At what point do the Jets start to see the playoffs as unlikely – and consider shopping their expiring contracts?
“That’s why they play the games,” goes the old sports adage. And it sure does apply to the Winnipeg Jets over the past few months.
The Jets were a popular pick to duplicate last season’s success entering 2015-16. They had a ton going for them. They made the big dance last year, first of all. They didn’t appear to be remotely fluky, as their possession analytics were among the NHL’s best. They had the sport’s pre-eminent prospect crop, as voted by our panel of scouts and GMs in THN Future Watch 2015, and at least a couple of their farmhands were NHL-bound, most notably Nikolaj Ehlers.
But alas, anointing the Jets a contender before the season started has proved fruitless so far. That’s why they play the games, indeed. Sure, they gave the Leafs a walloping Wednesday night, but that’s no monumental accomplishment. Winnipeg sits 12-12-2, good for sixth in the Central Division. The Jets are “two” points out of a playoff spot, but the team above them, the Minnesota Wild, has three games in hand. The Jets have had a devil of a time keeping the puck out of their net, ranking 29th in goals against per game at 3.08. They’ve slipped to 20th in penalty killing at 79.0 percent. They remain strong in possession, ranking ninth in 5-on-5 score-adjusted Corsi For percentage and ninth in Corsi Against, or shot attempts against, per 60 minutes according to war-on-ice.com. The biggest reason for their struggles is that they rank 26th in team save percentage at .899. They’ve played similar hockey to last year everywhere except the blue ice. They were 11th in save percentage last year.
The struggles of Ondrej Pavelec and Michael Hutchinson are largely to blame, yes, and polished mega-prospect Connor Hellebucyk could rectify the Jets’ puck-stopping woes now that he’s up with the club. He’s 2-0 with a .958 SP. So far, so good. The Jets could start winning many more games. How many more must they win to make the playoffs, though? By the end of Wednesday’s action their playoff chances sat at 34 percent. The Jets have an atrocious 3-7-0 record against their deadly Central Division neighbors. Last year, when they made the playoffs, they were 16-8-5 against the Central. The year prior, when they missed the playoffs: 9-15-5. The trend doesn’t look good. They look like they’ll have a hard time finishing in the top half of their division in 2015-16.
And thus, factoring in Winnipeg’s disappointing results so far this year, is it time to reassess the trade rumors swirling around this team?
The Travis Hamonic buzz makes sense for Winnipeg regardless of this year’s forecast, at least. He’s only 25, he’s a coveted right-handed shooter, and he has a perfectly reasonable contract carrying a $3.857-million cap hit over four more seasons after this one. So if the Jets were to, say, send Tyler Myers to the New York Islanders for Hamonic, it would be a reasonable decision for their long-term future. Well, sort of. Even though Myers’ contract carries a larger cap hit at $5.5 million, he’s only owed $4 million, $3.5 million and $3 million in actual money over the remaining three seasons of his deal, which was hugely frontloaded, whereas Hamonic makes $4.875 million real dollars for every remaining year of his deal. Go figure.
Still, Hamonic is a reasonable trade target. So we can leave him be. The names to suddenly view through a different lens: Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd and Jacob Trouba.
Byfuglien and Ladd are unrestricted free agents this summer and presented Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff with a tough dilemma entering the fall. The team needed both players on board to stay competitive, but pushing for the playoffs without re-signing either guy would risk losing each. Byfuglien has surfaced in many trade rumors, all of which involved the Jets seeking equal win-now value in return. As Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman recently speculated, they may or may not have offered Byfuglien for Hamonic. Now, with the Jets in danger of missing the big dance, Byfuglien becomes a much easier guy to move. If the Jets fall out of the race they can offer him as a rental in exchange for prospects and picks. They no longer have to find the unlikely suitor willing to trade an established, important roster player for a pending UFA. If the Jets just want futures, they can create a real bidding war with ‘Big Buff,’ a big, strong, versatile Stanley Cup winner who would seriously bolster any contending team.
Even Ladd’s outlook changes. He’s far more likely to re-sign with the Jets, he’s their captain, and he’s said repeatedly he wants to return. But if this team knows it’ll miss the playoffs, and a Ladd deal remains unfinished, might Cheveldayoff consider lending Ladd to a contender, then re-signing him in July? He’s the type of power forward that would legitimately put a team over the top. He could easily yield a first-round pick in a deadline deal. Ladd might take some convincing, but there’s precedent for such a move. Antoine Vermette did it just last year when Arizona dealt him. He won a Cup with Chicago, netted the Coyotes a first-rounder and rejoined them as a free agent. Daniel Winnik did it with the Leafs last spring, too.
Lastly, Trouba’s outlook changes on a non-contender Jets team, but for a different reason. The third-year defenseman, 21, hasn’t matched the standard he set as a powerhouse rookie in 2013-14. His confidence and speed have waned. He’s stopped scoring. And he is possibly the piece the Islanders want in a Hamonic deal. If the Jets don’t look like they’ll make the playoffs, however, the urgency to move Trouba for pieces to help them now disappears. He’s two years younger than John Klingberg. Trouba has plenty of time to blossom. He’s a restricted free agent, and Cheveldayoff can ink him to a bridge contract. It’s absolutely worth waiting to see if Trouba figures it out by next season.
It’s possible the Jets still turn this thing around. The analytics suggest they’ve been unlucky, and improved goaltending could help them get hot in a hurry. It’s still relatively early. But Cheveldayoff has to tread carefully in the next couple months. He must re-evaluate what major moves he needs to make, and what he wants in return for his assets, if his team continues to slide out of post-season contention.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. 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