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Ask Me Anything: What will the Jets' defense corps look like in 2020-21?

Can the Jets repair their ravaged blueline by next season? How long will Steve Yzerman's rebuild take in Detroit? And more.

Hello again! The Ask Me Anything Mailbag returns after a long layoff. Sorry about that. It’s been a busy season. Now that the trade deadline has passed, we’re left to enjoy the pure hockey of the stretch run – and to ponder the near futures of several franchises. That’s the overarching theme of this week’s question batch. As usual, you gave me lots of great ones to sort through.

James Magnusson (@Jakkp0t) asks…

Hey Matt. Wondering what you think Dallas will do this off-season in regards to personnel if they don’t meet expectations this post-season. Any chance a big name player (Jamie Benn, Alexander Radulov etc.) is part of trade discussions?

Hey James. The Stars find themselves in somewhat of a hot spot. I don’t think they face the same level of pressure to make a deep playoff run as, say, Tampa, but GM Jim Nill sent a pretty strong statement with his off-season moves last summer. By bringing in older vets such as Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry, Nill erased any doubts that he viewed his operation as “win-now.” That can be exciting for the fan base, but it also puts a fair amount of pressure on Nill if the Stars don’t make a good run in the post-season. They’re safely locked into a spot, seven points up on the Minnesota Wild for the third rung in the Central, but Dallas trails the Colorado Avalanche by six points and the St. Louis Blues by eight. That means it’s a near certainly Dallas will open the playoffs as a road underdog against one of the top two teams in the Western Conference. Gulp.

So if I’m placing a bet right now, I’d probably have Dallas losing in Round 1 of the playoffs, and that would send the franchise into re-evaluation mode. At that point, I’m not convinced anyone on the team would be safe other than young defense stud Miro Heiskanen, speedy center Roope Hintz, breakout right winger Denis Gurianov and probably No. 1 goalie Ben Bishop. Given franchise-pillar forwards Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin have been called out for poor play from above in two consecutive seasons – by CEO Jim Lites in 2018-19, by now-ex coach Jim Montgomery in 2019-20 – any high-profile trade is theoretically on the table. For the sake of your question, let’s look at the Big Three of Benn, Seguin and Radulov.

Benn to me is the toughest to move. He’ll be 31 next season and, as a power forward with two surgically repaired hips, he isn’t aging gracefully. He carries a $9.5-million cap hit for five more years. He’s not producing at anywhere close to that value as a guy averaging 52 points per 82 games since the start of last season. Since 2017-18 began, among 337 forwards with at least 1,000 games at 5-on-5, Benn ranks 118th in goals per 60 minutes, 194th in primary assists per 60, 160th in points per 60 and 119th in shots per 60. He’s producing like a second-line forward. The Stars would thus have to retain some salary if they traded him – but, with five years left, doing so would be a tall ask on their end. Benn also carries a full no-movement clause. Not only does that make him ineligible to be claimed in the 2021 expansion draft, it means he has total control of if and where he goes in a trade. His hometown Vancouver Canucks would be an interesting idea, but he’s a soft-spoken leader who may be more comfortable in a non-traditional U.S. market. I have a hard time picturing a Benn trade unless Dallas takes on an expensive underachiever from the other team and finds a destination of which Benn approves.

Radulov? He has a no-movement clause, too, but he only has two years left at a $6.25-million cap hit. His NMC also changes to a modified no-trade clause this summer, through which he submits a 15-team no-trade list. With only a couple years left on his deal, Dallas could afford to eat some salary if it needed to in a trade. Also, at 34 next season, Radulov might be more willing to waive his no-trade anyway if it meant going to a superior contender.

Seguin’s decline this season has been shocking. Just 17 goals in games? Mika Zibanejad got 29 percent of that total Thursday night. But that shouldn’t scare suitors away. If anything, it could create a mini buy-low opportunity for a guy who still ranks 22nd among NHL forwards in shots per 60 this season and has simply been snake-bitten with a career-low shooting percentage of 7.1. He’s only 28 and thus has plenty of good years left to justify his $9.85-milion cap hit. Then again, he’s in Year 1 of an eight-year pact that will mostly cover his decline years, and he’s equipped with a no-movement clause of his own. He’s thus not necessarily easy to trade, even if he still possesses legit star power. If the Stars were to move Seguin, it would have to be part of a massive, franchise-shaking trade involving a legitimate (and expensive) game-breaker coming Dallas’ way.

To be clear though – this one’s for you, content aggregator sites – I’m merely answering the question here, not saying I think Benn and Seguin will get dealt. I don’t think Nill is there yet. Trading Benn would help the team most, and trading Seguin would bring the best return, but the most realistic name of the Big Three to move would be Radulov to me. Term, not money, is the negotiation killer in today’s NHL. Any team getting Radulov isn’t committing to too much term, and he’s the only member of the Big Three who doesn’t fully control his own destiny.

Benjamin Miller (@MillerBenjaminA) asks…

How many years before Steve Yzerman can get the Detroit Red Wings back into the playoffs? How many after that before they are legit Cup contenders?

This is such a fun question, because the answer essentially amounts to making a bet on your ‘Steve Yzerman Confidence.’ It’s fair for everyone to assume the Wings are many years away from even sniffing the playoffs, let alone contending for a Stanley Cup. After all, they’re currently on track to post the worst points percentage since the 1999-00 Atlanta Thrashers. But, honestly: this is all part of a bigger plan. Yzerman is playing possum. This nightmare season isn’t quite what it seems to be.

Yes, Yzerman inherited a true dumpster fire, not just because it was devoid of high-ceiling NHL talent other than Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha, but also because it was saddled with so many bad veteran contracts. That’s still somewhat true, as Detroit has two more seasons of Frans Nielsen at $5.25 million and three more seasons of Justin Abdelkader at $4.25 million after this one. But some of the albatross deals are starting to slide off the books. Jimmy Howard, Trevor Daley and Jonathan Ericsson are up this summer, and Darren Helm enters the final year of his pact at $3.85 million per. Also, Abdelkader has reached the point where a buyout wouldn’t be crippling (Nielsen not so much). The point is: as of this summer, while the Wings won’t be in a splendid financial situation, I don’t think they’ll be in Contract Hell anymore.

The Wings’ overall talent base is also better than it looks. Without giving away major spoilers from Future Watch 2020, which will hit newsstands in a couple weeks, I can tell you our panel of NHL head scouts grades Detroit’s prospect pool middle-of-the pack at the moment. Detroit held back right winger Filip Zadina in the AHL to start the season and has rewound the development clocks for left winger Taro Hirose and defenseman Dennis Cholowski, giving them lots of time in the AHL. It appears Yzerman’s first draft pick as Detroit GM, blueliner Moritz Seider at sixth overall last June, was not a reach after all. It's a steal instead, as Seider looks like a future mega-minutes shutdown defenseman. But the Red Wings have kept the 18-year-old in the AHL. Slow-cooking the kids will help their overall development while also shielding them from the depressing experience of playing on the worst NHL team in 20 years. Better yet, in keeping the NHL club as weak as possible by holding the higher-upside pieces off the chessboard, the Wings will soon mathematically lock up the 31st-overall spot in the standings. They will have the second-best odds to win the No. 1 overall pick – technically the first at 18.5 percent but, since the Ottawa Senators hold their own first-rounder plus San Jose’s, Ottawa's combined odds would be 20 percent if the lottery were held today.

Still, we know the Wings will have an excellent shot at Alexis Lafreniere or Quinton Byfield or, if the lottery luck doesn’t favor them, another good player in what looks like a strong first-round draft class, such as defenseman Jamie Drysdale. With three second-round picks and two third-rounders for 2020 as well, Yzerman should load up the pipeline this year – and could even package a couple of those to trade into the first round again.

So while the Wings still have a long way to go, they theoretically could add a combination such as Lafreniere-Veleno-Seider-Cholowski, plus a healthy Zadina, to their lineup next season, and that doesn’t factor in any potential free-agent additions Yzerman might consider. I thus could see this team markedly improved by 2022, back in the playoffs by 2023 and, with a little luck, contending by 2025. Still a long wait but not an eternity.

Alex H (@alexhoegler) asks…

Do you think locking up the Presidents’ Trophy this early will hurt the Bruins the same way it hurt the Lightning last year? With no meaningful games for over a month, how can Boston stay focused?

Hey Alex. The Presidents’ Trophy question seems to be a valid one every year. Some members of Washington Capitals expressed to us a couple years back that they felt being so dominant in 2015-16 and 2016-17 made them mentally soft for the playoffs, and they won the Cup the year they started slowly and had to make a late charge. We figured that was almost the only possible weakness to exploit in the Tampa Bay Lightning last year, along with a lack of physicality among their forwards, and the Columbus sweep happened.

I have more intel on this topic than normal because, for another story I’m working on, I just spoke with legendary coach Scotty Bowman yesterday. I was asking him about his 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings, who won a record 62 games and didn’t win the Cup. They rallied from the disappointment to win the next two Cups, so I wanted to pick Bowman’s brain to understand whether he thought Tampa could do the same.

For the most part, Bowman actually doesn’t believe in taking the foot off the gas. For him, that would be overthinking it. “Down the stretch, sometimes you think, ‘Well, we should rest players,’ but sometimes when you rest players, you get out of sync,” he said.

He felt his Wings won the next Cup because they simply matched up better with their slate of opponents – and it helped that they had seven new skaters, most notably Brendan Shanahan.

So why do I mention it? Because, according to the philosophy of Scotty Bowman, a.k.a. The Bill Belichick of hockey, the Bruins being frontrunners isn’t a problem and won’t hurt them. The other reason I think the Bruins have less to worry about than the 2019 Lightning is that the Bruins have the experience to stay mentally strong. Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Krejci and Joakim Nordstrom have Stanley Cup rings, while the rest of the squad save for a couple players has been to Game 7 of the final. When a team is full of players who’ve been in deep waters before, the group is probably less likely to lose focus early in the post-season. If you believe in that kind of intangible: last year’s Lightning had zero Cup rings entering the playoffs, albeit a bunch of their players had reached a final.

Danny Sims (@Simmer67) asks…

What should the Jets do about their D-corps for 2020-21?

Great question. If only GM Kevin Cheveldayoff could’ve sorted that out for 2019-20! Naturally, the plans for the season got nuked when Dustin Byfuglien showed up to camp with a previously undisclosed ankle injury requiring surgery. When Cheveldayoff let Tyler Myers walk as a UFA and traded Jacob Trouba, still having ‘Big Buff’ in the lineup was obviously part of the plan. So the right side of Winnipeg’s D has been in a state of disrepair all season. If the Jets end up missing the playoffs, that’ll probably be the reason why. Goaltender Connor Hellebuyck has dealt with an impossible degree of scoring-chance difficulty this season and still played Vezina-caliber hockey, but it may not be enough,

So how does Winnipeg build its ‘D’ for next season? First off, we know Josh Morrissey will be back to patrol the left side. Neal Pionk has been far better than expected after coming over in the Trouba trade and will return on the right side. It was pretty remarkable to see Ville Heinola make the Jets for eight games as an 18-year-old rookie. While he’s returned to Finland, the fact he got a cup of coffee this year tells us there’s a pretty strong chance he makes the Jets next season. So those are three names we can expect.

What about right-hander Dylan DeMelo, acquired at the 2020 trade deadline? He’s a pending UFA but could make for a reasonably priced re-signing if there’s mutual interest between him and the Jets. As for Byfuglien, while Winnipeg hasn’t officially terminated his contract, it certainly appears he’ll never play another game as a Jet, so we could still get a termination or a trade. Projecting next year’s lineup, it makes sense to omit him.

We could thus see Cheveldayoff dip into the UFA waters. If we’re to believe the NHL’s projection of a cap between $84 and 88.2 million next season – which, for the record, I don’t – the Jets would have between $10.5 and $14.7 million to spend, plus Byfuglien’s $7.5-million AAV coming off the books, upping the cap space to $18 million or more – while keeping in mind Pionk and Patrik Laine will be a year out from RFA status and eligible to ink extensions July 1.

So who’s out there in 2020? Alex Pietrangelo will be king, but he’s likely out of Winnipeg’s price range and remains a good bet to re-sign with the St. Louis Blues before he goes to market. Torey Krug doesn’t have a contract with the Boston Bruins yet and should also command a monstrous AAV north of $9 million, but he’s a Michigan boy, and I wouldn’t be remotely surprised to see Yzerman and the Red Wings pursue him. A name that could intrigue and fall into a price range slightly lower: Tyson Barrie, a Western-Canada native who plays the right side. If the Jets didn’t want to spend that much, they could kick the tires on Sami Vatanen or T.J. Brodie, who shoots left but plays better on the right side.

It’s not the most exciting UFA class overall, but it’s not a bad one for top-four defensemen, so I do think the Jets will have options. I expect this summer to be the most active we’ve ever seen the typically conservative Cheveldayoff on the UFA market. And if that fails, he may have to consider dangling one of his star forwards in a hockey trade for a defenseman such as Minnesota’s Mathew Dumba, division rivalry be damned.

Gavin (@G_Daly) asks…

For an aspiring writer, how would you recommend getting your work out there and noticed?

Ironically, I think the best way to get noticed is to write about the thing no one writes about. One sentence I’ve heard from many an intern, from my decade at the Hockey News all the way back to editing the sports section at my university student paper, is: “I have a column to submit about the Leafs.” And what I always say is, “You know who else has a column about the Leafs? EVERYBODY.”

It’s a catch-22. A lot of aspiring hockey reporters want to write about a Canadian team because it’s what they know best, but because everyone thinks that way, we get content saturation. If you’re choosing the obvious topic, you’re competing with far more people doing the same thing, so your work better be unbelievably unique if you want it to stand out.

What I recommend instead is to make a name for yourself by providing people with something they can’t find elsewhere. Don’t get on your soapbox about the Leafs. Become an expert in a sect of the sport that needs more coverage: the NWHL, the AHL or major junior, for instance. Since fewer people cover those leagues, you have a better chance to establish yourself as a go-to expert if you learn everything there is to know about them. Becoming an authority on one of those leagues can actually grow your following and eventually land you a gig covering the big league. An example that comes to mind is Hailey Salvian, a fantastic writer from The Athletic. She covered the AHL and made a name for herself as a go-to person reporting on the shutdown of the CWHL last season. Now, she’s the Ottawa Senators’ beat writer. Boom.

So that’s the best advice I can give in the modern landscape. Don’t get greedy and expect to be covering the sport at the highest level right away. Polish your skills and hone your craft covering the leagues that need more coverage, and you can work your way up to prominence.

Jeremy K. Glover (@govertime) asks…

What’s your favorite movie of all-time?

Disclaimer: this question isn’t replacing a hockey question – I’m just answering it as a bonus because movies are my one life obsession on par with hockey.

For me, it’s Michael Mann’s 1995 film Heat. It gives us the movie equivalent of if Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux ever got to play in a Stanley Cup final: Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino, toe to toe, two legends sharing the screen at the same time. It’s an expertly crafted heist flick that features, in my opinion, the greatest action scene ever filmed: the bank robbery shootout on the streets of L.A. It’s loaded with big-name actors in bit parts – even a young Natalie Portman! And it’s super quotable, especially from Pacino. I just love every Michael Mann movie because of his ridiculously great attention to detail and realism. Every actor has to train to really become their character. For Collateral, when Tom Cruise was working on his hitman character, Mann made Cruise deliver FedEx packages in crowded places and try to not to get recognized. I love stuff like that.

So Heat is the pick for me. I still watch it at least once a year.

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