Dubois key to Jets future

Chevy’s top priority is a signing centre to long-term deal


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The Winnipeg Jets have something most NHL rivals can only dream of — three established, foundational forwards who have not yet entered their prime years, with the best most certainly to come. So, you can understand why there is growing angst here about a potential nightmare situation unfolding.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/04/2022 (327 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The Winnipeg Jets have something most NHL rivals can only dream of — three established, foundational forwards who have not yet entered their prime years, with the best most certainly to come. So, you can understand why there is growing angst here about a potential nightmare situation unfolding.

Pierre-Luc Dubois, Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers, at the tender ages of 23, 25 and 26, respectively, have combined for 102 goals and 205 points during the current NHL season. Dubois and Connor have already eclipsed career goal-scoring bests, while Ehlers is two away from setting a new standard and would have surpassed it ages ago if not for an injury that cost him more than six weeks of action.

They are doing damage on the ice, and no doubt in team stores given the number of jerseys I see young fans sporting with their names on the back these days. If you were starting a franchise from scratch, you’d certainly want this talented trio in the fold to build around.

Consider this: all three young stars scored in Wednesday’s 4-0 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers. It’s the fifth time they lit the lamp on the same night this season. Winnipeg is a perfect 5-0-0 in those games, with previous wins over Edmonton, Toronto, St. Louis and Ottawa.

They may not currently have letters on their sweaters, but they’ve become unofficial members of the leadership group. Not only by example in how they play, but also by what they say when facing the music. You’ll note they have been among the most vocal in speaking with the media in recent weeks about the problems plaguing the group. There’s been no hiding from the reality of the situation. In a way, we’re watching them mature before our very eyes.

It’s all good stuff. So, here’s where I interrupt this late-season reminder that the future is still fairly bright around here with a flashing red light — one that isn’t located behind the opposition’s net. Only Connor and Ehlers are signed to contracts beyond this current campaign, and team-friendly ones at that. Dubois, a pending restricted free agent, is not. And reports are beginning to surface that getting his name on a long-term extension this summer might be a lot easier said than done.

Cue the Jaws theme music.

Elliotte Friedman got tongues wagging this week when he said on Hockey Night In Canada, and then again in his 32 Thoughts blog, that Dubois’ situation is “one to watch.” There was no breaking news, per say, other than to suggest the Jets would love to get him locked up for years to come, but if that can’t get done, they may have no choice but to put his name “out there.” As in trade him, rather than risk seeing him walk as an unrestricted free agent.

Uh-oh. We’re going to need a bigger boat.

Jets fans have seen this movie a few times before, a flick I would not recommend. Patrik Laine, the main piece that went the other way for Dubois, was dealt owing to concerns over retaining his future services. Andrew Copp, currently starring on Broadway with the New York Rangers, was shipped out last month for the same reason. As was Jacob Trouba before him.

Which is why of all the things True North is going to have to deal with in what is arguably the most important off-season in Jets 2.0 history — does Kevin Cheveldayoff get another shot? What do they do behind the bench? Blow up the roster or hope this was simply a one-off? — finding a mutually beneficial deal with Dubois must be right at the very top of the list.

Power centres like him don’t come around very often. And after a rocky first pandemic-impacted season here in Winnipeg, we’re now seeing why he was chosen third-overall in 2016. He’s big, he’s strong, he’s got a mean streak a mile long — both in taking penalties but also drawing them, something he’s among the best in the league at doing both ways — and his “give a damn” meter is always dialed sky-high. He goes to the tough areas, like he did against the Flyers the other night, to score.

He carries himself like a future captain of the club.

That’s not to say he’s a perfect player. Far from it. Like virtually all young skaters still trying to navigate the rigours of playing in the best league in the world, he can be a bit streaky on offence, and his defensive game can always improve, but we’ve certainly seen enough this year to know there’s something pretty special.

For a local reference point, I give you currently injured Jets centre Mark Scheifele, who put up 61 points as a 23-year-old, then really took off the following year and has been better than a point-per-game player ever since. Dubois has 59 points with two regular-season games remaining. There are only five players in the NHL this year who are younger than Dubois with more goals — Jason Robertson, Josh Norris, Elias Pettersson, Andrei Svechnikov and Brady Tkachuk.

No doubt one of the reasons Copp was moved is because Cheveldayoff and company know Dubois is in for a significant raise from the US$5 million he’s currently making.

Mason Appleton, Evgeny Svechnikov and Jansen Harkins are the only other RFAs on the roster, but those will be relatively simple deals to get done with little change from their current pay. As for UFAs, Paul Stastny and Eric Comrie will certainly be candidates to return. Stastny, given his age, would likely be offered less than the US$3.75 million he’s making this year, while Comrie, given his strong play as a backup, would be deserving of a bump up from the league-minimum US$750,000 he’s earning.

The salary cap, which the Jets were once again right up against this year, is set to increase only US$1 million next season, but Winnipeg will have flexibility without having to perform any kind of roster surgery.

Dubois is certainly going to get more than the US$6 million per year Ehlers earns as part of the seven-year, US$42 million extension inked in 2017. No doubt the Jets would like to get him signed for somewhere in the neighbourhood of the US$7.142 million Connor is making, part of the seven-year, US$50 million extension he signed in 2019.

I suspect, however, Dubois and his agent are aiming higher. Captain Blake Wheeler is the current ceiling, making US$8.25 million for two more seasons as part of the five-year, US$41.25 million pact he signed in 2018.

Is eight years at eight million a realistic meeting point for both sides? You’d be buying up his prime UFA years — while also banking on continued development and growth of not only the player but also the cap ceiling — to make it a true value deal. And Dubois would have his big payday and security in a city that has come to love him, one where his father also works as an assistant coach with the Manitoba Moose. A win-win, right?

Cheveldayoff and his management team has managed to retain numerous core pieces over the years, including Scheifele, Wheeler, Connor, Ehlers, blue-liner Josh Morrissey and goalie Connor Hellebuyck. But there has been a handful of painful losses, too. Now comes perhaps the toughest test yet, with the franchise at a pivotal crossroads and Dubois suddenly the centre of attention.

They can’t afford to get this one wrong.


Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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