Opinion

Blake Wheeler bristled at the mere suggestion. The Winnipeg Jets captain clearly didn't like one scribe asking him about a potential spring meeting with the Toronto Maple Leafs after two straight white-knuckle affairs between the clubs this week.

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This article was published 12/3/2021 (219 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Blake Wheeler bristled at the mere suggestion. The Winnipeg Jets captain clearly didn't like one scribe asking him about a potential spring meeting with the Toronto Maple Leafs after two straight white-knuckle affairs between the clubs this week.

"We have to qualify for the playoffs before we can worry about who we’re playing in the playoffs," the veteran growled over Zoom on Thursday night, moments after the Jets lost a 4-3 overtime thriller at Scotiabank Arena.

Captain Blake Wheeler is the last guy who would ever put the cart before the horse.

SEAN KILPATRICK / CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Captain Blake Wheeler is the last guy who would ever put the cart before the horse.

Wheeler is right. And he's the last guy who would ever put the cart before the horse. So let me do it for him.

The Jets, based on what we've seen so far as they approach the midway mark of the regular-season with a 16-8-2 record, are poised to join the post-season party. Heading into Friday night they sit seven points ahead of fifth-place Calgary with two games in hand. Eight up on sixth-place Vancouver with four games in hand. And 15 points up on seventh-place Ottawa with three games in hand. They also have the ninth-best winning percentage in the 31-team league.

Whether their current style of play is your cup of tea, a team many pundits picked to finish fifth or sixth in the all-Canadian division are legitimate contenders, not pretenders. Don't just take my word for it. The Athletic's Dom Luszczyszyn has Winnipeg at 83 per cent to qualify as of Friday morning, based on a mathematical model he updates daily. Another popular odds-based site, MoneyPuck.com, gives the Jets a 71.6 per cent chance.

Toronto (100 per cent with the Athletic, 99.3 per cent on MoneyPuck), Montreal (90 per cent Athletic, 92.4 per cent MoneyPuck) and Edmonton (85 per cent Athletic, 86.3 per cent MoneyPuck) are the other likely locks. Only Calgary (38 per cent Athletic, 41.9 per cent MoneyPuck) is given a fighting chance, with Vancouver (4 per cent Athletic, 7.5 per cent MoneyPuck) and Ottawa (0 per cent Athletic, 1.1 per cent MoneyPuck) into next year territory.

The Athletic's Dom Luszczyszyn has Winnipeg at 83 per cent to qualify (for the playoffs) as of Friday morning.

Nobody tell Wheeler, but if the above predictions hold true that would set up a first-round meeting in mid-May between the Jets and the Maple Leafs, with the winner taking on whoever emerges from Montreal vs Edmonton. One of those teams would move on to the NHL's final four and be a series victory away from the Stanley Cup Final.

Winnipeg is 1-1-1 against Toronto this season, with seven more meetings including Saturday night. After watching the two most recent games this week, it's clear the Jets could use a boost if they want to hang with Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander, especially over a best-of-seven.

Which brings us to the NHL's upcoming April 12 trade deadline.

The Jets are set in goal. Connor Hellebuyck was sensational in Tuesday's 4-3 victory, and he was equally brilliant in getting the Jets at least a point in Thursday's follow-up. They also have more than enough firepower up front, currently seventh in the NHL in goals-per-game, and several good young players can't even crack the lineup right now in Jansen Harkins, Kristian Vesalainen and David Gustafsson.

Mattias Ekholm, right, ranks first on TSN's "Trade Bait" list right now.

MARK ZALESKI / ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES

Mattias Ekholm, right, ranks first on TSN's "Trade Bait" list right now.

But a big addition on the blue-line could go a long way in helping the cause for a club that still gives up far too many chances in its own end of the ice. The problem is, getting there is not as simple as it sounds.

Let's start with the market itself, which isn't exactly flush with difference-makers. Sure, there's Nashville's Mattias Ekholm, who ranks first on TSN's "Trade Bait" list right now. Columbus' David Savard sits second. Both could step in and help the Jets, for sure. After that you have Buffalo's Brandon Montour and Colin Miller, Dallas' Jamie Oleksiak and Detroit's Marc Staal as the other rear-guards in the Top 20. I wouldn't consider any of them to be more than depth pieces at this point, unlikely to move the needle.

As for the potential price, Winnipeg does have some prized young prospects in the system, but I'd be hanging up the phone if any of Ville Heinola, Dylan Samberg or Cole Perfetti's names come up. Is Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff willing to give up another future first-round draft pick, as he did in 2018 and 2019, to try and take a run at a big, skilled, mean defender like Ekholm?

If Cheveldayoff waits until April 11 to pull the trigger on a trade, the new addition wouldn't be able to skate with the Jets until April 25 at the earliest.

Sure, the value of a pick this year is even more of a crapshoot than usual considering most top teenage prospects have had limited chances to play during the pandemic. But it would still be a risky proposition for a team that prides itself on the draft and develop model. For multiple reasons.

First, there's the looming Seattle expansion draft to consider. Adding a rental in the form of a pending unrestricted free agent such as Savard is one thing, depending on the price. But if it's a defenceman with any term — Ekholm has another year left on his deal — the Jets would have to decide who to leave exposed out of Josh Morrissey, Neal Pionk, Dylan DeMelo and Ekholm. If you ultimately lose one to the Kraken, that's a massive added cost.

There's also the quarantine issue, which the Jets are quite familiar with following January's blockbuster with Columbus. Pierre-Luc Dubois had to spend two weeks isolating after flying into Winnipeg, and that's a very real factor in an already shortened season that is now half-over.

David Savard, left, sits second on TSN's "Trade Bait" list right now.

KYLE ROBERTSON / COLUMBUS DISPATCH FILES

David Savard, left, sits second on TSN's "Trade Bait" list right now.

If Cheveldayoff waits until April 11 to pull the trigger on a trade, the new addition wouldn't be able to skate with the Jets until April 25 at the earliest. At that point there are only seven regular-season games left. That's not a lot of return on any investment, especially if a playoff spot isn't even guaranteed. Even if it is, getting out of the first round would be no easy task. The odds of this blowing up in Cheveldayoff's face increase greatly.

That brings up the possibility of making a move right away. If Cheveldayoff has a deal in mind, he should do it sooner than later. Add a player today, for example, and they'd be available before the month is over. Just in time, in fact, for three games in four days against Calgary, the only team that looks to have a shot at potentially overtaking you for a playoff spot.

The other option is simply standing pat — or making a simple, low-cost depth move or two — and rolling the dice with what you have in this unique, shortened season. Hellebuyck has proven he can win games by himself, and Winnipeg's elite forward group can outscore many of the team's problems to the point they'll be a tough out against anybody, even in their current state.

Given all the issues involved, that might ultimately be the smartest, and safest, play. Then let dust settle in the off-season, re-assess where you're at and do what you can to keep the window of contention open as wide as possible, starting with the state of your blue-line.

But as we've seen already this year when he shipped out Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic, Cheveldayoff isn't afraid to swing for the fences if he feels there's a valuable deal to be made. His core, led by Wheeler, isn't getting any younger. You only have so many chances to win a championship. And there are some tantalizing parts currently in place that suggest a lengthy run this spring isn't as far-fetched as it once seemed — especially if a player such as Ekholm was brought into the fold.

Might Cheveldayoff be preparing to step up to the plate one more time? Stay tuned.

 

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

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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