Jets keep all options open for Hellebuyck, Scheifele as training camp approaches

Winnipeg Jets center Mark Scheifele (55) celebrates with goaltender Connor Hellebuyck after the third period of an NHL hockey game against the New York Rangers. (Adam Hunger/AP)

WINNIPEG — If past behaviour truly is the best predictor of future behaviour, you can expect Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff to remain patient in the coming weeks — and possibly months.

With Jets training camp just a few weeks away, what we know is that Cheveldayoff wasn’t bluffing back in July when he said he was comfortable with goalie Connor Hellebuyck and top-line centre Mark Scheifele going into this season on expiring contracts.

Just over two months later, both Hellebuyck and Scheifele remain in the fold and are set to roll into town to prepare for the new season.

Of course, the topic of conversation in the first media availabilities will revolve around the future of those players, and you can expect to see the art of deflection fully on display.

There’s a good reason for that.

This is uncharted territory for Hellebuyck and Scheifele as much as it is for the organization, and there could still easily be a couple of twists and turns before there is a resolution.

You can expect both players are going to do what they can to try to put the focus on the present rather than engage in a discussion about the potential outcomes — and that’s a wise strategy.

Hellebuyck and Scheifele know exactly what’s at stake, for them personally and for the organization as a whole.

When a high-profile player enters the final year of a long-term contract, there are always going to be a host of questions about what comes next.

Whether the player wants to stick around beyond this season is almost always at the top of the list.

And is the team committed to the dollars and term it’s going to take to have the aforementioned high-profile player stick around?

That’s where things get complicated when it comes to the Jets and Hellebuyck and Scheifele.

There’s no denying the impact Hellebuyck and Scheifele have had since being chosen seventh overall in the 2011 NHL Draft and 130th overall (fifth round) of the 2012 NHL Draft, respectively.

First-line centres are difficult to find and nearly impossible to replace.

The same goes for elite-level netminders.

So, while it’s easy to say that both players will be 31 years old when their next contracts kick in and that any long-term deal is going to carry a significant amount of risk, what’s the alternative?

Very few organizations — if any — have Vezina-calibre incumbents waiting in the wings for the starter to move along.

And while the Jets have centre depth on the NHL roster and within the prospect pool, finding an in-house candidate who’s ready to be a point per game player or a 42-goal scorer right now isn’t a reasonable expectation, either.

That’s the dilemma that Cheveldayoff and his staff have been wrestling with during an off-season that included the departure of former captain Blake Wheeler and 1B centre Pierre-Luc Dubois.

It’s also a big part of the reason the Jets’ training camp figures to be so fascinating.

What will Scheifele and Hellebuyck say publicly about their respective situations?

What does their body language suggest?

Ultimately, how will they play and what will that mean for the Jets — both in terms of where they sit in the standings and what they might be willing to offer in a last-ditch effort to keep one or both players in the fold?

With head coach Rick Bowness back for a second season, his focus is going to need to be on helping the Jets be more committed to the style of play that had them battling for the top spot in the Central Division as late as January, before an unravelling left them locked in a fight for the final playoff berth in the Western Conference.

The good news for Bowness and the Jets is that the veteran coach has been around the game long enough to have experience in dealing with diffusing any potential distractions.

About the closest parallel the Jets can draw takes us back to the 2015-16 season, when captain Andrew Ladd and top defenceman Dustin Byfuglien were on expiring contracts.

Discussions were held with both camps and it was Byfuglien who inked a five-year contract extension on Feb. 8, 2016.

Several weeks later, Ladd was dealt back to the Chicago Blackhawks for a package that included forward prospect Marko Dano and a first-round draft pick.

Will a similar scenario play out this time around, with the Jets extending one player and trading the other?

Or will one or both players be under consideration to be a self-rental?

Which brings us back to Cheveldayoff, who clearly isn’t going to be rushed into making a decision he doesn’t feel is in the best interest of the hockey club.

What that means in the short term is that the Jets continue to employ one of the best goalies in the NHL, while also having Laurent Brossoit in the fold to help keep Hellebuyck fresh for the stretch run.

It also means the Jets should open the season with a highly motivated Scheifele, who is fully aware of what it’s going to take to cash in on his next deal.

When looking for clues about what happens next, it’s important to remember that Patrik Laine played the season opener in 2020-21 on Jan. 14 and didn’t play another game (because of injury) before he was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Jan. 23.

So, starting the season doesn’t necessarily mean that Scheifele or Hellebuyck will finish the season with the Jets.

It doesn’t guarantee that either player will be gone either.

At this stage of the proceedings, all options remain on the table.

This new ground for Cheveldayoff and how he handles the decision-making process could end up being a defining moment in his tenure as he embarks on this 13th season at the helm.

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