Jets miss great opportunity to go all-in Minimal activity before trade deadline does little to inspire confidence
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Kevin Cheveldayoff didn’t walk into the Canada Life Centre media room on Friday afternoon waving a white flag. But it sure felt like the Winnipeg Jets general manager had surrendered whatever remaining hope his hockey club had of making a serious run at the Stanley Cup this spring.
To say this year’s trade deadline was a disappointment would be an understatement.
Sure, forward Nino Niederreiter will help do some heavy lifting on the top two lines. Winger Vladislav Namestnikov should provide a modest upgrade on a bottom six that has been firing blanks lately. Both moves seem solid enough when viewed in a vacuum, especially with just a pair of draft picks going the other way.
In a most important season the Jets should have been all-in, with no shortage of big names up for grabs and both the Central Division and Western Conference seemingly wide open for the taking with the balance of NHL power residing in the East, the ultra-conservative Cheveldayoff took a tepid approach rather than swinging for the fences.
That’s a shame, quite frankly, on a number of fronts.
First and foremost, what message does it send to Connor Hellebuyck, Mark Schiefele and Pierre-Luc Dubois? The Vezina-winning goaltender and top two centres can all test free agency by the summer of 2024. That’s a big concern, for sure. They’re right here, right now. True North should be doing everything possible to take advantage of that fact and try to go as deep as possible this year. No doubt a fruitful run would help in regards to getting their names on long-term extensions and ensure a window of opportunity can remain open as long as possible.
Now? It’s hard to imagine the grass isn’t starting to look a lot greener in other much-more active markets, especially if the Jets ultimately make an early playoff exit. Or, worse yet, don’t even qualify, which isn’t entirely out of the realm of possibility given their recent play.
This may very well signal a turning point when we look back in a year or two.
Secondly, how does an underwhelming trade deadline play with an increasingly frustrated fan-base? It’s no secret the organization is having trouble selling tickets at the downtown rink this year. There were more than 2,100 empty seats for the most recent home game Tuesday night, the second-smallest crowd of the season.
People around here are just starving for something to rally behind, and we’ve seen that on several occasions (mostly earlier in the year) when the Jets started stringing together victories and their aggressive, up-tempo style of play under new coach Rick Bowness was winning them over.
Lately, there hasn’t been a ton to cheer about. This is a club that has been crying out for a boost, one that started strong but has been fading fast, going just 6-10-1 in the last 17 games. The anger is palpable, and the real risk is that it eventually turns to apathy for many. With so many season ticket packages up for renewal, this is not the time for half-hearted measures. Yet, here we are.
My email inbox and Twitter mentions were, to put it lightly, a tire fire on Friday. No shortage of calls for the GM to be replaced, vows to no longer support the team or buy a ticket until some substantial change is made. It’s ugly.
Cheveldayoff, now in his 12th year at the helm and with two more on his current contract, likely isn’t going anywhere. His seat should be getting hotter, especially with the organization rapidly approaching a major crossroads as early as this summer when it comes to several core pieces.
Not all hope is lost. Despite the recent struggles, the Jets entered play Friday night in Edmonton still only seven points out of being No. 1 in both the Central and the West. Yet they were also just five points clear of Calgary, who are currently below the playoff line. In other words, this thing could still go either way.
That alone should have been grounds for Cheveldayoff to think big and get aggressive. To stop worrying about the future and live in the moment. Move your first-round pick if you have to. Trade a young player or prospect like Ville Heinola, Chaz Lucius or Brad Lambert who might ultimately help you one day down the road.
While rivals such as Dallas, Minnesota, Colorado, Edmonton, Vegas and Los Angeles loaded up in recent days, Winnipeg more or less maintained the status quo.
I’ll concede the Jets are a better team with Niederreiter and Namestnikov in the lineup than they were without. Niederreiter’s add would be a lot more impactful if young winger Cole Perfetti wasn’t out for at least the rest of the regular-season with an upper-body injury. Namestnikov, while a better option than players such as Axel Jonsson-Fjallby or Karson Kuhlman, is not going to move the needle much.
His acquisition raises questions about how this roster is being managed. Consider the following: Michael Eyssimont, the Manitoba Moose callup who provided a major spark for the Jets earlier this year, was placed on waivers once a number of injured players started getting healthy in early January. Winnipeg hasn’t seemed quite the same ever since, even if the talent level in the lineup improved considerably. Eyssimont’s motor was always running, and the passion and urgency he played with seemed infectious to his teammates. Those are traits that have been in short supply lately.
If that didn’t sting enough, San Jose put in a claim for Eyssimont, played him up in their lineup and then managed to turn him into an asset earlier this week when they sent him to Tampa Bay in exchange for Namestnikov. The Sharks then flipped Namestnikov to the Jets for a fourth-round pick. Ouch.
Meanwhile, no shortage of players Winnipeg had either shown interest in, or could have benefited from adding, were traded elsewhere. Timo Meier (New Jersey). Jakob Chychrun (Ottawa). Mattias Ekholm (Edmonton). John Klingberg (Minnesota). Max Domi (Dallas). Tyler Bertuzzi (Boston). Nick Bjugstad (Edmonton). Luke Schenn (Toronto). Ivan Barbashev (Vegas). Jesse Puljujarvi (Carolina). Marcus Johansson (Minnesota). Jordan Greenway (Buffalo). Mikael Granlund (Pittsburgh). Lars Eller (Colorado). Shayne Gostisbehere (Carolina). The list goes on.
Even more frustrating and puzzling is that after accruing salary cap space all year, with the potential to weaponize it, the Jets ultimately left more than US$3 million on the table (although a portion of that could be eaten up by performance bonuses).
In the end, there was no big splash. Now the onus falls to the players who are here to try and shut up critics like me who don’t see a lot of ground for optimism. Even though their recent play hasn’t exactly inspired much confidence, you know they will not be giving up.
Unfortunately, a little more help could have gone a long way.
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.
Updated on Friday, March 3, 2023 10:21 PM CST: corrects spelling of Namestnikov