The Dec. 1 RFA deadline is a little more than a month away. Jacob Trouba remains unsigned and wants a trade. What happens if Winnipeg’s slow start continues?
The Anaheim Ducks finally ended their contract squabble with restricted free agent defenseman Hampus Lindholm Thursday, locking him up for six years and $31.5 million. The minute the transaction became official, you could just feel the hockey community’s collective neck craning toward the Winnipeg Jets and blueliner Jacob Trouba’s camp. You’re up, fellas.
Like Lindholm, Trouba was having trouble agreeing on money. Like Lindholm, Trouba is a restricted free agent. Like Lindholm, Trouba was chosen in the first round of the 2012 draft and has a promising career ahead of him. The similarities end there, however. The negotiations between Trouba and the Jets became far more contentions than we saw with Lindholm. Trouba isn’t happy with his usage on the team, and the two sides were struggling to agree on term. He and agent Kurt Overhardt requested a trade in late September. So while the Ducks always had hope to resolve their Lindholm situation, it’s all but assured Jacob Trouba plays his next NHL game with a new club.
The question is: when will that be? Will it be in 2016-17 or 2017-18? If Trouba hasn’t inked a new deal by Dec. 1, he’s ineligible to play in the NHL this season. He’ll have to just keep pumping iron back home in Michigan or try his hand in Europe for half a year if he wants to get some game reps in.
Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has offers on the table. Teams reportedly linked to Trouba trade talks include the Boston Bruins, New York Rangers and Detroit Red Wings, just to name a few. But Cheveldayoff has been publicly adamant about not rushing things. First off, the trade isn’t the easiest to pull off given how much money Trouba wants. Reports of the official asking price have varied, but it’s safe to say Trouba expects to at least land in the Lindholm/Seth Jones/Morgan Rielly/Rasmus Ristolainen range with a cap hit north of $5 million should Trouba ink a long-term contract. It’s debatable whether Trouba has earned that kind of term and money, but we know his camp believes he deserves it, especially when it feels his conservative usage by coach Paul Maurice suppressed Trouba’s numbers. That means the team landing Trouba must possess a solid chunk of cap space. Still, much tougher contracts have been moved. David Clarkson got moved. A desirable young player like Trouba? Piece of cake. Plenty of teams likely have a solution. Dustin Byfuglien and Tyler Myers clog Winnipeg’s depth chart with expensive top-four righty shooters, so Cheveldayoff wants a left-handed defenseman of equal value to Trouba as an ideal return. A player of that caliber would likely carry a decent price tag, liberating the trading team of enough cap space to fit Trouba in.
Still, Cheveldayoff doesn’t want to rush a deal. But how long can he maintain that position? His Jets have a ton of potential in the Central Division this season. Mark Scheifele has carried last season’s sizzling finish into 2016-17. He’s a bona fide stud first-line center. Patrik Laine has justified his status as the 2016 draft’s No. 2 overall pick, showing an Alex Ovechkin-like release. The Jets have speed to burn with the likes of Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers up front, too. But not everything has gone their way. It seemed waiving Ondrej Pavelec finally freed up a superior goaltending tandem of Connor Hellebuyck and Michael Hutchinson. It’s very early, but both stoppers have struggled so far, combining for an .883 save percentage. Center Bryan Little’s lower-body injury creates an irreplaceable depth chart hole, too. This team has started a disappointing 2-4-0, and that mark could easily be 1-5-0 if not for a miraculous comeback from a 4-0 third-period deficit versus Toronto last week. The Jets’ health woes – Drew Stafford joins Little on the shelf for Thursday’s game – threaten to dig them a deeper standings hole going forward.
Most of all, the Jets need, well, Trouba, or Cheveldayoff’s desired Trouba equivalent. They aren’t the same defensively without him. They rank 27th in goals-against average at 3.67, they’re killing penalties at an ugly 72.7 percent clip. They’ve been average in shots allowed and Corsi Against, so a lot of their problems can be blamed on goaltending, but part of the Jets’ woes has been allowing too many grade-A chances. Our in-house analytics writer and general whiz kid Dom Luszczyszyn crunched the league-wide 5-on-5 numbers for high-danger scoring chances so far in 2016-17, and the Jets allow 8.0 per 60 minutes, the eighth-most in the NHL. Last season with Trouba in the lineup: 6.8 per 60. So they’re allowing at least one extra high-quality chance per contest. The sample size is obviously tiny, but that makes it no less true that (a) they are allowing more high-danger chances than they did last year so far and (b) Jacob Trouba is missing from the lineup. A circumstantial argument for his importance? Maybe. But no one can deny the Jets badly need him or his analog.
So while it’s probable the Jets never get Trouba back, Cheveldayoff might feel some heat to trade Trouba for help sooner rather than later. No team can sleep in the mighty Central. If 2-4-0 becomes 2-6-0 or 4-8-0, will the Jets have to buck up and take the best Trouba offer on the table? Crazy as it sounds, it may be worth losing a couple games early if that expedites a Trouba trade and prevents losses in bigger bunches later this season.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to thn.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin