The Winnipeg Jets sure aren't playing like a team that's looking for a lifeline. They've racked up three straight wins, including Saturday's impressive 5-0 triumph over Montreal, and are sitting pretty in the all-Canadian division at 25-13-3 with a month left on the regular-season schedule.
But that doesn't mean general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff won't throw his playoff-bound group a bone or two prior to Monday 2 p.m. CST NHL trade deadline. As always, it's going to come down to what's available — and at what cost?
The blue-line has been the primary area of focus, and a season-ending shoulder injury to Nathan Beaulieu should at least put the Jets in the market for some additional depth, especially of the experienced, battle-tested variety. Conventional wisdom says teams that go on long playoff runs need at least 10 NHL-calibre defenders, and there's no question Winnipeg is a bit thin in that department.
Outside the current starting six, which includes impressive rookie Logan Stanley, the Jets have Sami Niku as their lone healthy extra, while sophomore Ville Heinola and journeyman Nelson Nogier are on the taxi squad. Looking down on the farm with the Manitoba Moose, rookie Dylan Samberg and second-year pro Leon Gawanke are both injured, while Declan Chisholm and Johnny Kovacevic are the only other players currently in town under NHL contracts.
Samberg, Gawanke, Chisholm and Kovacevic are all promising prospects, but they have a combined zero games of NHL experience under their belts. Cheveldayoff would be wise to try and lengthen the gap to them for a Jets team that wants to be playing meaningful hockey into July. Hope is not a plan, and the likelihood of everyone remaining healthy between now and then is somewhere between slim and none. The playoffs are a two-month war of attrition.
Speaking of the future, Cheveldayoff is not going to mortgage it, so any talk of trading the likes of Heinola, Samberg or forward Cole Perfetti are non-starters. But the Jets do have other assets to dangle, including draft picks, which should be able to net them some additional insurance. Money, in terms of salary cap space, isn't really an object. The Jets have plenty of room with Beaulieu and centre Bryan Little on long-term injured reserve.
Two names linked to Winnipeg came off the board this past weekend in separate deals. Defenceman Brandon Montour was traded from Buffalo to Florida for a third-round draft pick, while Columbus shipped David Savard to Tampa Bay as part of a three-team deal, with the price essentially being a first and third-rounder. Both players are pending unrestricted free agents.
Mattias Ekholm of Nashville was attracting plenty of potential suitors, including Winnipeg, but he's unlikely to be shipped out by Monday as the Predators have gone on a recent run to get back into a playoff spot. Not to mention the ask was said to be huge for Ekholm.
Who does that leave?
How about a return from old friend Dmitry Kulikov, who is being shopped by New Jersey and could likely be had for a mid to late-round draft pick. He knows the city and organization well after playing three seasons here. If the 30-year-old were to come back, it would be at a fraction of his previous cost (he's playing for just $1.15 million on a one-year deal) and for a reduced role.
The Devils also put 29-year-old Sami Vatanen on waivers Sunday, and the offensive-minded rear-guard has previously been on Winnipeg's radar. He can play both the left and right-sides, which is a bonus. At just $2 million and a pending UFA, someone is likely to claim him considering no asset will have to be surrendered. Might the Jets come calling?
Winnipeg is set to take on Ottawa for a pair of games beginning Monday night, and a Senators defencemen is also garnering trade interest in pending UFA Erik Gudbranson. Cheveldayoff and Pierre Dorion came together for a deadline deal last season which sent Dylan DeMelo to the Jets (right before the two teams faced off). Could it be a case of deja vu all over again?
Other names out there right now include rugged Anaheim defender Josh Manson (son of former Jets tough guy Dave Manson), who would have to waive a no-trade clause and still has another year left on his deal. That would complicate matters for a team like Winnipeg, which will only be able to protect three defencemen for this summer's Seattle Kraken expansion draft, forcing them to already choose between Stanley, DeMelo, Josh Morrissey and Neal Pionk.
For that reason, a pure rental is the more likely play.
Jamie Oleksiak and Mark Pysyk from Dallas, Alex Goligoski from Arizona, Marc Staal from Detroit, Michael Del Zotto from Columbus and Ryan Murray from New Jersey are also pending UFAs who could be on the move by Monday, while Buffalo's Colin Miller and Chicago's Nikita Zadorov are also on the market but have one more year left on their respective deals.
No, it's not a particularly splashy group. But the Jets believe they already have a solid foundation in place, with Vezina Trophy winner Connor Hellebuyck in net, arguably the deepest crop of forwards in the league and a blue-line that has its moments, including a shutout of the Habs Saturday in which they gave up just 19 shots.
It's also possible Cheveldayoff could have something a bit more off-the-radar in mind — he keeps these things extremely close to the vest — and I wouldn't rule out adding a forward. Captain Blake Wheeler is out indefinitely with a concussion, which has opened the door for Jansen Harkins to step into the lineup. And while they also have solid young players such as Kristian Vesalainen, David Gustafsson and, eventually, Perfetti waiting in the wings, another experienced hand up front wouldn't hurt.
Think something along the lines of another Trevor Lewis or Nate Thompson, who have been valuable fourth-line contributors and penalty killers.
Winnipeg has done an impressive job to get where they currently are, fighting it out with Toronto and Edmonton for the top three spots in the division. Along with fourth-place Montreal— assuming they don't completely collapse down the stretch and get caught by one of Calgary or COVID-19 stricken Vancouver — one of those teams will ultimately emerge from the Great White North to play in the league's final four, where they'll be one playoff series victory away from the Stanley Cup Final.
The Jets have every right to be asking themselves "Why not us??
This isn't a group just happy to get into the post-season. They expect to stay there for a while, and even a few little moves by Monday afternoon could go a long way to helping the cause.
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.