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Opinion

PITTSBURGH — The trade winds are starting to blow in the NHL. And as the buyers start to separate themselves from the sellers, all signs point to the Winnipeg Jets once again being a team to keep an eye on.

Might general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff have another trick or two up his sleeve? He should. The window of opportunity is wide open for the Jets right now, as they currently sit on top of the Central Division standings and look poised for another deep playoff run.

The Winnipeg Jets acquired centre Paul Stastny from the St. Louis Blues near the NHL trade deadline to help fuel their deep playoff run last season.

(AP PHOTO/MARK HUMPHREY, FILE)

The Winnipeg Jets acquired centre Paul Stastny from the St. Louis Blues near the NHL trade deadline to help fuel their deep playoff run last season.

Cheveldayoff made a big splash during last season's trade deadline in obtaining veteran centre Paul Stastny from the St. Louis Blues in exchange for a first-round draft pick, a fourth-round draft pick and prospect Erik Foley. It was a big price to pay for a "draft-and-develop" franchise that doesn't part with futures very often.

But it was well worth the risk, and something Cheveldayoff should be looking to repeat with the Feb. 26 trade deadline approaching.

Stastny solidified the Jets up the middle and was a major part of their stretch drive, which included finishing second-overall in the regular-season standings. He then delivered as promised in the playoffs, helping the Jets go three rounds deep and coming within three wins of reaching the Stanley Cup final.

He was exactly the type of player the team needed, and could use again this season. Prime targets for Cheveldayoff should be bolstering the centre-ice position and the defence, especially on the left side. The Jets have plenty of cap space to work with, especially when pro-rated, so that shouldn't be a concern. They also have prospects and picks that could be enticing for teams trying to rebuild.

With the rumour mill picking up speed, let's take a look at five big-name targets the Jets should be taking a serious run at. They won't come cheap, of course. But this is no time to stand pat or play it safe. The Jets are a good team, for sure. But they're going to need all the help they can get.

 

Ottawa Senators' Matt Duchene is at the top of several teams' wish lists.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/SEAN KILPATRICK

Ottawa Senators' Matt Duchene is at the top of several teams' wish lists.

1) C MATT DUCHENE, 27, OTTAWA SENATORS

(35 games: 16 goals, 24 assists, US$6-million salary. Pending UFA)

Go big or go home, right? Duchene is probably the biggest fish in the pond, and the Ottawa Senators' asking price may be too rich. But Cheveldayoff should at least be finding out what it might take to get him to Winnipeg.

Just imagine a one-two punch up the middle with Mark Scheifele and Duchene, with Bryan Little and Adam Lowry as your bottom-six centres. Yeah, that's the stuff of Stanley Cup dreams right there. It would actually trump last season's Stastny acquisition.

This would be a pure rental, of course. But for a player with just eight post-season games on his resumé, you have to think Duchene is desperate to help carry a team to the promised land. Why not Winnipeg?

 

2) C ERIC STAAL, 34, MINNESOTA WILD

(38 games: 13 goals, 12 assists, US$3.5-million salary. Pending UFA)

Minnesota Wild's veteran centreman Eric Staal.

(AP PHOTO/JIM MONE)

Minnesota Wild's veteran centreman Eric Staal.

He's a Stanley Cup champion who grew up about 700 kilometres east of Bell MTS Place. He's in the final year of a team-friendly contract. The pride of Thunder Bay is a big body up the middle and someone Jets head coach Paul Maurice has raved about. And he still has plenty of pop left, with 42 goals last season. Sure, his production has dropped off this season on a Minnesota team that has disappointed, but he's still fourth on the team in scoring.

He's a proven playoff performer (20 goals, 26 assists in 58 games), but has only played 15 post-season games in the past decade thanks to a trio of first-round exits. No doubt he's hungry for another long run, like the one in 2006 with the Carolina Huricanes that ended with a championship. (True story: the NHL engraver spelled his last name "Staaal" on the Cup.)

The biggest question about Staal is whether he's available. Minnesota is four points back of a wild-card spot, so their play over the next few weeks will go a long way in determining their direction. If the playoffs are a pipe dream, Staal is the kind of asset the Wild would be wise to flip. Cheveldayoff should be in Wild GM Paul Fenton's ear on a daily basis.

 

3) D JAKE MUZZIN, 29, LOS ANGELES KINGS

(41 games: 4 goals, 12 assists, US$4-million salary. Signed for one more season)

Los Angeles Kings defenceman Jake Muzzin could help bolster the left side of the Jets defence corps.

(AP PHOTO/MICHAEL OWEN BAKER)

Los Angeles Kings defenceman Jake Muzzin could help bolster the left side of the Jets defence corps.

There's no doubt the Kings are sellers, and Muzzin is a player who could surely bring back some value to an organization desperately in need of some youth and skill. He still has one more year on his contact, which could somewhat complicate matters for the Jets given the cap crunch they'll be facing next summer with Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor, Jacob Trouba, Andrew Copp and Laurent Brossoit all restricted free agents needing new contracts, plus Tyler Myers, Ben Chiarot and Brandon Tanev being UFAs.

Still, the left-shooting Muzzin is a former Cup champion (50 total playoff games of experience) who would give the Jets an absolutely potent top-four on the blue line. Imagine rolling out Trouba and Josh Morrissey, followed by Muzzin and Dustin Byfuglien. Yeah, that wouldn't be a whole lot of fun to play against.

 

New York Rangers' Kevin Hayes is a big, physical centre that would be an asset for a deep playoff push.

(AP PHOTO/SETH WENIG)

New York Rangers' Kevin Hayes is a big, physical centre that would be an asset for a deep playoff push.

4) C KEVIN HAYES, 26, NEW YORK RANGERS

(39 games: 10 goals, 23 assists, US$5.175-million salary. Pending UFA)

Big, strong, talented and in desperate need of a change of scenery. Hayes checks off many of the boxes the Jets would be interested in, and there are already plenty of rumours that Winnipeg is one of the teams that would be interested.

The Rangers are likely to move him and should have several potential bidders, which could drive the price up. Next to Duchene and Staal, he might be the next best centre option available.

 

5) D JAY BOUWMEESTER, 35, ST. LOUIS BLUES

St Louis defenceman Jay Bouwmeester is one of the older pending UFA defenders on the market.

(PAUL CHIASSON/THE CANADIAN PRESS VIA AP, FILE)

St Louis defenceman Jay Bouwmeester is one of the older pending UFA defenders on the market.

(33 games: 1 goal, 6 assists, US$5.4-million salary. Pending UFA)

This was a tough one to include, because this is not the same player who was a top-tier left-shot blue-liner for years.

How much is left in the tank, and would he be a significant upgrade over what the Jets have?

I'd be willing to bank on Bouwmeester, perhaps in a more sheltered role but one that could be a complementary piece for a defence core that would benefit from his experience.

 

WINGING IT: no, it's not the top priority. But Cheveldayoff should be exploring every opportunity to improve his club. So how about adding on the wings? Here are three intriguing possibilities for the Jets.

Put me down as a huge Mats Zuccarello fan. The 31-year-old Rangers right-winger is a pending UFA (US$4.5 million). He's having a tough season by his standards (4 goals, 10 assists in 26 games) but could flourish with a move out of the Big Apple.

Philadelphia right-winger Wayne Simmonds, another pending UFA (US$3.975 million), is built for playoff hockey. Like Zuccarello, the 30-year-old has also struggled this season on an underachieving Flyers team, with just 11 goals and 6 assists in 39 games.

Finally, how about Swan River's Michael Ferland, another pending UFA (US$1.75 million) who could be moved by Carolina at the deadline. The 26-year-old left-winger is a combination of talent and grit, with 11 goals and 6 assists in 31 games.

Of course, there's plenty of other names out there, and possibly some — such as Stastny last season — that are quietly being shopped behind the scenes and could surprise us all. All of which should make for a very interesting couple months around these parts.

One thing we know is that there are other contenders that will be making moves to improve between now and the deadline. The Jets must be one of them.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Reporter

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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