WINNIPEG — Is that Kevin Cheveldayoff lurking in the weeds, waiting patiently to pounce on an unexpected deal, perhaps when the prices have become a bit more palatable?
Or is the general manager of the Winnipeg Jets content to see how things play out for his group after they’ve sputtered to the tune of 6-10-1 in recent weeks, dipping from one of the top teams in the Central Division to one that’s now right in the heart of a battle for a wild-card berth in the Western Conference standings?
Cheveldayoff acted on the weekend, adding winger Nino Niederreiter to the forward mix. He brings a number of elements the Jets don’t have a lot of — mainly size and an ability to score on a regular basis.
For a team whose offence has been missing in action (33 goals scored in 16 games before exploding for five in a 6-5 shootout loss to the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday), Niederreiter was a smart add, especially when you consider his ability to play a physical brand of hockey and get under the skin of the opponent.
That quality was certainly on display as he made his Jets debut.
Even for a team that values its draft picks as a draft-and-development organization, moving a second-rounder in 2024 was a sound investment for a group that clearly needed a jolt.
But it says here that Cheveldayoff will take further action in order to stabilize this team and put it in the best position to get back to battling for a spot in the top three in the Central, rather than simply hanging on for dear life with a pivotal back-to-back looming with the Edmonton Oilers this weekend.
Every team is different, but the Oilers went out and addressed their most glaring need on Monday, adding veteran blue-liner Mattias Ekholm from the Nashville Predators.
Yes, the cost was steep but it’s what teams must be willing to pay to try and compete at this time of the year.
With the West being wide open this season, making an upgrade to the defence corps to help augment a roster that already includes the top two scorers in the league, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, was the right move.
The Oilers went to the Western Conference Final last season before getting swept by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche.
Jets fans know that qualifying for the Western Conference Final offers no guarantees the following spring and that’s why making moves to enhance the roster could make a big difference in the coming days and weeks.
If you get the sense this recent rough patch might give Cheveldayoff and his staff reason for pause when it comes to the assets they might be willing to part with, that’s understandable.
Just over a month ago, perhaps the all-in approach Kyle Dubas and the Toronto Maple Leafs are taking might have been more likely for the Jets.
That’s when the Jets were rolling, riding hot goaltending from Connor Hellebuyck, a remarkable all-star campaign from Josh Morrissey, a robust penalty kill and getting a number of contributions throughout the lineup as they worked their way through a bunch of injuries.
These days the Jets have often been lacking secondary scoring and the power play remains a work in progress.
There are times when the Jets have looked like world beaters who could go on a lengthy run.
There have been others when they’ve had issues against teams that are squarely in the Connor Bedard sweepstakes.
Getting “humbled” by the Avalanche on Friday was both a stark reminder of the slim margin for error these days and a not-so-subtle reminder that the Jets likely need to improve the roster if they want to make it out of the Central Division — or even out of the first round.
The level of play has tapered off, but the belief remains for a group that doesn’t want this season to be defined by this rough patch.
Asked directly if he’s hopeful Cheveldayoff will be all-in and try to maximize this opportunity, Morrissey expressed a hope the Jets will be among the buyers leading into Friday while reinforcing the team has the pieces to compete no matter what other moves transpire.
“One-hundred per cent,” said Morrissey, who is up to a career-high 13 goals and 63 points in 61 games. “Obviously, those decisions are out of our hands and I’ve been in the league long enough to know you can just control what you can and do what you do every day. Of course, it’s nice to have that faith from an organization.
“If we don’t do anything (else), I have a ton of faith in our locker room here, in the guys that have gotten us to this point and the addition of Nino. We’ll see what happens, I guess, in the next few days. But either way, I’ve got a lot of faith in our team.”
As for what direction Cheveldayoff might take with many of the most coveted names already off the trade boards, the approach remains a bit of a mystery.
During the course of the previous 11 NHL trade deadlines, Cheveldayoff has taken mostly a patient approach, though his stealth move to acquire centre Paul Stastny from the St. Louis Blues in 2018 when nobody thought he would be on the block remains a stroke of business that is to be applauded.
He would love to duplicate it.
Last March, Cheveldayoff made a smart move to deal versatile forward Andrew Copp to the New York Rangers for a package that included a 2023 first (that became Brad Lambert), a 2023 third (that become defence prospect Elias Salomonsson) and forward Morgan Barron.
But the deadline overall ended up being more of a half measure, with the Jets keeping Stastny (another pending UFA forward) in a non-playoff season rather than move him for a player, prospect or pick.
A bit more decisiveness would serve Cheveldayoff well this time around.
Now is not the time to have one foot in the buying lane — or the selling lane, for that matter.
The Jets are set in goal, with Hellebuyck set to carry the mail down the stretch and David Rittich enjoying a solid season — even with a couple of recent hiccups.
The defence corps could use an injection, especially when you consider there are a couple of puck-moving prospects on the horizon that could arrive by next season or be involved in a deal for someone with more experience.
Up front is where things get interesting.
Even if the injuries to centre Pierre-Luc Dubois (lower body) and Mason Appleton (upper body) are not serious, some additional size and skill would help this group.
Mortgaging the future on a team that might not even get out of the first round probably doesn’t make sense, but Cheveldayoff has an obligation to look for creative solutions to give the Jets the best chance to succeed down the stretch and beyond.
If that means having to swallow hard and move on from an asset they’d prefer to hold onto, it’s the cost of doing business.
Given the uncertainty of this core beyond this season or next, there should be several opportunities to recoup some of the pieces that could be on the way out.
And if one or more of those pieces have some term and can enhance the core, the Jets will be better off in both the short term and the long-range forecast.
Projected deadline day cap space: $5.4 million, according to CapFriendly
Cap space committed to 2023-24: $70.4 million, according to CapFriendly
2023: Rd 1, Rd 3, Rd 5 (NYR), Rd 7
2024: Rd 1, Rd 3, Rd 4, Rd 5, Rd 6, Rd 7
2025: Rd 1, Rd 2, Rd 3, Rd 4, Rd 5, Rd 6, Rd 7
Some playoff experience — potentially a Stanley Cup winner or two — would help this slumping team. Secondary scoring remains an issue, even after Kevin Stenlund scored a pair of goals on Tuesday to snap a 12-game drought. The long-term injury to forward Cole Perfetti means the Jets basically replaced him with Nino Niederreiter, so the offence could use a bit more punch and the second power-play unit could use an upgrade as well.
Adding another forward who is strong on the forecheck and difficult to play against would be welcome. The defence corps has potential, but remains a work in progress, so adding a top-4 blue-liner could benefit the group.
Jakob Chychrun, Defenceman, Arizona Coyotes
Checks a lot of boxes. A minute-munching D-man with size (six-foot-two, 220 pounds) that is a strong puck mover and can put up some points. He’s also under contract for two more seasons at a reasonable cap hit of $4.6 million.
Injuries have been an issue for Chychrun in his career, but when healthy, he can be an impact player. The 16th overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft had 18 goals and 41 points in 56 games during the 2020-21 season.
Nick Schmaltz, Right Wing/Centre, Arizona Coyotes
A move for the 20th overall pick of the 2014 NHL Draft would require a substantial package and lines up with the premise of extending the competitive window. Under contract at $5.85 million for three more seasons after this one, the 27-year-old would be giving some of his prime years to the Jets.
Having spent two seasons playing at the University of North Dakota and much of his NHL time in the Central Division, the Jets would be familiar with his game. He’s a point producer, though a good chunk of that production has come with him playing on the wing. He’s been nearly a point-per-game player in each of the past two seasons and is on the verge of a third 20-goal campaign.
Schmaltz has both creativity as a playmaker and finishing ability to go with his speed. His contract doesn’t really align with the Coyotes’ rebuilding phase and his actual salary ($7.5 million next season, $8.45 million in 2024-25 and $8.5 million in 2025-26) is higher than his cap hit during the next three seasons, so that’s something to consider as well.
Nick Bjugstad, Centre/Right Wing, Arizona Coyotes
Could be acquired on his own or part of a package. The six-foot-six forward is having an outstanding, bounce-back season. Among his 13 goals, 11 have been scored at even strength (he also has one shorthanded marker and one on the power play).
He could provide an immediate boost to the forward group and while he’s on an expiring contract, the Jets have been interested in him before and they’d have an opportunity to show him why he should stick around beyond this season.
He’s been a double digit-goal scorer on six occasions, including notching 24 with the Florida Panthers in 2014-15. The Minnesota product is a former roommate of Jets D-man Nate Schmidt at the University of Minnesota, so the transition should be a smooth one. His $900,000 cap hit would allow him to easily fit into the salary cap structure while providing the flexibility to add another piece to the puzzle.
Colton Parayko, Defenceman, St. Louis Blues
He played an important role on a shutdown pairing with Jay Bouwmeester when his team captured the Stanley Cup in 2019. He’s a high-character player with size (six-foot-eight, 228 pounds) with a howitzer of a shot that can kill penalties and play a physical style.
And while things haven’t gone as smoothly for him with the Blues this season, Parayko’s body of work suggests he can return to form. He’s got a modified no-trade clause and seven more seasons at $6.5 million and will turn 30 in May, so there’s obviously some risk.
But Parayko was a bit of a late bloomer and his career path — two seasons in the Alberta Junior Hockey League and three in the NCAA — could allow him to keep a higher level of play into his mid-30s and beyond. The Blues have a heavy investment on the blue-line and are one of the teams believed to be in the mix for Chychrun, so GM Doug Armstrong might be looking to move someone like Parayko to another suitor, especially considering the term left on this deal.
Connor Murphy, Defenceman, Chicago Blackhawks
If you prefer a right-shot defender with three more seasons on his current deal (with an AAV of $4.4 million) who has several similar qualities to Parayko, the 29-year old Murphy could be a fit. He’s not a big point producer but plays a stiff style, can move the puck effectively and has been an alternate captain for the rebuilding team. He’s 29 years old and might enjoy the opportunity to be involved in a playoff race, though he also has a 10-team no-trade list.
Jason Dickinson, Centre, Chicago Blackhawks
A versatile forward that plays with some edge, he’s a guy who played for Rick Bowness on the Dallas Stars and was occasionally tasked with playing a shutdown role. He also has 40 games of playoff experience and was part of the Stars team that reached the Stanley Cup final during the bubble season.
He has one more season left ($2.65 million) and is the type of player that could either play alongside Adam Lowry or centre his own line. He could also be used on the penalty kill.
Dickinson, 27, doesn’t supply a ton of offence, but he has eight goals and 21 points in 56 games this season, so could help in the complementary scoring department.
Assets to trade
2024 first-round pick
When you consider that the Jets’ buffer over the ninth-place Calgary Flames has been reduced to just five points with 21 games left in the regular season, it’s likely the 2023 first-rounder is not likely going to be moved in any deal that doesn’t include significant term — and lottery protection.
Would the Jets be willing to move the 2024 first-rounder, though? After dealing a second to the Predators, the Jets don’t want to deplete the top end of the draft entirely — but this could be a strategic measure provided the Jets aren’t going to move on from several of the potential 2024 UFAs this summer.
Ville Heinola, Defenceman
It’s not that the Jets would necessarily be shopping the 20th overall pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, it’s that teams scouting him in the AHL — where he has 26 points in 28 games for the Manitoba Moose this season — would be curious if that production could translate into NHL results in another organization.
Heinola has appeared in only 10 games with the Jets this season and 35 games total, but it’s not like the team needs to move on from him. However, he could be someone that attracts interest over the coming days.
Logan Stanley, Defenceman
Colleague Elliotte Friedman was somewhat surprised the 18th overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft wasn’t included in the package sent to the Predators in the deal for Niederreiter.
Chosen as a long-term project, Stanley’s growth has been stunted by a series of injuries and he’s essentially been passed on the depth chart by 2017 second-rounder Dylan Samberg. The Jets have invested a lot in his development — remember they protected him in the Seattle Kraken expansion draft over top-pairing blue-liner Dylan DeMelo — so they won’t give him away.
But unless Stanley becomes a fixture soon, you wonder if he could end up being someone like Jamie Oleksiak, who needed a change of scenery before he firmly established himself and found his groove.