoffs as a healthy scratch in the elimination game with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Although the Jets need to bolster their depth down the middle if they reach the point of considering moving either Dubois or Scheifele, Lafreniere and Kakko could bring a mixture of scoring and size to the equation on the wing as well.
Then the Jets could look elsewhere, either via trade or free agency, unless they’re ready to move top forward prospect Cole Perfetti back to centre next season.
Schneider is someone the Jets scouting staff would be familiar with from his time with the Brandon Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League.
A right-handed shooting blue-line who is mobile but also plays with an edge, he’s fit in well with the Rangers but with former Jets D-man Jacob Trouba and Adam Fox ahead of him on the depth chart, he could find himself in play – though the Blueshirts think highly of him and he fits well financially heading into the final year of his entry-level contract.
For the Rangers, a move for Scheifele would bring more cost certainty, since he’s locked in at $6.125 million for the next two seasons, widening the window of contention.
Dubois is certain to make north of that number whether he chooses to go short term or long term on this next deal.
Drury and Cheveldayoff connected for the deadline deal for Copp and a 2023 sixth rounder, a trade that was complete after the Jets chose not to defer the second second-rounder to 2023, as the NHL released the official draft order on Wednesday.
That deal also netted the Jets a first-rounder (30th overall after the Rangers reached the Eastern Conference final), versatile forward Morgan Barron and a fifth-rounder in 2023.
Fair to say both sides were happy at the end of this one, but neither is satisfied with the current roster, so discussions could be ongoing.
This isn’t to suggest a deal for Dubois is imminent, but with the Montreal Canadiens also having interest in the power forward, this could be as simple as trying to drum up a bidding war – since the Jets’ primary objective is to get a one-year contract done and then get to work on convincing the Montreal product to reconsider his long-range thinking and eventually sign on the dotted line and take his place as a foundational piece.
There have been some suggestions on social media that the Jets should simply embrace a full-on rebuild, citing the Colorado Avalanche and Tampa Bay Lightning as examples of what can be achieved when you draft in the top five for a stretch of time.
The problem with that line of thinking is that by the time those assets and younger players start getting to the point where they’re big-time contributors, most of the next wave of Jets are going to either be on the back nine or near the end of their longer-term deals.
So it’s a risky proposition, especially when you factor in that the Jets didn’t have a single sellout last season and took a significant financial hit during the pandemic.
This isn’t to suggest the Jets should stand pat or go with a scorched earth approach, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle.
Augment the pieces of the emerging core with either a savvy trade or signing, then look for Connor Hellebuyck to be his motivated self and have an elite season.
This isn’t to suggest Hellebuyck was subpar last season, his underlying numbers remained strong in terms of goals saved above average, but he wasn’t quite as sharp as we’re used to seeing. – and as the theory goes, the Jets need elite-level goaltending to be competitive, not just average or slightly above.
Given Hellebuyck’s motivation level, someone who knows him well suggested recently that he’ll be putting in extra work to return to Vezina-like form.
Which brings us back to Dubois, who looks ready to grab the mantle of being a No. 1 centre, even if he’s not quite producing at a point-per-game pace – at least not yet.
Whether or not he’s going to do that as a member of the Jets should be much more clear during these next few weeks.
Could there be enough appeal with the Rangers situation that Dubois might consider signing long-term – like Trouba did a few seasons ago?
Subsequently, would that prospect enhance the potential return for Dubois, who is sure to attract a number of other suitors.
Well, aside from the bright lights and the big city, the Rangers look like a team on the rise and feature one of the best goalies in the NHL with Vezina winner Igor Shesterkin.
The more personal connection is the one with Rangers winger Artemi Panarin, a frequent linemate of Dubois’ during their time together with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
It won’t be long before we find out whether or not the talks with the Rangers and other teams go anywhere, this is the time of year when action picks up – and that was the case on Wednesday when the Minnesota Wild dealt RFA winger Kevin Fiala to the Los Angeles Kings for a 2022 first-rounder and the rights to University of Minnesota Golden Gophers D-man Brock Faber.
If using recent history as a guide, the most likely outcome is that Dubois opens the campaign with the Jets – but that doesn’t mean the calls are going to stop coming in.
This high stakes game of chess is about to pick up and Cheveldayoff must make the right moves if the Jets are going to make any noise in the Western Conference next season.