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Winnipeg Jets’ Off-Season Road Map: Part One

Oct 11, 2023; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Winnipeg Jets center Mark Scheifele (55) celebrates his goal with teammates against the Calgary Flames during the third period at Scotiabank Saddledome. Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Since the National Hockey League’s 2023-24 campaign is over for our Winnipeg Jets, it is time for us to take a look at what the summer has in store for the True North franchise.

While the past season contained quite a few positives trends for the Jets, getting knocked out of the first round of the playoffs by the Colorado Avalanche has resulted in negative thoughts being at the forefront of the fans’ minds. For me, it wasn’t really the fact of another 1st round loss that upset me….it was the lackadaisical effort by Winnipeg that had us watching our team play completely different than they did during their successful regular season. However, I am not here to re-hash the Jets’ post-season problems nor critique their performance, although I will be sharing my thoughts throughout the articles on what potential off-season moves could perhaps improve future playoff experiences for us fans.

The first item on our list is completely in the hands of the True North ownership group…deciding who should be the person sitting in the General Manager’s chair and guiding the organization through Winnipeg’ 13th off-season since relocating from Atlanta? Based on the Jets’ history with its staff and the utter lack of any reports suggesting that Kevin Cheveldayoff won’t be back next season, I would be shocked if the team made a move on this front. I believe Chevy has done an above average job at the helm of the franchise, especially when you consider that Manitoba is probably the hardest location in the NHL to try and run a big league squad. Cold weather. Check. High taxes. Check. A small city with less interesting things for millionaire hockey players to do with their cash. You betcha.

Chevy might be at his best when he puts his “trader” hat on, which is not something he does frequently. What could likely be his biggest steal was trading Andrew Copp and a 6th rounder to the New York Rangers for Morgan Barron, a 1st round pick (Brad Lambert), a 2nd round pick (Elias Salomonsson), and a 5th round pick (Thomas Milic). He has also avoided getting taken to the cleaners when he was forced to trade an unhappy player, like Jacob Trouba and Pierre-Luc Dubois. Some may blame Cheveldayoff for the roster construction of the Winnipeg Jets and that’s fair enough given that is a big part of his job description. However, with the inability to draw the NHL’s top talent to the Peg through free agency, he is stuck trying to do it solely via the draft. On that mark, I think Chevy has done an above average job as well. Sure, you can still have complaints about his work to date….the lack of size on the team perhaps? The shortage of elite players? Definitely those things would be beneficial, but a big part of that is where your team is drafting too. So far, in thirteen drafts, Winnipeg has only drafted in the top 10 in five of those (38%) and only once in the past seven drafts (Cole Perfetti drafted 10th overall). The Jets have only drafted once in the top 5 (2nd overall due to some lottery luck) and unfortunately, that’s where you get game changing players the easiest. Yes, Chevy has drafted a lot of small forwards with higher end talent like Nikolaj Ehlers & Kyle Connor, but that is often the best gamble to take when you are picking in the 15th to 20th range. He may be a bit gun-shy on taking a shot at a large player with potential to grow their game after not exactly winning on the risky Logan Stanley selection. Not that there isn’t room for improvement, such as starting to use their 2nd round selections more effectively or drafting players with more grit, but overall the GM has done a good job at bringing talent into the organization. Even with all that, I won’t be shooting down anyone if they think 13 seasons is a long enough leash for Chevy and it’s time to bring in some fresh eyes to evaluate the players.

With the recent news of Rick Bowness’ decision to end his 40 year coaching career, that brings us to the the second item on our off-season task list…finding a replacement for the Jack Adams’ nominee. It definitely seemed like the Winnipeg Jets had their contingency plan in place when they hired Associate Coach Scott Arniel prior to bringing Bones’ aboard, but has anything in the past two years altered them from that path. Possibly the struggles of Arniel’s penalty killers in his 2nd season with the Jets? Maybe the availability of coaches like Gerard Gallant, Sheldon Keefe, Craig Berube, or even Rod Brind’Amour?

To be completely honest, I don’t know enough about NHL coaches to really have a strong opinion on the matter. No idea what type of systems they run, nor really know which would be the most effective for the Winnipeg Jets to run. I do recall hearing that a hybrid system hasn’t won the Stanley Cup in recent history, so that sort of makes me want someone who runs a zone system as the next coach. For your information, the third option is man-to-man coverage, but they say that tends to only work with a strong defensive core which is not something the Jets are blessed with. Maybe you guys have a better idea on who you want to see? If you feel strongly about a candidate, feel free to make a comment and I may do a review of a few of the potential candidate’s coaching history in another article.

It isn’t exactly known when the NHL’s 2024 Entry Draft will take place, but what is set in stone is that it will take place at The Sphere in Las Vegas sometime after one lucky NHL team gets to celebrate with Lord Stanley’s Cup (approx. June 15th). As things stand, the Winnipeg Jets will only have 5 selections at the event (only 1 in top 3 rounds), but since the draft also represents the start of the trading season that could change if Chevy wants to add more picks.

I am certainly not a hockey scout and to date, the majority of the analysis online has focused on 1st round potential picks. So that leaves me with almost no idea as to whom might be available for Chevy to pounce on when he finally gets his first pick at 37th overall. Certainly adding a defenseman (preferably who plays big & shoots right handed) would be a great path to take, but seeing as the draft is not expected to be really deep and the consensus is that there will quite the run on defenders in the opening round…well, it doesn’t leave me with a huge amount of hope for Winnipeg finding an eventual top four RHD with the selection. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try though….with their next pick not until the 4th round, you have to take your shots when you have the chance.

So, I hear some of you thinking that the Jets need to add more picks to keep the prospect cupboard stocked and to better the odds of landing an elite defensive prospect. Well, when the draft rolls around, the Winnipeg Jets will have 11 NHL forwards, 4 NHL defensemen, and 1 NHL goaltender signed for next season. They will also own the rights to 2 NHL restricted free agent (RFA) forwards and 1 RFA defenseman, along with their full stable of prospects and can try to use any of these to improve their draft capital. Okay, not really any…since both Mark Scheifele & Connor Hellebuyck negotiated no movement clauses (NMC) for this season as part of their new $8.5M/yr contract, they would have to agree to any potential deal and thus make it unlikely to happen. The same goes for Josh Morrissey & his NMC, so now we’re down to 13 signed players to possibly trade. Of that baker’s dozen, 10 of them won’t yield a 1st round pick in return so that leaves us with 3 signed players, RFAs, and the prospect pool if Winnipeg hopes to move into the top round.

Lets start off with the three signed Jets’ players that you would expect to yield a 1st rounder at the minimum, Nikolaj Ehlers, Kyle Connor, and Gabriel Vilardi. Despite being unable to play a full 82 games, I think the fact that Vilardi was recently acquired in combination with his young age (restricted FA status) means it’s highly unlikely Chevy will consider this option. If you put away the GM’s tendency for loyalty aside, there is a strong argument to be made for him to at least consider moving on from Ehlers and/or Connor at this time. Obviously with the speedy Dane entering the final year of his $6M/yr contract and staring down UFA potential for the first time in the 2025 off-season, the front office has a decision that needs to be made. The Jets can start negotiating a new contract with Ehlers’ agent as of July 1st, but that won’t be until after the upcoming Entry Draft. The winger also holds a modified no-trade clause (MNT) that allows him to stop trades to 10 of the NHL’s 32 franchises. Connor on the other hand is inked for two more seasons at $7.14M/yr before he hits UFA status, but currently has no trade protection at all. That will change on July 1st though, when he too will get to submit a 10 team no-trade list.

Undoubtedly both skaters bring unique talents to the Winnipeg Jets, from Fly’s amazing speed to KFC’s near-perennial 40 regular season goals. While their skills would be missed for sure, True North has a glut of talented young forwards in Cole Perfetti, Brad Lambert, Rutger McGroarty, and Colby Barlow waiting in the wings for top six ice time in the near future to help fill the void. Although we have critiques of their play at times, both forwards would certainly draw much attention on the trade market and should yield a decent return. Connor’s sniping abilities are fairly rare in the NHL and he can play adequately defensively if he puts his mind to it. Ehlers is an analytics’ dream, with great zone entry and other puck possession stats to go along with that blazing speed.

While I do believe the Jets would be best served long-term if they moved on from one of those two players at some point soon, I am not sure that management would be looking for draft picks or prospects being the main return. Like the PLD deal, I think Chevy would be looking to fill a “now” hole in his lineup…such as a top 2 RHD (or even top 4) or possibly a top six forward with hands & grit. Could a high draft pick be part of the return like it was with Los Angeles? Of course.

Since I haven’t really looked at the trade market all that much yet (saving that for Part Two in the free agency section), I don’t really what is out there for Cheveldayoff to consider at this point. Some of the rumours online seem to point to a New York Islander interest in Ehlers (seen straight up for RHD Pulock or for a deal involving the projected 18th overall selection). But we all know how accurate the rumour mill is when it comes to predicting most NHL trades since Dubois is currently wearing a Habs’ jersey and Scheifele/Hellebuyck are no longer playing in Winnipeg.

Personally, my belief that the reason Ehlers was never consistently put on the top line with Scheifele & Vilardi was because the 2nd line could never perform well without Fly and that is why I would lean to moving on from the goal-scoring machine that is Connor (sorry Tracey, I know that’s your jersey). If Winnipeg can find someone new to drive the 2nd trio, then the Jets will be able to get full use out of Ehlers on the top line. I am hopeful that Lambert will be that guy, just have to hope whoever the next coach is gives him a legit chance to prove I’m right. The 10 team no trade list that kicks in on July 1st for Connor wouldn’t scare me enough to accept anything other than top value on the draft floor in Vegas, so I am kind of expecting the Jets to basically live without any new top end draft picks this year.

I sort of came to that conclusion without fully reviewing the resources available to Chevy should he really want to add another high pick. He has three unsigned RFAs, but since neither Logan Stanley or David Gustafsson will get you into the top 2 rounds it only leaves us with Cole Perfetti to consider. Why I almost glossed over this section is likely due to my loathing to part with young players who have shown glimpses of the elite play they are capable of. Cole certainly fits that bill, despite his lack of physicality making him a healthy scratch at times during the year. My pick would be to focus the young forward on strength and conditioning skills this summer with the aim of improving his speed & dirty area play. I would be gambling that his high-level hockey sense and vision will pay off eventually for the Jets. My bias aside, I could certainly see Perfetti drawing a mid-to-late round draft pick from other NHL teams.

The final options are raiding the prospect pool (NO!) or defenseman Ville Heinola. The 23 yr old Finn looked fantastic in training camp but a serious injury derailed his season. When he came back to play with the Manitoba Moose, his skating wasn’t at the level it needed to and he finished with 10 pts less than last season’s AHL total (in 7 less games this season). The good news is that Ville started to look more like himself as the season progressed and he finished the year with 4 goals & 10 points in the last 9 regular season games. Heinola added 2 more assists in the Moose’s two post-season games and all signs are that he will be able to give his best effort to earn a permanent NHL spot next season. Will that be with Winnipeg? A lot depends on if the Jets re-sign UFA Brenden Dillon but we’ll cross that bridge in Part Two. One final note on Heinola, it is possible that Chevy could pick up a late 1st round pick for the defender, but I tend to think a 2nd rounder might be more likely. So would that be enough for you to pull the trigger?

We will finish off with some light work for the Winnipeg Jets’ GM, as he deals with a trio of 5th round draft picks. Since the Jets’ rights to the players is set to expire on June 1st and August 15th, it is fairly certain that Chevy will let center Harrison Blaisdell, diminutive defenseman Anton Johannesson, & goalie Logan Neaton go unsigned (become UFAs). Not sure that any have NHL or even AHL potential, but I did see that Neaton was added to Winnipeg’s ECHL franchise (Norfolk Admirals) as a depth tender after the NCAA season concluded.

NEXT in Part Two:

  • UFAs & RFAs decisions…..who to keep, who to let walk?
  • Free agency….what are the holes the Jets need to fill? What is out there and who could the Winnipeg possibly land?
  • Winnipeg Jets’ organizational depth chart
  • Salary Cap Outlook…how much space is there to fill the openings on the Jets roster? What cost-cutting options are available to Chevy to make more space?
  • Dog Days of Summer…sign qualified RFAs or take to them to mediation? Entry level contract decisions for forwards Jacob Julien & Connor Levis…both would be eligible to play for the Manitoba Moose next season, unlike the more promising prospect Colby Barlow.

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