Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 7/3/2021 (226 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The good news for the Winnipeg Jets is that there hasn’t been a whole lot of losing so far this NHL season. Just eight in regulation, and one more in a shootout, through the first 24 games.
Sure, the most recent setback was a doozy, a 7-1 shellacking on Saturday night in Montreal. And yes, they now have three straight dates with the first-place Toronto Maple Leafs on tap, starting Tuesday night. Nobody said this was going to be easy right?
But as this unique 56-game campaign continues towards the finish line, there’s an inevitable "L" waiting for Winnipeg on the other side. A solid player will be gone, swapping shinny here in River City for Starbucks coffee, grunge music and plenty of rain in the Pacific Northwest.
Such is the reality of the impending Seattle Kraken expansion draft, which is set to go down on July 21. The NHL’s 32nd franchise will pluck one player off the roster of every other club save for the other new kids on the block, the Vegas Golden Knights.
Teams must choose one of two options: Either protect seven forwards, three defencemen and one goaltender, or eight skaters (any combination of forwards and defencemen) and one goaltender. Given the current make-up of Winnipeg’s roster, you can expect the 7-3-1 route. (In the Vegas expansion draft, 23 of 30 teams did that, including the Jets).
It says here all but one of those spots is spoken for.
FORWARDS (6): Blake Wheeler (who must be protected due to his no-move clause), Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Andrew Copp (who will be a restricted free agent next summer but remains under team control) are no-brainers. There is zero chance the Jets make any of them available.
DEFENCE (3): Josh Morrissey, Neal Pionk (also an RFA) and Dylan DeMelo are the likely locks.
GOAL (1): Connor Hellebuyck. Duh!
You can add several more names to "not going anywhere" list. Young defencemen Ville Heinola, Dylan Samberg, Declan Chisholm, Leon Gawanke and Johnny Kovacevic, and forwards Cole Perfetti, Kristian Vesalainen and David Gustafsson, all currently playing with the Manitoba Moose, are exempt due to the fact they have two years (or less) of pro hockey experience since turning 20.
Here’s where it gets dicey. The following players are also signed through at least next season and eligible to be picked by the Kraken unless protected.
FORWARDS: Mason Appleton. Jansen Harkins. Joona Luoto. C.J. Suess. Kristian Reichel. Marko Dano (pending RFA). Skyler McKenzie (pending RFA). Bryan Little (on long-term injured reserve, career likely over).
DEFENCE: Logan Stanley (pending RFA). Nathan Beaulieu. Sami Niku. Nelson Nogier. Luke Green.
GOALTENDERS: Mikhail Berdin. Eric Comrie.
But wait, there’s more. There’s also the following crop of pending unrestricted free agents, who would all be available to Seattle unless they re-sign with Winnipeg prior to July 21 AND are protected. If that doesn’t happen, the Kraken have a 48-hour window prior to July 21 to try and negotiate a new contract before choosing the player.
FORWARDS: Paul Stastny. Adam Lowry. Mathieu Perreault. Nate Thompson. Trevor Lewis. Dominic Toninato.
DEFENCE: Derek Forbort. Tucker Poolman.
GOALTENDERS: Laurent Brossoit. Anton Forsberg.
A few other things to consider. Any adds by the Jets between now and the April 12 trade deadline would factor in. For example, there are rumblings Winnipeg might be in the market for an upgrade to their blue-line, which would make a lot of sense. One potential target is Nashville’s Mattias Ekholm.
Ekholm is signed for another season beyond this one at $3.75 million. The price to acquire him in a trade would likely be steep. Would the Jets be willing to lose him in the expansion draft (or, in the alternative, protect him but expose another defenceman like DeMelo?) to take a run at playoff glory this spring? It’s a cost that has to be considered.
The trade Kevin Cheveldayoff has already made this season helped the cause. Winnipeg sent Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic to Columbus for Pierre-Luc Dubois. That two-for-one move clears the way for another forward to be protected.
Who might that be? I believe there are four candidates: Appleton and Harkins, who are signed beyond this year. Lowry and Stastny, who are not.
Appleton has the most upside, and the 25-year-old has been Winnipeg’s most improved player this season. Harkins, 23, is no slouch either, although he’s the victim of the numbers game right now with the Jets and essentially the 13th forward. Prior to this year, I’d have thought the Jets would protect Harkins over Appleton. Now, I suspect the opposite would be true.
I’d be surprised if BOTH Lowry and Stastny are back next season -- not with young centres such as Gustafsson and Perfetti waiting in the wings -- but returning one of them would make plenty of sense. Lowry is obviously younger, (he’ll turn 28 later this month), has spent his whole career here and his dad just joined the coaching staff as an assistant. Stastny has been terrific this year, on and off the ice, and has waived his no-trade clause twice to come to Winnipeg. He’ll be 36 in December.
The big question will be price, and whether Winnipeg can offer what the open market, or an expansion team like the Kraken, could, once free agency begins July 28. That’s especially tricky with a salary cap expected to remain flat, and the Jets needing to ensure there’s enough money for Copp and Pionk this off-season, and RFA’s Dubois and Appleton (presuming he’s still here) the following.
If Winnipeg does want to re-sign Lowry and/or Stastny -- and the feeling is mutual -- it makes the most sense to wait until after the expansion draft to do so. That way, the Jets could use the remaining forward spot on someone else.
Given the quality of depth forwards, I suspect that’s where Winnipeg ultimately takes the hit. Sure, the Kraken could look at the blue-line and scoop one of Stanley, Niku or Poolman. But Harkins seems like the most logical candidate as we sit here today, based on my belief Appleton will be off-limits.
I’d have Lowry a close second depending on how his situation plays out. Seattle might ultimately make him an offer he can’t refuse, one Winnipeg can’t match. And a shutdown centre is a pretty good place to start when building a roster from the ground up. Stanley, who has showed very well in spot duty this season, is my dark horse candidate.
There’s one last potential twist here -- might the Jets try to broker another side deal, like they did with Vegas? You’ll recall Winnipeg sent its 2017 first-round pick (13th overall, turned out to be centre Nick Suzuki, later traded to Montreal as part of the Max Pacioretty deal) and a 2019 third-round pick in exchange for Vegas selecting pending UFA Chris Thorburn, who they didn’t even attempt to sign. Winnipeg also got Vegas’ 2017 first-round pick (24th overall, ended up being Vesalainen).
That was orchestrated by concerns Vegas was going to take Toby Enstrom (Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba and Tyler Myers were the three protected blue-liners, while Morrissey was exempted at the time).
Enstrom ended up playing just one final injury-plagued season with Winnipeg (one goal, five assists in 43 games). Ironically, he was a healthy scratch the next spring as the Jets were eliminated in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final -- by the Golden Knights. The UFA wasn’t re-signed and returned to Sweden to play two more years before retiring.
Such a move is fraught with risk. Vegas cashed in big time when it came to other side deals, making themselves instant contenders and making plenty of general managers around the league look foolish. You can bet they’ll all be trying to ensure history doesn’t repeat itself.
Which is one of the many reasons the rapidly approaching expansion draft, and all the short and long-term implications that will flow from it, is likely keeping Cheveldayoff awake at night lately. That, and trying to ensure the miserable loss in Montreal can be quickly put to bed as his club embarks on a challenging week ahead in the centre of the hockey universe.
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.