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Why Enstrom could be the key to the Jets' expansion draft plans

If Toby Enstrom is protected by Winnipeg in the expansion draft, Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff might have to get creative in order to ensure he doesn't lose a key piece to Vegas.

In one sense, the Jets are in an admirable position heading into the expansion draft. While others have to worry about protection for some young stars, Winnipeg knows for certain that Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers, Josh Morrissey and a list of promising up-and-comers can’t be touched. It’s a strong group to have protected, especially so given Scheifele is the only one who will take up an actual protection spot.

But Winnipeg isn’t so lucky across their entire roster. More specifically, the Jets are set to face some tough decisions over the next couple of days when it comes to the blueline, and the future of Winnipeg’s defense — both in the immediate and long-term — could hinge on Toby Enstrom’s no-movement clause.

As the expansion draft approaches, two Jets defenders boast the much-talked-about NMCs that require automatic protection: Enstrom and Dustin Byfuglien. There’s no doubt that ‘Big Buff’ won’t be asked to waive his NMC, definitely not after a strong season one year into a five-year, $38-million contract, but there is some belief that Enstrom is a prime target to waive his clause. Of course, with Winnipeg as tight-lipped as they are about the goings on in the organization, there’s no knowledge whether Enstrom was even asked, but it’s not hard to understand why he would have been.

Currently, the Jets have one of the most legitimate claims to a strong top-four defense in the league, boasting Byfuglien, Enstrom, Tyler Myers and Jacob Trouba. But, as the Anaheim Ducks, Minnesota Wild and Nashville Predators will attest to, having four strong defenders in your defense corps is making expansion draft protection tricky. Reason being is that it’s awfully difficult to protect all four defensemen while also keeping the offense in tact. That is certainly the case in Winnipeg.

Some may suggest the four-four-one protection plan would work for the Jets, which is to claim Winnipeg could protect the above four defenders, four additional skaters and goaltender Connor Hellebuyck without it having too big an impact on the on-ice product. And while, yes, the Jets could do that, it’s impossible to look at Winnipeg’s roster and believe that’s the best course of action. Up front, that would mean Scheifele and Blake Wheeler are protected, as well as two more of Bryan Little, Mathieu Perreault, Shawn Matthias, Adam Lowry, Joel Armia, Marko Dano and Andrew Copp. However, that would leave five of those forwards exposed and it’d be hard to imagine the Jets want to leave that many options open to the Vegas Golden Knights.

So, that leads to the seven-three-one protection method, in which five additional forwards could be protected beyond Scheifele and Wheeler, Hellebuyck would remain locked up and one of the defensemen would be exposed. And that’s where Enstrom’s NMC comes in.

If he were to waive the clause, it almost goes without saying that he’d be left unprotected — but not because he’s without value. Enstrom scored one goal and 14 points in 60 games this past season, averaged nearly 22 minutes of ice time, manned one of the power play units and formed a decent pairing with Trouba. But Enstrom is also 32, in the final year of his deal and set to make $5.75 million this coming campaign, which is money the Jets could surely spend elsewhere.

However, in the same way that Dion Phaneuf decided not to waive his NMC, Enstrom is under no obligation to agree to expansion draft exposure. If the Jets have requested that Enstrom consider waiving, he has every right to decline the offer and remain in Winnipeg next season. If that comes to pass, Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff then faces the prospect of losing another member of his blueline’s top four. And one can say with near certainty that it won’t be Trouba who is left exposed.

Trouba’s protection is almost guaranteed for a number of reasons, namely that he carries too much value, is too young, only last season signed his two-year deal after a brief holdout and is coming off of the best season of his career — an eight-goal, 33-point, 25-minute ice time average campaign. There is no way Winnipeg would leave Trouba available to be scooped up by Vegas and lost for nothing.

Trouba’s protection would almost assuredly mean it’s Myers who is left exposed for the Golden Knights, though, and that’s also an awful outcome for the Jets. Myers has only suited up in 108 games in Winnipeg since he was acquired from the Buffalo Sabres in a blockbuster deal in February 2015, but during that time he has shown every bit the form the Jets were hoping for when he was acquired. Averaging nearly 23 minutes per game in Winnipeg, Myers has contributed offensively — he has 14 goals and 47 points — and has, in terms of possession, been one of the Jets’ best defensemen since the start of 2015-16.

Were Myers to be left exposed, there’s little reason why Vegas shouldn’t jump at the opportunity to select the rearguard. He has had some injury troubles, this is true, but the 27-year-old is entering his prime and has the ability to be a top-two defender for the expansion franchise. Defense is no doubt going to be the cornerstone of the Golden Knights, and there will be few defenders available to be drafted who can offer more than Myers.

Given that’s the case, the only hope Winnipeg might have of keeping the group together if Myers were exposed would be a deal with Vegas that entices the Golden Knights to take a forward instead of selecting a defenseman. The good news for the Jets is there are few teams in a better position to guide the Golden Knights’ selection. Winnipeg has an absolutely stacked prospect group, ranked first among all teams by a panel of scouts in THN’s Future Watch 2017, and all of their own picks in the next three drafts. With Vegas GM George McPhee’s interest in building his team through drafting and development, the Jets could be able to steer the Golden Knights away from Myers.

And if Enstrom was asked and declined to waive his NMC, Cheveldayoff might need to do just that — and get a bit creative — if he has any intentions of keeping his current defense corps together.

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