The NHL’s trade deadline passed on Monday, and the Winnipeg Jets made a few relatively minor moves before it passed, most notably shipping forward Andrew Copp to the New York Rangers for forward prospect Morgan Barron and draft picks.
The team also acquired winger Zach Sanford from Ottawa for a fifth-rounder in this summer’s draft, re-acquiring winger Mason Appleton from Seattle for a fourth-rounder in 2023, and trading defenseman Nathan Beaulieau to Pittsburgh for a seventh-rounder.
But they weren’t done there, sending prospect defenseman Nelson Nogier to Los Angeles for D-man Markus Phillips, and shipping the contract of forward Bryan Little and forward Nathan Smith to Arizona for a fourth-rounder this summer.
Winnipeg’s moves made life tougher on the NHL’s central registry on deadline day, but all the moves made by Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff did not improve his team’s roster to any kind of significant degree. And if this team is going to go anywhere soon, there needs to be far more change, to a much larger portion of the lineup.
Are there untouchables on this underachieving Jet team, which currently sits sixth in the Central Division, eight points out of a playoff spot. Sure there area, and though they’re not technically eliminated for the playoff race, it would take a sizeable collapse from the respectively third-and-fourth place Minnesota Wild and Nashville Predators, and the fifth-place Dallas Stars for Winnipeg to sneak back up the standings and claim a post-season berth. The Jets also would have to push the Vegas Golden Knights out of the way if they’re to claim a wild-card post-season slot. Things have to change for Winnipeg to salvage this season, but many of those changes are out of their own hands.
So, if we’re projecting the Jets to miss the playoffs for the first time since the 2016-17 campaign, we should be asking which of their players should be on the trading block this coming off-season. Goaltender Connor Hellebuyck is one of the handful of foundational players Cheveldayoff should absolutely keep in the fold. Winnipeg also should hold on to top defensemen Josh Morrissey and Neal Pionk, as well as leading goal-scorer Kyle Connor and 23-year-old center Pierre-Luc Dubois. But after that? Well, after that, the Jets should be listening to any and all offers.
That includes potential bids on captain Blake Wheeler and first-line center Mark Scheifele The former will be 36 years old this summer, and has two more years left on his contract after this season, at an annual salary cap hit of $8.25 million; the latter just turned 29, and also has two years left under contract, with an annual cap hit of $6.125 million. In addition, although it would take a lot to move him, winger Nik Ehlers has an attractive three years left on his deal that averages $6-million per season. And Cheveldayoff shouldn’t be so attached to Ehlers that he dismisses trade bids out of hand.
In sum, the Jets simply haven’t done enough good things with their current core to keep that core intact. The competition in the Central isn’t going to ease, which means Winnipeg has to do something different if they wish to rise in the standings next season and beyond. Cheveldayoff’s patience has been a hallmark of his era with the Jets, but there’s a difference between being patient, and stubbornly clinging to players who aren’t getting the job done.
According to CapFriendly.com, Winnipeg has committed $65.3 million in cap room to 14 players. That leaves management approximately $16.1 million in cap space – certainly, enough space to make trades to acquire marquee talent, but only if they’re prepared to move some familiar faces to new teams. And they should be prepared to do that. Their current core has won three playoff rounds in the past four seasons, but since the franchise relocated from Atlanta to Manitoba in 2011, the Jets have made it past the first round just twice, and got to the Western Conference Final only once (and won just one game when they got that far).
There has been an illusion of sorts that catered to management’s patience, but Cheveldayoff cannot continue to go back to the well with this lineup and expect better results. Former head coach Paul Maurice walked away from this team this year because he ultimately couldn’t see a positive road ahead with him still behind the bench for the Jets. Cheveldayoff should be just as cold-blooded in his assessment of this roster, and grit his teeth as he shakes up the organization to the degree it needs to be.
It won’t be pretty, breaking up the Jets into smaller parts opponents can vie to acquire. But the Jets have consistently been less than the sum of their parts, and no amount of patience can make them into a team that can beat out Central rivals in Colorado, St. Louis and Minnesota at the moment. It’s time for Winnipeg to chart a new course. And that course should begin the minute the current regular season concludes.