On a weekend when there was big news on two fronts involving the Winnipeg Jets — the revelation defenceman Toby Enstrom had waived his no-movement clause and the related release of the team’s protected list for the upcoming expansion draft — I’d argue the biggest news of all for Jets fans over the weekend took place in Calgary.
With the Flames announcing the acquisition of goaltender Mike Smith in a trade with the Arizona Coyotes, it is becoming increasingly clear that Jets fans hoping GM Kevin Cheveldayoff would use this summer’s red-hot trade market to upgrade his team’s starting goaltending are likely going to be disappointed.
Chevy may yet go out and find his club some goaltending help; indeed, it’d be almost inconceivable if he didn’t after last year’s debacle in net.
But with the likes of Smith, Scott Darling and Ben Bishop now off the market and Chevy still sitting on his hands, it seems whatever goaltending "upgrade" Chevy finds will be at the backup position held by Michael Hutchinson, rather than the starting job held by Connor Hellebuyck.
Like it or not, the events of the past few weeks seem to suggest that Jets fans had better get comfortable with the idea that their team will start next season with Hellebuyck.
And with that, I’d argue Chevy has just made his boldest move as Jets GM by making no move at all.
Because if the Jets starting goaltending in the fall is anything like it was last season — which is to say occasionally competent, but just as often serving as an anchor around the team’s neck — then Chevy is going to have a hard time explaining why he continues to allow the fortunes of an exceptionally talented young team to be dragged down by a position that has been a weak spot since the club moved here from Atlanta.
Now, it’s possible, I suppose, that Chevy made a bid for Bishop or Darling or Smith — or even all three — and they balked at becoming Jets.
They certainly wouldn’t be the first pro athletes who wanted to play anywhere else but Winnipeg. And if I had a multimillion-dollar contract and a $100,000 German automobile, I wouldn’t want to drive on Winnipeg’s roads either.
And then there is the additional wrinkle that had Cheveldayoff signed another goalie prior to the expansion draft, he would have had to leave Hellebuyck exposed. I doubt that would have mattered — Vegas clearly has their sights set on Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury as their goaltender and the Jets player that makes most sense for Vegas is Enstrom, not Hellebuyck.
Still, it was a risk.
But regardless of whether Chevy is swinging and missing or not swinging at all, the Jets are at this point clearly betting that Hellebuyck’s respectable win-loss record last season — 26-19-4 — was the more relevant stat than either his save percentage (.907) or his goals-against average (2.89), both of which were below average.
And then there’s the eight times Hellebuyck was pulled in 2016-17, but let’s give Chevy and the Jets the benefit of the doubt for a moment:
They must be thinking Hellebuyck was a winning goaltender last season when his team played good defence in front of him. Improve the defence and Hellebuyck will improve too seems to be what the Jets are now counting on.
And maybe they’re right — maybe Hellebuyck is the team’s goaltender of the present, not just the future. I’m skeptical, but that’s what I’m paid to be.
Leaving aside what Chevy or I think, it’s worth noting how other teams that struggled with goaltending last year have handled things recently.
The Dallas Stars, for instance, missed the playoffs largely because they had lousy goaltending all season long. They traded for arguably the most talented starter on the market in Bishop.
The Carolina Hurricanes, meanwhile, had a huge problem in the crease last season, and made a deal with Chicago for Darling, the consensus choice as the backup most likely to become a bona fide NHL starter.
And the Flames, stung by the late-season collapse of their goaltending, signed Smith, a veteran former all-star who buys Calgary some time until the promising young netminders in the Flames' system are ready for prime time.
The Jets? Well, we’re still waiting even as the list of potentially available goaltenders continues to shrink and now consists, really, of Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury and a bunch of backups.
Fleury, of course, would make a spectacular splash in Winnipeg. But his market value has never been higher after carrying the Penguins on his back in the early part of their run to a second-straight Stanley Cup championship.
And even if the Jets did have the will to pursue a trade for Fleury — which I doubt — it seems unlikely he would even consent to a trade to Winnipeg, given the reports in Calgary over the weekend that the Flames are among the teams on his no-trade list.
He won’t go to Calgary but will come to Winnipeg? Uh...
So what netminders are still available right now to the Jets in a trade? Well, the easiest way to figure out who might be out there is to simply go down the list of goalies left unprotected by the 30 NHL teams over the weekend.
A sampling: Anaheim’s Jonathan Bernier; Colorado’s — and Winnipegger — Calvin Pickard; Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi from the Stars; Detroit’s Petr Mrazek; Minnesota’s Darcy Kuemper; the Islanders’ Jaroslav Halak; Ottawa’s Mike Condon; Tampa’s Peter Budaj; Vancouver’s Ryan Miller; and Washington’s Philipp Grubauer.
There are some intriguing names on that list, for sure, including lots of aging vets. And then there’s Grubauer, who some in hockey regard as a sleeper just waiting for the kind of chance he is never going to get playing behind Braden Holtby.
But if you see a starter on that list who can carry the load for the Jets beginning in October and give Hellebuyck more time to mature in a backup role, well, you’re seeing something I’m not.
Because what I’m seeing is a bunch of guys who would be an upgrade on Hutchinson as the Jets' No. 2. And that is some mighty faint praise, given Hutchinson’s abysmal performance last season.
Plus, the Jets might already have an upgrade on Hutchinson in Eric Comrie, who was an all-star in the AHL last season playing for a lousy Manitoba Moose team. Backup might not be this team’s problem, in other words; it’s the starter.
Put it all together and I cannot help but wonder if a year from now we look back on all this as an opportunity lost.
The Las Vegas expansion draft has created a uniquely fluid trade market, presenting the Jets with a chance to finally address a long-standing weakness at precisely the same time as the young team looks like it might finally be ready to soar.
Instead, it now appears the Jets are betting the team’s entire season on Hellebuyck morphing into something he has never been before: a consistent and reliable NHL starter who gives the Jets a chance to win every night.
Like I said, I’m skeptical. And I will close with this thought: I wonder if I might not be the only one.
Remember the public love-in between Jets head coach Paul Maurice and Cheveldayoff back at the end of the regular season, with both men all but promising at year-end news conferences that a contract extension for Maurice was just a formality.
Well, two months has since passed and that extension for Maurice still hasn’t been announced.
Makes a guy wonder if the fans aren’t the only ones waiting to see what — if anything — Chevy does to improve this team’s goaltending.