Chevy has a lot of work to do Jets GM faces several important player decisions
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The smoke is starting to clear from the year-end inferno that consumed the Winnipeg Jets. Now it’s time to begin sorting through the rubble to see what kind of cleanup needs to be done.
We know general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff will remain in charge of the salvage operation, and he faces a critical to-do list a mile long.
Here are the most pressing matters:
Make sure the home fires are no longer burning:
Oh, to be a fly on the wall of exit meetings that happened over the weekend between Cheveldayoff and his players, and the ones occurring this week between Cheveldayoff and the coaching staff, and Cheveldayoff and the ownership group. No doubt the subject of how a once-promising season ended was quite the hot topic.
Head coach Rick Bowness called out his players, some of those players pushed back publicly, and Cheveldayoff tried to take an “everything is fine” approach when he met the media. It’s not.
Bottom line: Dysfunction isn’t good for anyone, and all parties have to make sure they are on the same page going forward. It would also behoove the organization to communicate as clearly as possible with the ticket-buying public about how they plan to improve. You want them to invest in your product? Give them tangible reasons that go beyond talking in circles and empty platitudes.
Monday’s tone-deaf email to fans in which the Jets seemed to undermine Bowness by mentioning just how much “pushback” they had in their series loss to the Vegas Golden Knights, along with the incredible claim that “the only disappointing part was Game 5,” was a step in the wrong direction.
Get clarity on Connor Hellebuyck:
This is an obvious starting point as the 29-year-old 2019-20 Vezina Trophy winner truly holds the key to the future.
Should the club’s No.1 goalie choose to stick around and sign a long-term extension with the only NHL team he’s known, the Jets remain in relatively good hands and should continue to build around him. If Hellebuyck balks at signing on the dotted line and plans to pursue a change of scenery as an unrestricted free agent next summer, then all bets are off. A full-blown rebuild will be the correct course of action, especially with no heir apparent knocking at the door to fill his role.
Cheveldayoff will have no choice but to try and salvage the situation by getting as much as he can for Hellebuyck on the trade market. With several teams possibly looking to buy — Detroit, Los Angeles, Ottawa, Colorado and Boston are among those that come to mind — a bidding war could ensue, which would benefit Winnipeg.
I was probably 70/30 on Hellebuyck extending his stay in Winnipeg, prior to hearing from him this past Saturday during season-ending interviews with the media. Now? It’s more like 30/70. All Hellebuyck wants to do is win a Stanley Cup, and it sure seems like he’s thinking the chances of that happening with the Jets anytime soon are fading. Can you really blame him?
The Mark Scheifele and Pierre-Luc Dubois situations:
It’s possible the team’s top centres have already played their final games with Winnipeg. Dubois feels like a done deal in that department, while Scheifele is more iffy (and, perhaps, might be tied in to what ultimately happens with Hellebuyck).
Scheifele has one more year left on his deal, while Dubois is a restricted free agent with arbitration rights. Both players ultimately hold the power as they can become UFAs by July 1, 2024.
It would be professional malpractice on Cheveldayoff’s part to go into next season with either player on the roster unless they are signed long term. Waiting until next year’s trade deadline, for example, would be risky business. What if they got hurt before then? You can’t risk losing these types of assets for nothing. Just ask the Calgary Flames how that worked out with Johnny Gaudreau.
No doubt Scheifele and Dubois could bring a hefty return, especially if you moved them to a team which then locked them up, rather than as a one-year rental. Obviously their departures would leave big holes to fill on Winnipeg’s roster, but the pieces coming back along with the available cap space could expedite that process.
There’s no question Bowness clashed at times with Scheifele and Dubois owing to their inconsistent play, so perhaps a change of scenery would be best for everyone.
Blake Wheeler’s future:
There’s no question he’s been a loyal soldier, one who has given it his all during his time in Winnipeg. But all good things must come to an end.
I wouldn’t expect him to retire, as he’d be walking away from the final year of his team-high US$8.25 million deal. Buying out the soon-to-be 37-year-old or shipping him to a team that has plenty of cap space along with some type of sweetener (such as a draft pick or prospect) are two options.
Moving on would also signal a true culture change inside Winnipeg’s room, one that was not accomplished with the mostly symbolic act of removing the captaincy last fall. As we heard this past weekend, multiple players still view him as the alpha.
Wheeler’s tenure here appears to be over.
The restricted free agents:
Forwards Morgan Barron, Kevin Stenlund and Alex Limoges, defencemen Dylan Samberg, Logan Stanley, Declan Chisholm and Leon Gawanke, and goaltender Arvid Holm are the players in the organization who need new deals of some kind.
I’d expect all to receive qualifying offers, which allows the team to retain their rights. (Not qualifying a player would make him a UFA). And none should be very difficult or controversial when it comes to finding a fit.
I’m not including Dubois in this list for reasons stated above. It’s either long-term extension or nothing in his case.
They have no shot at a phenom like Connor Bedard, of course. The Jets will have either the 18th or 19th overall pick on June 28 in Nashville, depending how the rest of the playoffs go for other squads.
Given how deep many believe the talent pool is this year, that should still land them a very promising young prospect to be added to the likes of forwards Brad Lambert, Chaz Lucius and Rutger McGroarty, defenceman Elias Salomonsson and goaltender Domenic DiVincentiis, among others.
That’s a big deal for a “draft and develop” organization like Winnipeg.
The unrestricted free agents:
Forwards Vladislav Namestnikov, Sam Gagner, Karson Kuhlman, Saku Maenalanen and Axel Jonsson-Fjallby and backup goaltender David Rittich are all on expiring contracts.
Namestnikov should be a no-brainer to bring back. He was a terrific trade deadline add, a hard worker who can play up and down the lineup, both at wing and at centre. The 30-year-old, obtained from San Jose in exchange for a fourth-round draft pick, is already on his eighth different organization. He’s likely looking for some stability, and Winnipeg should offer it to him in the form of a multi-year deal.
As for the others, you thank them for their services and wish them well in their future endeavours. Each is replaceable.Winnipeg Jets' Vladislav Namestnikov should be a no-brainer to bring back.
The crowded blue line:
Ville Heinola barely got a sniff this season while continuing to excel in the American Hockey League. Chisholm and Gawanke didn’t get a look at all despite doing great things on the farm. Those players will all require waivers to be sent to the Manitoba Moose next year, meaning another Johnathan Kovacevic situation could be looming. He was waived, claimed by Montreal and went on become one of their most reliable defenders.
One solution would be to move a pricey veteran such as Nate Schmidt or Neal Pionk to free up a spot (or two) for a younger, cheaper player. The Jets were a better defensive group under Bowness this year, but still nowhere near good enough when push came to shove. And everyone is under contract for at least one more year, with Brenden Dillon and Dylan DeMelo set to become UFAs in the summer of 2024.
How many holes there are to fill — and how deep those holes are — will depend largely on what happens with the likes of Hellebuyck, Scheifele, Dubois and Wheeler (and what comes back in any potential trades). But there’s a scenario where the Jets, who have traditionally been a salary cap team without a whole lot to spend on this particular day, suddenly have money to burn.
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.