November 14, 2019

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Second-line middle-man position Little's to lose

Opinion

Immediate help wanted: second-line centreman. Must be able to play sound two-way game, contributing at both ends of the ice. Chemistry with talented but inconsistent young wingers required. Now (desperately) accepting applications from within.

It’s become a common concern around these parts, one the Winnipeg Jets have been struggling to address for quite some time.

Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff sought outside help the past two trade deadlines, bringing in Paul Stastny (great fit) in February 2018 and Kevin Hayes (not so great fit) in February 2019.

And as the Jets get set to embark on a new campaign, who will fill this all-important job opening remains a mystery. Yes, it’s deja vu all over again.

These were not long-term solutions, as both players moved on to sign lucrative long-term deals with Vegas and Philadelphia, respectively.

All of which means we’re back to square one. And as the Jets get set to embark on a new campaign, who will fill this all-important job opening remains a mystery.

Yes, it’s deja vu all over again.

There’s no question 26-year-old Mark Scheifele is No. 1 up the middle, albeit with room for improvement despite a career-best 84 points last season.

But after that, how exactly does the depth chart look? That will be one of the key storylines when training camp begins next week, in addition to a revamped blue-line and the contract situations of young wingers Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor.

One thing is clear: the second-line centre position is likely to be filled internally. With the Jets up against the salary cap, there was no chance of signing a high-profile free agent this summer.

Unless Cheveldayoff swings a big trade to dramatically change the makeup of his roster, what you see is what you’re going to get.

To help get this job search underway, I’ve short-listed five potential candidates along with a brief resumé for each and my take on how this might shake out.

 

JEFF MCINTOSH / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES</p><p>Bryan Little</p>

JEFF MCINTOSH / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Bryan Little

1) BRYAN LITTLE: what’s the definition of insanity again — doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result? Yet here we are again, another year older and, one would hope, another year wiser.

Little, 31, is coming off his least-productive offensive season since he was just a young pup way back in 2009-10, then with the Atlanta Thrashers. With just 15 goals and 26 assists in 82 games last year, this might just be the new normal for an aging player whose best years are likely behind him.

We’ve also seen enough evidence to suggest pairing him with Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers simply doesn’t mesh, assuming the top line of Scheifele between Connor and Blake Wheeler stays intact.

And don’t forget the very reason Cheveldayoff brought in Stastny, and then Hayes a year later, was the belief that Little on that line simply wasn’t good enough. In fact, not only was he moved down the lineup, he was also shifted on occasion to the wing.

So what makes anyone think it’s going to work out better this time around?

Head coach Paul Maurice loves his veterans, and can also be a bit stubborn when it comes to making changes. Little represents the "safe" play, so don’t be surprised to see him get plenty of opportunities in that spot to start this new season.

MY ODDS OF HIM STARTING THE SEASON AT THE POSITION: 60 per cent

 

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES</p><p>Andrew Copp</p>

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Andrew Copp

2) ANDREW COPP: I would have received plenty of strange looks with this suggestion a year ago, but plenty has changed since then. First, Copp has shown he can be just as successful playing centre as he is on the wing. He’s also proven to be able to move up and down the lineup, balancing a strong defensive game with some offensive pop (career-high 11 goals last year, plus 14 assists, in 69 games).

Copp, 25, is also a highly motivated player with a bit of a chip on his shoulder, the result of going to arbitration with the Jets earlier this summer after failing to come to terms on a new deal. After being awarded a two-year deal worth US$2.28 million per year, Copp has the chance to really strike it rich on his next deal if he can carve out an even bigger role on the team.

I wouldn’t bet against him. The Michigan product might just continue to surprise.

MY ODDS OF HIM STARTING THE SEASON AT THE POSITION: 25 per cent

 

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Winnipeg Jets Jack Roslovic</p>

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Winnipeg Jets Jack Roslovic

3) JACK ROSLOVIC: there may not be a player with more to prove this season than Roslovic, the talented 22-year-old first round draft pick who many believe hasn’t been given a fair shake by the organization. Roslovic is part of that chorus, privately airing his concerns about minutes and usage with the team last season and then again through what is now his former agent, Ken Robinson, earlier this summer.

Roslovic (nine goals, 15 assists in 77 regular-season games) will be a restricted free agent after this season and is going to need a major breakthrough if he truly wants to cash in. He played plenty of centre last year, albeit in a more sheltered bottom-six role for the most part, and struggled at times. Roslovic seems to be more at ease on the wing, where he can focus on what he does best without worrying about the added defensive responsibilities.

As such, it’s tough to see him really grabbing a permanent spot as a second-line centre, although he’s still young enough that I’m not prepared to write him off entirely. He should at least be given a shot.

MY ODDS OF HIM STARTING THE SEASON AT THE POSITION: 10 per cent

 

SASHA SEFTER / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Blake Wheeler</p>

SASHA SEFTER / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Blake Wheeler

4) BLAKE WHEELER: file this one under the "not likely to happen" category, if for no other reason that it would mean splitting up the seemingly joined-at-the-hip duo of Scheifele and Wheeler on the top line.

However, Wheeler filled in admirably as the No. 1 centre when Scheifele went down with an injury during the 2017-18 season, making you wonder what this roster might look like if he slid off the wing into the No. 2 spot.

Yes, Wheeler, 33, is one of the better right-wingers in the game, but the Jets certainly have plenty of depth on the flanks, especially once Laine and Connor sign new deals.

Why not at least experiment with this during the pre-season? Like I said, don’t hold your breath.

MY ODDS OF HIM STARTING THE SEASON AT THE POSITION: 5 per cent

 

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES</p><p>Adam Lowry</p>

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Adam Lowry

5) ADAM LOWRY: this one’s a bit of a long shot.

Technically, the 26-year-old already may be the "second-line centre" on some nights, simply by deployment, but I’m not sure there’s enough offence in his arsenal to carry a permanent top-six workload.

Lowry (12 goals, 11 assists in 78 games last season) is much better being used in a shutdown role. And the Jets are likely a better team with him being deployed in such a manner.

MY ODDS OF HIM STARTING THE SEASON AT THE POSITION: 0 per cent

No, none of the above suggestions are perfect. Likely far from it. But in a salary cap world, sometimes a little creativity, not to mention flexibility, is required.

Time will tell who ultimately gets hired — and whether they’re fit for the job.

 

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.

Read full biography

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