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Seed of doubt

Holding third spot in east gives Jets difficult trade-deadline decisions

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Maybe it would be easier for Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff if the Stanley Cup was clearly within his club's grasp. Then, just as Ray Shero has done with stockpiling the already-gifted Pittsburgh Penguins with more talent, he could push his chips to the middle of the table and go all in before the NHL trading deadline.

And yes, it would also be just as straightforward for the Jets' GM if his team was wallowing in the Eastern Conference basement, giving him the green light to approach the deadline with an obvious rebuild in mind.

But it's not that simple. And it's here -- with three games remaining before next Wednesday's trade deadline -- where Cheveldayoff's franchise blueprint of methodically building through the draft and not sacrificing the future could clash with the pressure to live in the moment.

Yes, here are Chevy and the Jets still scrapping to hang on to top spot in the Southeast Division and, even more importantly, the third seed in the Eastern Conference playoff race. And how that impacts what the Jets do or don't do as April 3 approaches can't be understated, because finishing third would not only give them home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs, it would also mean they could avoid a match-up with conference heavyweights Pittsburgh, Boston or Montreal.

But if Thursday's 4-0 loss in Pittsburgh hammered home one significant point, it's this: The Jets have a few pounds to put on before they can move into the same weight class as the East's No. 1 contender.

So, will the Jets be buyers before the trade deadline or sellers? And can they augment their today without sacrificing their tomorrow?

Some critical questions/issues/ideas to ponder as the deadline nears...

WHAT THE JETS HAVE

THE trio of Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler give the Jets a legit No. 1 line that can matchup against top D pairings and checking-line trios and still be productive. Evander Kane continues to emerge as one of the NHL's deadliest snipers and the defensive corps offers a solid blend of skill -- earlier in the season they were leading the NHL in goals from D-men -- and brawn. In goal, the play of Ondrej Pavelec of late showcases why Jets management signed him to a juicy contract last summer.

WHAT THE JETS NEED

LET'S be clear here: up front the Jets remain a one-line squad and essentially get the bulk of their production from four players -- Ladd (14G, 18A), Wheeler (14G, 14A), Kane (13G, 12A) and Little (5G, 16A). Winnipeg is 23rd in goals for (2.49 per game) and of their 87 in total, 46 -- or just under 53 per cent -- come from that quartet. The right side looks particularly thin after Wheeler, with Antti Miettinen (two goals), Kyle Wellwood (two) and Eric Tangradi (one) hardly providing a ton offensively. This is the area Cheveldayoff has openly stated he is targeting in the market.

Overall, until some of the current regime's draft picks -- Mark Scheifele, Jacob Trouba, Adam Lowry, Scott Kosmachuk, Lukas Sutter and the like -- turn pro, the overall organizational depth will remain thin and an issue at the deadline as rival GMs study the Jets' entire system.

HAINSEY AND THE UFAs: TRADE BAIT OR KEY COMPONENTS?

REWIND to a year ago and this discussion would have seemed one-sided. But Hainsey has given the Jets valuable minutes and a veteran presence along the blueline this year, especially as it struggled through injuries to Zach Bogosian, Toby Enstrom, Dustin Byfuglien and Mark Stuart. Debate this among yourselves: could Hainsey's minutes be replaced in-house by a Derek Meech or Arturs Kulda?

Here's a related follow-up question which also applies to Nik Antropov, Wellwood and Miettinen: if you move a Hainsey or any of the players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents this summer for future draft picks, how will that impact the current chemistry of a crew that hopes to make a playoff dash as the third seed?

Public perception also plays a role in this: if the Jets bust up what they currently have for more potential, what message does that send to a fan base clamouring for a post-season berth? Not everyone is patient enough to think big picture when an eighth seed like the Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup last year and with teams able to buy and deal their way back into the equation through free agency and via trades.

THE RIGHT KIND OF DEAL

IT'S hard to imagine Cheveldayoff making any kind of blockbuster deal at the deadline -- although Byfuglien's name continues to surface -- as there is no history yet of him wanting to blow up what he has right now. That could change in the offseason, but it's more likely the Jets' GM will attempt to augment what they have with a minor deal and they do have six picks in the first three rounds of this year's draft to possibly sweeten a deal.

Don't expect the Jets to be involved, either, in any kind of deal for a "rental" player -- one whose contract is about to expire. Translation: the Jets still want building blocks for the long term.

THE WRONG KIND OF DEAL

REWIND six years ago when this franchise -- different management and owners, of course -- made a significant trade as it marched toward its one and only playoff appearance. It was just prior to the trade deadline in 2007 when the Atlanta Thrashers acquired Keith Tkachuk from the St. Louis Blues for first and third-round choices in 2007, a second-rounder in 2008 and Glen Metropolit. The trade also included this provision: if the Thrashers were to re-sign Tkachuk, the Blues would get Atlanta's 2008 first-rounder. A few months later, Tkachuk and a fourth-round draft choice were shipped back to St. Louis for a first-round pick in 2008.

Long story short: while Tkachuk is tied as the Thrashers/Jets all-time leader in playoff points -- he had a whopping three points in four games -- this is exactly the kind of trade Cheveldayoff hopes to avoid. Tkachuk and the Thrashers were swept by the New York Rangers in four games in the spring of '07 and it cost the franchise valuable picks over the next two springs.

WHO MIGHT BE AVAILABLE

AMONG the right wingers who have had their names bandied about in recent weeks as possible trade bait: Jason Pominville (Buffalo), Jaromir Jagr (Dallas), Chris Stewart (St. Louis) and Bobby Ryan (Anaheim). And none of the above will come cheaply for the Jets or any interested parties.

And so, we now return you to your regularly scheduled pre-trade deadline rumouring...

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @WFPEdTait

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 30, 2013 C4

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