With future of core players unclear, 2023 could be defining year for Jets

Winnipeg Jets' Mark Scheifele (55), Josh Morrissey (44) and Pierre-Luc Dubois (80) celebrate Morrissey's goal against the Columbus Blue Jackets during second period NHL action in Winnipeg, Friday, March 25, 2022. (John Woods/CP)

WINNIPEG — So, it turns out the Bowness effect is real — and it’s also been spectacular for the Winnipeg Jets.

As the calendar is about to flip to 2023, the metamorphosis for the Jets under head coach Rick Bowness has been something to behold.

After winning Saturday’s 2022 finale 2-1 against the Edmonton Oilers, the Jets find themselves in the heart of a race for the top spot in the Central Division with the Dallas Stars, third in the Western Conference in win percentage and ninth overall in the NHL in that same category.

The Jets came into the campaign with plenty of question marks after missing the playoffs last spring, the culmination of unmet expectations and a side order of disappointment.

The overriding belief was that Jets general manager Kevin Chevledayoff might be looking to move a core player or two during the offseason, but after the coaching search to find a full-time replacement for Paul Maurice (and interim coach Dave Lowry) landed on Bowness after several twists and turns — including Barry Trotz saying no — the roster changes were limited to organizational depth and players around the periphery.

The overhaul was put on hold, at least temporarily.

For the most part, the band was kept together, essentially given one more opportunity to get things turned around and to make a run of consequence for the first time since the 2018 dash to the Western Conference final.

How have the Jets responded to that vote of confidence?

Well, to this point they’ve mostly been thriving under the guidance of a new voice, some tweaks to the system and the renewal of their defensive commitment.

Even with a recent rash of injuries that has seven players currently out of the lineup, the Jets remain fifth in the NHL in goals against per game (2.61) while sitting in the middle of the pack in goals for (3.22).

The star players have done an exceptional job leading the way, and the depth players that have been thrust into bigger roles are helping to steady the ship.

What does it all mean for 2023?

Well, that’s where things could get a tad complicated.

While the strong start to the new season is important, the urgency to turn that into something more remains.

Connor Hellebuyck is back to playing at a Vezina-calibre level, defenceman Josh Morrissey is leading the team in scoring and is in the heart of the Norris Trophy discussion, Mark Scheifele is leading the team with 23 goals in 36 games, Kyle Connor and Pierre-Luc Dubois are producing at more than a point per game rate and Blake Wheeler hasn’t let the stripping of the captaincy affect his game — notching nine goals and 26 points in 29 games before he left the lineup after surgery for a lower-body issue.

Those are all incredible achievements, but the long-term future of four of those players remains very much up in the air, which only raises the urgency level for this iteration of the Jets to do something special during the playoffs.

This brings us back to Cheveldayoff, who is in his 12th season as general manager.

Without sounding overly dramatic, 2023 has the potential to be a defining year for both him and the franchise itself.

How Cheveldayoff navigates the March 3 trade deadline could alter how he tackles some of the uncertainty on the horizon on the contract front.

The expectation is that Cheveldayoff will look long and hard to push all of his chips to the middle of the table in this high-stakes game of poker, perhaps finding the equivalent of bringing in Paul Stastny as he did in 2018.

Upgrading the forward depth remains the priority, but it remains to be seen what kind of player will be targeted, or more importantly, landed.

Can the Jets find this year’s version of Artturi Lehkonen or will they be mostly shopping in the rental aisle?

The wide array of injuries — including being without high-end forward Nikolaj Ehlers for all but two games this season — has severely cut into the salary cap space that was previously near $5 million, so any deals will be complex.

But that won’t prevent Cheveldayoff from taking a big swing.

He understands the magnitude of the situation and recognizes that big decisions are coming for the likes of Hellebuyck, Scheifele, Dubois and Wheeler, perhaps as early as this summer for the bulk of them.

By hiring a 67-year-old head coach with five decades of experience, the Jets aren’t about to enter a rebuild, but they’re also going to need to solidify their future by inking at least two of those core players — and possibly three — to new deals.

Dubois is sure to be earning a raise from the $6 million qualifying offer he accepted as a restricted free agent, likely seeking a contract that features an AAV north of $8 million and perhaps closer to $9 million if he can keep up his offensive pace.

He’s done a miraculous job of compartmentalizing his contract situation and future, focusing on improving as a player, just like he said he would on the heels of training camp.

If Dubois is set on exploring unrestricted free agency for the first time in 2024 or isn’t ready to make a long-term commitment to Winnipeg, Cheveldayoff might have to follow the Jacob Trouba playbook — searching for a deal that helps the organization in the present (getting Neal Pionk) and recouping a first-rounder (which ended up being Ville Heinola) which was originally used to bolster a position of need (Kevin Hayes).

The other option is to use Dubois as a self-rental but that’s problematic when you consider the price tag the Jets paid to acquire him: 2016 second-overall pick Patrik Laine and 2015 first-rounder Jack Roslovic.

Hellebuyck has often been referred to as the backbone of the Jets. He’s delivered top-notch goaltending for a long time and as another potential UFA in the summer of 2024, he’s also going to be looking for the richest deal in franchise history, eclipsing the $8.25 million AAV Wheeler signed for back in the summer of 2018.

Wheeler has one more season left on that deal and while a separation was considered last offseason by both parties, all signs point to him finishing out his contract as a member of the Jets as he pursues his chase of the Stanley Cup.

As for Scheifele, the transformation of his 200-foot game under Bowness and his coaching staff is impossible to ignore, along with his rekindled passion for the game.

The first-ever draft pick of the 2.0 version of the Jets has been delivering quality play and also positioned himself for a raise when his eight-year, $49 million contract expires in the summer of 2024.

The big question will be whether that next deal comes with the Jets — or one of the other 31 organizations?

If Scheifele sticks around, there’s a chance that a statue in his likeness could go up beside Dale Hawerchuk’s one day.

Who the Jets retain and who they might bring in to replace the core pieces they can’t convince to stick around is going to be the biggest story of 2023 — unless this group (and any of the pieces coming in before March 3 to augment it) is able to go on a magical run this spring.

That’s why the spotlight will continue to shine brightly during the remainder of the regular season and beyond.

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