Jets wonder what future may hold
Hellebuyck, Scheifele, Wheeler, Dubois face prospect of moving on from Winnipeg
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Nobody brought out a crystal ball, nor were any tea leaves or tarot cards read. But the future of four key Winnipeg Jets players remains cloudy with a strong chance of change based on everything we saw and heard on Saturday.
Let’s start with the most important one of all, former Vezina Trophy winning goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, who has just one year left on his current contract and would become an unrestricted free agent by next summer.
“That’s hard to answer,” Hellebuyck said when asked about his future in Winnipeg. “My main goal is to win a Stanley Cup, and I’m starting to run out of time and can feel it.”
Hellebuyck, who will turn 30 next month, likely holds the key to whether the Jets undergo an extreme makeover or something a bit more subdued.
If a long-term extension can’t be worked out in the coming months, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff likely has no choice but to trade him now and get as much back as possible, rather than losing him for nothing following next season.
“I don’t know what the future of this team’s going to look like. I don’t know what their plans are, and I don’t know if I’m in it, to be honest,” said Hellebuyck.
“I’m not sure what they’re thinking. As far as I’m concerned, I’m going to give everything wherever I am. If they decide to move me, that’s their call. If they decide to try to talk, I haven’t really thought about that, yet. Time’s on my side. I’ve got all summer. I’m not in any rush.”
Losing Hellebuyck would likely trigger a full blown rebuild, especially since the Jets don’t have their next No. 1 netminder knocking at the door.
You also wonder if top centres Mark Scheifele and Pierre-Luc Dubois, who also could become UFAs by the summer of 2024, will want to see what Hellebuyck does before deciding their own futures. Or, vice-versa.
“Oh, for sure,” Scheifele said of Hellebuyck’s situation. “There are a lot of factors that go into it. There are still a lot of things that could happen or not happen. I just have to take it all in stride and just focus on what I can control and I know I have a really good team around me, really good support around me to make those decisions.”
Scheifele, who suffered an upper-body injury early in Game 4 of the playoffs against the Vegas Golden Knights, led the Jets in scoring with a career-high 42 goals but was at times criticized by coach Rick Bowness — and even benched — for his play away from the puck.
Scheifele, 30, re-iterated Saturday that he liked being challenged and held accountable but said it’s “too early to talk about” his future.
“I’m still feeling pretty junky about not getting to play in the last game and being eliminated from the playoffs,” he said.
“You take these next few days, these next few weeks, to really think about all that. Once I feel like I’m in a better place of mind, then I feel like I could answer that question.”
Scheifele was asked if the idea of playing his whole career for one team is enticing.
“Yeah. My favourite player is Stevie Y (Steve Yzerman). He played his entire career with the (Detroit) Red Wings and, obviously, I think that’s an accomplishment to play for one team,” he said.
Dubois, 24, is on his second team after being drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets, then traded to Winnipeg in exchange for Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic. He’s only under Jets control for one more year as a restricted free agent this summer. Many pundits believe his heart is set on playing for his hometown Montreal Canadiens.
“To be honest I’m still processing the season. Still processing the playoffs. I haven’t really had those conversations with my agent yet. They will come up soon enough,” said Dubois.
“There’s a lot of fake things out there, a lot of people saying they heard this or they heard that. At the end of the day, I haven’t said anything or done anything. It’s just speculation. Like I said, I haven’t made a decision. We just lost, the season just ended two days ago.”
Dubois, who had a career-high 63 points (27 goals, 36 assists in 73 regular-season games), said he’s not really interested in just signing a one-year deal this summer, as he did last year. But he wouldn’t commit to that long-term extension coming in Winnipeg, or somewhere else should the team ultimately trade him as many expect to happen.
“These conversations will come up with Chevy, with my agent,” said Dubois, who revealed he’d been battling a hip injury since midway through the year which had hampered him, including during an up-and-down playoff series against Vegas.
“Obviously a disappointing ending, but this season was… we made the playoffs. Last year we didn’t. There’s some good moments this year. Learning to play with a new coaching staff was great. They’re all great people. The group, I think we took steps in the right direction this year and that was great to see, it was fun to be a part of,” he said.
Finally, there is Wheeler, who is the team’s highest paid player for one more season at US$8.25 million. The 36-year-old is coming off an eventful campaign which included having his captaincy removed by new coach Rick Bowness, then suffering a gruesome groin injury.
A buyout by the Jets, a trade to another club to get out of his salary cap hit, or even going on long-term injured reserve are all potential options, and an emotional Wheeler certainly sounded like he may have already played his final game with the Jets.
“It was humbling for sure. A lot of changes and circumstances,” he said of the year that was.
Wheeler spoke about signing his five-year, US $41.8 million contract extension following the 2018 run to the Western Conference Final with the belief the Jets were on the cusp of something great. They’ve won just one playoff series, during the truncated 2021 campaign, since then.
“If 2018 didn’t happen, I wouldn’t have re-signed here. I thought 2018 we got to the final four, I thought we were the best team. It was an opportunity we let slip,” he said.
“I’ve dedicated my career to this place because I believed that we had the pieces to win. So from that standpoint, yeah, it’s disappointing to know that that didn’t come to fruition.”
Wheeler took a long pause to collect his thoughts and was clearly emotional when asked what he hopes his legacy will be if this truly is it.
“I mean… I gave it everything I’ve had. I hope that that’s good enough, you know what I mean,” he said. “There wasn’t a day I took off, so I guess that’s the best you can do.”
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.