This is the final file in THN.com’s lengthy Burning Questions series, in which we pose three pressing questions about each NHL team. In today’s file, we’re asking three burning questions about the Winnipeg Jets:
THREE BURNING QUESTIONS FOR THE JETS IN 2022-23:
1. What roster moves will GM Kevin Cheveldayoff make to avoid a slump that could cost him his job? After a disappointing season in 2021-22, the Jets are under extreme pressure to rebound and get back into the playoff picture in the Central Division. Winnipeg is one of six of eight Central teams that could get into the post-season this year, and many things need to go right for the Jets to secure a playoff berth. If they don’t play well, Cheveldayoff’s tenure as the only GM the franchise has had is going to come into question to a greater degree than it’s being questioned already.
Cheveldayoff’s job security will be helped with a better year from star goalie Connor Hellebuyck – who posted the second-highest goals-against average (2.97) of his career, and the worst save percentage (.910) of his NHL days – and better luck health-wise (four of their top-six forwards played fewer than 68 games last season). Cheveldayoff also has to deal with veteran forward Blake Wheeler, who was stripped of the captaincy in recent weeks, and whose time with the franchise appears to be nearing an end. (More on him below.)
Cheveldayoff does have approximately $4.6 million in salary cap space to play with, and given the pressure on him, it’s fair to expect he’ll spend every last penny in order to save his job. The problem is there aren’t difference-makers on the trade market at this point in time. And if he can’t make a deal or two to help the Jets’ playoff chances, what can the justification from ownership be for keeping him around? It’s been a dozen years now with Cheveldayoff in charge. It’s probably time for someone else to get a shot at making Winnipeg into a true Cup contender.
2. How will Blake Wheeler react, on and off the ice, to having his leadership creds taken away? Nobody should question Wheeler’s professionalism. At age 36, he’s proven he’ll push through whatever is thrown his way. The problem for him is he’s the highest-paid player on the roster at an $8.25 million cap hit, and his prime years are back in 2018-19. Since then, he’s been unable to crack the 20-goal plateau, which had been his standard output for six years in a row prior to 2019. Last year, he generated 17 goals, but wasn’t able to stay healthy and appeared in only 65 games. He hasn’t played in 82 games since that 2018-19 campaign.
Wheeler does have a no-trade/no-movement clause in his contract, but as veteran hockey observers know, that’s not a guarantee he won’t be dealt – it just gives him control of where he can be moved. Wheeler is under contract for this season and next year, so any team looking at him must have cap space down the line. But a motivated, healthy Wheeler could certainly help any true Cup frontrunner – and, more importantly for the Jets, provide a solid return that will help Winnipeg retool or rebuild faster than they would by keeping him around.
3. Is it time to be honest about Winnipeg’s group of defensemen and call them mediocre? Yes, yes it is. There’s no question the Jets’ defense corps has talented players. The issue is they don’t mesh very well as a defense-minded group, and the evidence is right out in the open: last season, Winnipeg allowed the 13th-most number of goals (253 in total), the seventh-most shots-on-net (averaging 33.2 per game) and were 29th overall in penalty-killing (with a brutal 75 percent success rate).
Again, some of the blame falls on an off-year from Hellebuyck, but the Jets have not been good in their own end for more than just last season. The defense doesn’t have much size – four of their current top-six blueliners are six-feet-tall or shorter – and they don’t have enough offense (they produced the 16th-best offense last year) to make up for their defensive shortcomings.
Most of the Jets’ group of blueliners are signed through the 2023-24 campaign, and three of them have no-trade or no-move clauses in their contracts, but Cheveldayoff and the rest of Winnipeg’s brass have to be honest with themselves and attempt to find success with an altered collection of D-men. Continuing to go back with the same unit and not succeeding is insanity.