WINNIPEG — But when are the Winnipeg Jets going to address the need on the left side of the second defence pairing?
At a time when NHL free agency has moved to the slow trickle stage, that’s the most common query sent my way — whether it’s via text message, DM or e-mail.
Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff addressed the need at second-line centre by bringing back veteran Paul Stastny in a trade with the Vegas Golden Knights, and he’s brought in Derek Forbort and re-upped a handful of guys on the back end including Dylan DeMelo, Nathan Beaulieu, Luca Sbisa and Nelson Nogier in free agency.
Those were the top priorities going into the off-season.
Adding Cole Perfetti in the first round of the 2020 NHL Draft as the long-term solution to the second-line centre was an obvious bonus.
So, who is going to play alongside Neal Pionk, provided DeMelo is reunited on the top pair with Josh Morrissey?
While it’s important to remember the off-season is just beginning and that Cheveldayoff will continue to scour the market for value contracts and potential trades, a look at the organizational depth chart reveals that it’s quite possible the Jets are already comfortable with the defence corps they’ve assembled.
You can bet the Jets are more comfortable with this group compared to the one that opened last season.
Of course it remains possible that Cheveldayoff will find a way to put a package together — likely involving fellow restricted free agents Jack Roslovic and Sami Niku — that brings back someone like MacKenzie Weegar from the Florida Panthers or perhaps one of the left-shot D-men the Carolina Hurricanes seem to have an abundance of.
It’s also possible the Jets circle back and see if the price tag to bring a free agent like Ben Hutton (or a reasonable facsimile) might end up in a place that is comfortable for both parties.
However, when you look at the players under contract already and couple that with the $27,145 of cap space the Jets are currently operating with – before Bryan Little is expected to be moved to long term injured reserve at the start of next season – a big-name move is unlikely to happen.
Unless a blockbuster involving Patrik Laine comes to fruition.
The turnover to the Jets’ blue line during the off-season of 2019 is well documented, with the departure of Jacob Trouba in a trade followed by losing Ben Chiarot and Tyler Myers in free agency.
The exclamation point was Dustin Byfuglien asking for a personal leave of absence on the eve of training camp, which eventually led to the mutual termination of his contract.
To recap, the Jets defence corps was in flux for much of last season and became reliant on several waiver-claim additions, but the group steadied somewhat after the arrival of DeMelo.
As it stands right now, Forbort has replaced Anthony Bitetto, who signed a two-way deal with the New York Rangers, and Carl Dahlstrom, who was traded to the Golden Knights along with a draft pick for Stastny.
For those of you unfamiliar with his work, Forbort is an upgrade. He brings a physical brand of play and has averaged nearly 20 minutes of ice time per game during the course of his career – often being paired with Drew Doughty as a member of the Los Angeles Kings.
Forbort dealt with some injuries last season that limited him to 27 games last season (including the playoffs) and he was used mostly on the third pairing with the Calgary Flames.
However, given his return to full health, it would not be a surprise if Forbort gets the first opportunity to play alongside Pionk — a guy he’s been skating and training with in Duluth, Minn., during the off-season.
In some ways a Forbort-Pionk pairing would be fitting.
At this time last season, most folks didn’t know much about Pionk and many were skeptical about his ability to fill the shoes of Trouba, the player he was traded for.
It’s also possible the Jets are interested in seeing whether 2017 second-rounder Dylan Samberg or 2019 first-rounder Ville Heinola might be able to grow into the job – or win it during training camp.
Isn’t that rolling the dice a bit, you might wonder. There’s always a risk that the top defence prospects aren’t quite ready for prime time, sure.
Samberg is 21, but has played three full college seasons and been part of two NCAA Frozen Four championships with the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs.
He’s also participated in two IIHF World Junior Championships with Team USA and brings a winning pedigree that dates back to his days at Hermantown High School.
Is he physically ready? Of course there’s time to add strength and continue to fill into his body, but he’s already six-foot-four and 219 pounds — and plays a heavy game to go along with his mobility and puck-moving prowess.
Growing pains are surely on the horizon as it’s still a big jump from college hockey to the NHL, but it’s hard to envision a scenario where Samberg isn’t at least battling for a job skating with Tucker Poolman on the third pairing.
For a Jets defence corps that was looking to add size and some improvement to the penalty kill, Forbort and Samberg should check both of those boxes.
Heinola isn’t going to be rushed, but few expected him to be on the NHL roster to start last season and he ended up appearing in eight games with the Jets, chipping in a goal and five points. Some nights he looked like he had the skill set to stick around all season, and on others he looked like an 18-year-old with plenty to learn.
Ultimately, the decision to have Heinola head back to play for his club team in Finland to follow the development path of Dallas Stars blue-liner Miro Heiskanen looks like the right one.
It’s possible Heinola might need some additional seasoning in the American Hockey League this winter with the Manitoba Moose, but it’s also not unreasonable to expect he’s going to be in the mix for an NHL job.
As for Beaulieu, he battled through a litany of broken bones last season and is probably best served on the third pair with Poolman, but it’s important to remember that after he was originally acquired from the Buffalo Sabres, he did a solid job playing with Trouba when Morrissey was out with a shoulder injury.
It’s true the Jets defence corps isn’t as physically imposing or star-studded as it was during that trip to the Western Conference final in 2018, but there are plenty of teams that use a do-it-by-committee approach.
And the value of having someone as dependable as DeMelo for a full season should not be discounted.
He can give you 20-plus minutes of ice time and contribute in a number of different areas. One of his most important qualities is making his defence partner better.
By his own admission, Morrissey endured some rough patches last season. But having learning so much about his own game throughout the process and having a regular partner once again in DeMelo, look for Morrissey to flourish this season now that the weight of the world is no longer on his shoulders.
It’s easy to understand why some folks don’t believe the group is good enough. It’s also not hard to see why the Jets might want to see what they’ve got before they go out and get someone else to join the competition.
If none of the players mentioned above can handle the job, there will be plenty of players available via trade once the season begins.
With revenue streams being limited and the Seattle Kraken expansion draft looming, the opportunity to add will be there.
Because of the complex nature of the rules regarding LTIR, utilizing the cap space available in-season is far less risky for the Jets than spending that roughly $5 million now.
As currently constructed, the Jets remain a team that is going to ride its core group of highly-skilled forwards in the top-six and hope Adam Lowry returns healthy to anchor a third line with Andrew Copp that can check, provide plenty of puck possession and some secondary scoring.
Having a fourth line he can trust to play roughly 10 minutes per game has been a challenge for Jets head coach Paul Maurice for most of his time behind the bench here, but that’s something that must be rectified this season.
This group won’t be going anywhere without getting elite-level goaltending from Connor Hellebuyuck and with a condensed schedule most likely, Laurent Brossoit will need a bounce-back campaign as well.
Goaltending is a tough thing to either count on or predict, but Hellebuyck has put together two Vezina-calibre seasons during the past three campaigns. Given his drive to get better, it’s a pretty safe bet to expect his floor to be above-average and for him to be closer to the ceiling than the floor when it comes to the on-ice results.
At least on paper, the Colorado Avalanche still look like the cream of the crop in the Central Division, while the Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues appear to have separated themselves from the remaining four teams.
Right now, the Jets look to be in a cluster of clubs including the Nashville Predators and Minnesota Wild battling for a wild-card berth. Until a true starting goalie is acquired, the Chicago Blackhawks look like they’ll be in the basement of the Central Division as the rebuild continues.
Should the Jets find themselves in an All-Canadian division, their lot in life figures to be similar – as a team battling for a wild card berth.
With all of that in mind, here’s a preliminary look at what the Jets’ depth chart could like look, based on the players currently under contract:
Eric Comrie/Mikhail Berdin
Josh Morrissey – Dylan DeMelo
Derek Forbort – Neal Pionk
Dylan Samberg/Ville Heinola – Tucker Poolman
Nathan Beaulieu – Luca Sbisa
Logan Stanley – Nelson Nogier
Kyle Connor – Mark Scheifele – Blake Wheeler
Nikolaj Ehlers – Paul Stastny – Patrik Laine
Andrew Copp – Adam Lowry – Mason Appleton
Kristian Vesalainen – Nate Thompson – Mathieu Perreault
Joona Luoto/CJ Suess – David Gustafsson – Dominic Toninato
Note: 2020 first-rounder Cole Perfetti is a natural C but could push for a roster spot on the wing. However, it’s possible, if not likely, he will return to the OHL’s Saginaw Spirit this season.
RFAs: D Sami Niku, F Jack Roslovic, F Jansen Harkins