Winnipeg Jets mailbag: Jakob Chychrun commerce? What occurred in 2018-19?

I’m hearing that Rick Tocchet and Scott Arniel are among the coaches on Winnipeg’s ever-shortening shortlist for its head coaching job. Jim Montgomery interviewed for the position as well but Thursday began finalizing a deal to become the Bruins’ head coach.

Kevin Weekes has reported these same names, along with former Moose head coach Pascal Vincent and former Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill. Meanwhile, I continue to believe that Winnipeg would like Arniel on staff even if it hires one of these other men as head coach.

Either way, the Jets will want to have their next head coach in place before next week’s draft. Not only will this give Winnipeg ample time to celebrate the hire in the form of news releases and interviews, but the organization will be able to integrate that coach into meetings, team building and strategic planning that happens at and around the draft.

The draft also provides opportunities for general managers to discuss trade options.

Part two of this month’s mailbag focuses on all of these issues — coaching, management, trade thoughts on Blake Wheeler, the acquisition cost of Jakob Chychrun and more. You also wanted to know about some behind-the-scenes details of Winnipeg’s organizational structure, team resources and who will be the next Jets play-by-play announcer after Dennis Beyak.

Let’s go.

Note: Questions may be edited for clarity and style.

Who’s the new play-by-play guy? Dennis Beyak was excellent at his job — certainly in comparison to other local broadcasts. And what happens to Kevin Sawyer? — Matthew B.

Hi Matthew, I don’t envy anyone who follows in Dennis Beyak’s footsteps. There aren’t many people who can convey the emotional journey of a hockey game through tone of voice as well as Dennis does. The idea that you could watch a TSN broadcast with your eyes closed and know the heart of it through Beyak’s voice? That’s special.

He is also among the kindest and most welcoming people in NHL media; I’m an even bigger fan of him as a person.

To answer your question: TSN hasn’t selected a new play-by-play person yet, while Kevin Sawyer will be back providing analysis and doing colour commentary. Sawyer is taking some well-earned time off right now after the Memorial Cup, where he worked alongside play-by-play announcer Victor Findlay.

On that note, I wouldn’t be surprised if Findlay was one of the candidates for the Winnipeg job. If I’m TSN (and/or Bell Media, TSN’s parent company), I look at the Memorial Cup as a high-stakes chemistry test for Findlay and Sawyer. I think we could see that partnership restored on Jets broadcasts if everyone liked what they saw and heard.

For more insight into what TSN broadcasts look like behind the scenes — and to read about Sawyer and Beyak’s friendship — you can read more here.

“Without you, the game is nothing.”

Dennis Beyak’s thank you to the fans, the viewers.

— Murat Ates (@WPGMurat) May 1, 2022

Hi Murat! My Dad and I text back and forth during every Jets game. We’ve often talked about the mental health of the team, especially in years when everything seems to fall apart for no known reason. We’d like to know if the Jets have a sports psychologist in the fold, because so much of the game and grind of hockey is emotionally and mentally draining and filled with ups and downs. — Marcie W.

Hi Marcie, I love the family texting ritual you have with your dad. I’m sure it makes the wins sweeter and the losses easier to bear.

Winnipeg’s medical staff appears to be well-rounded. The Jets’ staff directory includes 12 doctors, including two optometrists, a chiropractor, a dentist, two neuropsychologists and a neurosurgeon. Now, my guess is that the neuropsychologists and neurosurgeon work more frequently in response to brain injuries and concussion-related trauma than in an active counselling role.

I’ve also spoken to a few players over the past several months who say they work actively on their own mental health. This can be through a sports psychologist, a counsellor, a mental performance coach or a practitioner with any number of titles. Either way, the idea is the same: Players employ these professionals the same way they employ nutritionists or skills coaches because they increasingly recognize that mental health is health.

It’s a welcome development in a sport that can be as much a mental grind as it is a physical one.

For me, the biggest Jets mystery of all over the past five years is why the team regressed in 2018-19 after their great run the previous year. They were stacked, but they cracked. I remember they were winning two games for every loss in the first half, but they got worse instead of better. Yes, their first-round loss was to the eventual Cup champs, but the Jets should have placed higher in the regular standings and gone deep into the playoffs. Most of our current problems seemed to start there. What happened? — Michael C.

One of the most haunting things about that season’s collapse is that there are so many different possibilities to point to in search of a scapegoat.

There are enough injuries — and injuries with star power attached — to believe they had a major impact. Nikolaj Ehlers missed 20 games. Dustin Byfuglien missed 40. Josh Morrissey injured his shoulder the night before the trade deadline. Remember Nathan Beaulieu playing top pairing minutes with Jacob Trouba after the trade deadline, with Byfuglien and Morrissey returning just in time for the playoffs?

There was enough conflict — and conflict involving star players — to believe that dressing room strife contributed to the decline. Consider my far-ranging, emotional one-on-one with Blake Wheeler in 2019 when he told me how much he leaned on his wife Sam for support when talking through concerns he had about the team.

When I asked Wheeler for a specific example, he started talking about Patrik Laine.

“I knew that Patty’s potential was so sky high. When he’s playing at his best, he’s scoring 18 goals in a month and, I mean, we’re a really good team when he’s playing really well,” Wheeler said. “And yeah, he wants to play first-line minutes. He wants to play on a first line. There’s half of me that’s like, ‘OK. Well, earn it.’ Then the other half of me’s like, ‘But does that mentality help? Does that mentality make him better? Does it make us a better team?’ And, I guess after last season, my answer to that question was no.”

I think it is fair to interpret conflict between Wheeler and Laine during the 2018-19 season based on these remarks. For Wheeler to have improved his approach, he needed to have good reason to want to improve his approach. Still, it’s tough to say that this conclusion fully explains the Jets’ second-half decline.

From my own point of view, I will always be struck by the difference between the sheer disbelief in Winnipeg’s dressing room following its 2018 loss to Vegas and what I perceived to be acceptance when the Jets lost to the Blues in 2019. One loss seemed to strike the players as impossible; the other just made sense.

Is it possible for the Jets to land Jakob Chychrun? I’ve always felt like they need that big go-to No. 1 defenceman. — Lee E.

Thank you for giving me an opportunity to call my friend Craig Morgan in Arizona.

We’ve worked together on a few items over the years and, in that time, I’ve learned that no one covers the Coyotes like he does at PHNX Sports. Morgan tells me that Chychrun is a realistic trade possibility and that he expects more teams to be in play for his services at next week’s draft than there were at last season’s trade deadline. In other words: The Chychrun market is heating up.

As for what it would take, Morgan thinks Arizona’s base price is a first-round pick and a good prospect and that those two pieces alone won’t quite be enough. My take on that is it makes sense: Chychrun is a 24-year-old top-pairing defenceman who is big, strong, mobile and capable of putting up a ton of points in the right situation. He’s also signed for the highly affordable cap hit of $4.6 million for three more seasons, meaning a team can grow with him in its core.

This is a night Jakob Chychrun (@j_chychrun7) will never forget.

His first career @Enterprise hat trick!

— NHL (@NHL) April 5, 2021

The Coyotes have kept their budget low in recent years, stockpiling draft picks — they have three first-round picks and four second-round picks this year. I don’t think this is a situation wherein Winnipeg would be able to offload an expensive contract like, say, Nate Schmidt’s as part of the deal.

With that preamble out of the way: Would you trade Ville Heinola, the No. 14 pick and the rights to Kristian Vesalainen for Chychrun? What about Chaz Lucius, the No. 30 pick and Declan Chisholm? These are the types of low-salary, futures-based packages that come to mind when considering Morgan’s suggested asking price. Keep in mind that a 24-year-old player like Chychrun with three years of contract security will draw a lot of interest from a lot of suitors, while Arizona can also name its price and simply keep Chychrun on its roster if the return isn’t ideal. They’re not backed into a corner like Winnipeg was with Trouba in 2019 and, even then, the Jets got Neal Pionk and the No. 20 pick in that draft.

Of course, the moment the Jets land a defenceman like Chychrun is the moment they need to make a follow-up trade from an already crowded blue line. In this scenario, I imagine Brenden Dillon being moved to make room after the fact.

If Wheeler’s no-trade clause goes down to five teams, do you think the Jets might try to move him? They could retain salary. Maybe $3.5-$4 million. That would get rid of some problems in the dressing room plus clear cap space. Thoughts? — Richard M.

Richard, I do think Winnipeg is exploring a trade market for Wheeler. If they do trade him, it will be the end of an era that saw Wheeler grow up in Winnipeg, emerging from the team’s first young core to earn its captaincy, hit the 1,000-game and 800-point milestones and start his family here. It would be a massive change on and off the ice for Winnipeg.

Of course, Wheeler does have quite a bit of control here. I’m told that Frank Seravalli’s report that Wheeler’s no-move clause converts into a five-team list to which he’d accept a trade on July 1 is accurate. (I’d previously been told that the clause changed following next week’s draft.)

The good news? Wheeler has scored 106 points in his last 115 games, using his first-unit power play time to augment middle-six production at five-on-five. The Jets will probably need to retain some salary to get a viable asset back (or accept a useful player on an inefficient contract in return.) What they won’t need to do is include a top prospect or high draft pick to sweeten the pot because, despite the criticism and that he doesn’t take over games the way he did in his prime, Wheeler can still play.

The way I understand it is that Wheeler would sincerely hear out any trade proposals Winnipeg brought his way. I just don’t think that’s happened at this stage in the process.

How should the Jets clear the logjam at LD … And conversely how will they clear the logjam? I suspect those are very different answers — Grant P.

Winnipeg should move on from Logan Stanley and Nate Schmidt, promoting Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg. Winnipeg will keep its full defence corps or move a single veteran defenceman like Brenden Dillon or Dylan DeMelo, starting one of Heinola or Samberg in the AHL.

Even as I say that, I understand that there may be hope that the 24-year-old Stanley becomes a viable second-pairing defenceman someday and I value Schmidt’s contribution to young players, the team and the dressing room. I just think Dillon and DeMelo are too cap-efficient and too top-four capable in the right situation to advocate their movement.

(Photo: Andy Marlin / NHLI via Getty Images)

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