While acknowledging the 6-1 trouncing of Toronto, the Winnipeg Jets enter December with nerve-wracked fans and a precarious position. It's crunch time. The Jets endured a rather underwhelming November, finishing with a 4-9-1 record. They played seven Central Division teams during that span, and went 1-6 against them. With Winnipeg being a bubble team in the league's hardest division, losing points to rivals in the Central has been especially costly, and the Jets now find themselves closer to Colorado than contenders.
Frustration on the ice isn't the only thing plaguing the Jets. With uncertainty swirling around whether Jets captain Andrew Ladd and star defenceman Dustin Byfuglien have a future in Winnipeg, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff is holding his cards close to his chest, with barely a hint of any moves or extensions.
No matter what the outcome ends up being, this sort of situation should have never dragged on into the regular season to begin with. Whether through trade or extension, the potential for distraction should have been taken care of long before puck drop in October. With the Jets putting on a Jekyll and Hyde show at best, the time has come for resolution.
Let's turn our attention to the Jets captain. Ladd may not be contributing to the degree one might expect in a contract year, but he is still 4th on the team with 16 points and on pace to match his output of 54 points from 2013-14. The Maple Ridge, BC native will turn 30 in just over a week; for how much longer should the organization expect him to be a consistent 50+ point player? The leadership Ladd brings certainly has merit, but it's not enough to deserve the kind of contract Winnipeg may regret in the near future.
The youth movement also needs to be factored into these decisions. Is it in the Jets best long-term interests to lock up veterans entering the back end of their careers to lengthy contracts? The organization needs to ensure that they do not clog up the system with aging 30-somethings, ones who will then keep our much-vaunted prospects from playing prominent roles at the NHL level. With Little and Wheeler signed for the next little while, the emergence of Ehlers this year and the anticipated coming of other prospects next season and beyond, Winnipeg could forget about Ladd sooner than many think.
Dustin Byfuglien is one of the biggest enigmas in hockey (and he's not even Russian! Go figure). As we all know, Big Buff shows many different sides of himself on the ice, both throughout the season and even within each game. One side is a physical beast who energizes the fans, his teammates and the feel of the game, whether with a big hit or a little something after the whistle. This side also tends to be one of the best offensive defencemen in hockey (maybe even the best, at times). Unfortunately, another side is wildly irresponsible and actively damaging to the team. To say consistency is an issue with Byfuglien is putting it mildly.
With the rising cap and frequency of long-term deals being given to NHL defencemen, it's conceivable that Byfuglien could earn himself a contract worth 7 million a season for six or seven years. For a team currently operating closer to the cap floor than ceiling, that kind of contract would really tie up the Jets' books. Byfuglien is 30, and by all means still a solid player (except for those times his brain ceases to function). But within the span of his next contract, it's unavoidable that a decline will occur, and the drop-off can be rather steep for everyone not named Jaromir Jagr. The idea of a 36-year-old Byfuglien patrolling the blueline, reviled as an old veteran who can no longer live up to the contract offered to him, is not pretty. That future may be an inevitable one, but at the very least it shouldn't happen with Byfuglien wearing a Winnipeg Jets jersey.
The situation becomes even more problematic because by then, it's quite possible that a number of Jets young guns will be looking for hefty raises themselves. Since we're talking about Winnipeg here, the internal budget may be of greater concern than the cap ceiling. With a contract like Byfuglien's on the books, they may have to say goodbye to a promising young player if the money's too tight (see: Saad, Brandon).
Let's say the Jets pay Andrew Ladd. They give him what he wants, mostly. How would that help the Jets? Would five to six more years of Andrew Ladd make this team better long-term?
Ditto Dustin Byfuglien. Would six to seven more years of Dustin Byfuglien make the team better long-term, especially if he's retained at the (steep) price he's likely to command?
That's the part of the story which is often forgotten: long-term. And it's the future which this team is gearing up towards. The Jets need to be thinking about winning in the years where Scheifele, Ehlers and Trouba are in their prime, not now. In a sense, the Jets playoff berth last season may have hurt them. It gave fans, and perhaps the organization, an appetizer of playoff hockey. Now they want the full meal. Yes, bringing some degree of success to a sports franchise is vital, even when the end result is short and not-so-sweet. But, and it pains me to say this, fans must remain patient and realize that flirting with success now may end up hurting the future.
The Jets take great pride in their prospects, as they should. But the young guns won't be young forever, and they certainly won't always be limited to entry-level money. The Winnipeg Jets have to face facts:
Someone has to go.
The biggest wildcard in all this is, in my opinion, Jacob Trouba. There's no way he could ever leave, right? The once completely untouchable, projected cornerstone defenceman of the future has found his name swirling in trade speculation. This has come part and parcel with all the chatter surrounding Travis Hamonic, a topic which seemingly won't go away until the Isles defenceman is traded. The conversation has been out in the open for a while now, so let's dive into it.
Is a Trouba for Harmonic deal worth it?
First off, we must remember who Kevin Cheveldayoff is, which is to say our General Manager isn't exactly an overly active fellow on the trade market. It took him quite a while to trade Evander Kane, with the situation seeming to reach levels of irreparable toxicity by the end. But Chevy is the man with a plan, and that plan is centred around drafting and developing prospects.
Why would he trade away Trouba in just his third year in the league? Well, with the way Trouba has struggled to begin the season, it has definitely raised some concerns about the future of Winnipeg's blueline in a hypothetical post-Byfuglien world. However, while there's no denying his struggles to begin 2015-16, trading Trouba would absolutely be jumping the gun. People must keep in mind that the learning curve for young defenceman is rarely a constant upwards trajectory; there are bound to be downs as well as ups. Perhaps what we've seen is no more than a delayed sophomore slump. Fans have become so accustomed to the good that Trouba has shown, that when a bad stretch comes around, the sky is falling and an upgrade is needed straight away. It's a little early to pull the chute on Jacob Trouba just yet.
The reasoning behind inquiring about Hamonic is sound. First off, for a budget team like the Winnipeg Jets, acquiring a proven commodity who provides cost certainty is almost ideal. Hamonic offers this thanks to his bargain contract, one which doesn't expire until 2020, coupled his skills as a battle-tested, reliable defensive defenceman. At present, the Jets have a number of capable offensive defenceman but find themselves struggling in their own zone quite a bit.
The native of St. Malo, Manitoba carries a very reasonable cap hit of $3.85 million, a number well worth the quality of player they'd be getting. Due to personal reasons, Hamonic requested a trade to Western Canada, with Winnipeg reportedly atop the list. This isn't a situation which happens very often, and it does look desirable for the Jets to acquire the hard working Manitoba boy, for a variety of reasons.
But not at the cost of Jacob Trouba.
The fact that the futures of Byfuglien and Ladd remain up in the air isn't good. It's unlikely the Jets will retain both players, so a trade before the deadline has to be done. If the Jets wait it out for the sake of a (short) playoff run, they'd be making a crucial mistake by letting one of them walk without any return.
When push comes to shove, Winnipeg should trade Dustin Byfuglien, regardless of whether or not it's in a deal for Hamonic. While it may not be ideal, it is perhaps easier to justify keeping Andrew Ladd. And don't even think about trading Trouba.