Winnipeg Jets roster choices: Who stays and who goes this offseason?

Winnipeg is in the midst of a coaching search, players have called out the culture and the team’s top two centres have each said they want to see how things shake out before committing to the organization. There are going to be changes to the Jets this offseason.

The $6.125 million question: How big will those changes be?

Kevin Cheveldayoff has stated and restated that he worked too hard to acquire a dangerous, one-two centre punch to trade either Mark Scheifele or Pierre-Luc Dubois unless he is forced.

For examples of Cheveldayoff’s patience, just look at the Evander Kane, Jacob Trouba, Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic trades. Dubois needs a new contract this summer but remains under team control; Scheifele is under contract until 2024. Meanwhile, a new head coach will likely want a say in what type of roster Winnipeg ices next season.

On the other hand, the Jets need to make changes whether or not there is a blockbuster in store. Winnipeg has all of Josh Morrissey, Neal Pionk, Dylan DeMelo, Brenden Dillon, Nate Schmidt, Dylan Samberg, Ville Heinola and Logan Stanley to consider on defence next season.

Up front, Scheifele may not need to be traded but he has also said that he needs to wait and see which direction the team goes in before deciding upon his future. There is very much a sense that Scheifele would benefit from a change in scenery and, with only two seasons left on his contract, speculation on his future will be intense. Dubois could slow play things by signing a one-year deal and re-evaluating next season but there are many possibilities in store for what his future holds.

There is also the elephant in the room — that whatever ails the Jets internally, whether it is these players or others, could be addressed by roster moves.

Will Paul Stastny, Eric Comrie or Winnipeg’s other unrestricted free agents return? Will Winnipeg make use of Blake Wheeler’s no-movement clause turning into a five-team no-trade clause this summer?

There are a lot of moving parts here. The right decisions will depend on soul searching, coach searching and more.

This article is not my wishlist; it’s my best read on how a tenuous, evolving situation actually looks. Here’s who is most likely to stay this offseason and who is most likely to be shown the door.

Untouchable (or close to it)

Kyle Connor stepped into himself this year, matching his game-breaking offensive explosion with multiple public commitments to team culture. His unique combination of fast feet, faster hands and fastest brain gives him more attacking options than defencemen can cover. His growing voice within the leadership group also offers hope; if Winnipeg can get strong leadership from its prime-aged players, then maybe there is a successful route past the Wheeler, Scheifele and Connor Hellebuyck contracts which expire in 2024.

A Hellebuyck trade would be Winnipeg’s white flag of surrender at a time the Jets sorely need another white-out playoff crowd. I’m not sure what Hellebuyck’s long-term future holds — I think the Jets need to have contingency plans in place for a post-Hellebuyck future — but short-term movement would astonish me.

Morrissey had the full support of the Jets powers-that-be through a two-year downturn in production — he’s close to as untouchable as it gets now that he’s playing some of the best hockey of his career. Morrissey, by the way, was quick to point out how well Jets ownership, management and leadership supported him as he dealt with his dad’s illness and death. It can simultaneously be true that there is conflict in the dressing room and that important people have gotten some of the most vital moments exactly right.

Nikolaj Ehlers was not always seen as untouchable by Jets brass — they did take offers for him in the summer of 2019 — and his second-line treatment hasn’t matched his first-line performance for a few seasons now. Don’t mistake that for the idea that he’s on his way out. Winnipeg needs more top-tier performers period— they can’t afford to move top-tier performers who are also signed for three more seasons at $6 million.

Cole Perfetti is one of Winnipeg’s next great hopes at a top-six player with first-unit power play production. Look for fireworks in the form of a strong sophomore season — not a premature trade.

Should be untouchable but his future is murky

Dubois is a big, strong, 200-foot player who can take over the game at either end of the rink. There are moments of inconsistency to his game, sure, and yes, he did take an awful lot of minor penalties this season, but Dubois is also 23 and very much on the upswing of his career arc. Nothing about this player says shop him; even less says go as far as to move him to another team.

And yet.

Dubois needs a new contract, is two years away from UFA status and hasn’t been shy about considering all of his options this summer.

“It’s tough. Especially now, a long-term deal I could have a family, I could be in the last years of my career at that point,” he said last month. “It’s not just what you want now, it’s what you want six years from now, five years from now, eight years from now. It’s not an easy decision to make.”

If Winnipeg can’t sign Dubois to that long-term contract, then we’re looking at a one-year deal. If we’re looking at a one-year deal, then we could see ourselves watching a rerun of the Trouba situation that saw the defenceman traded the summer before he would have walked as an unrestricted free agent.

If the Jets don’t think they can sign Dubois long-term, there is every chance they trade him before walking down the road that Trouba did in 2019 or Andrew Copp did this season.

I think it’s more likely that he signs for one year and that Winnipeg’s biggest decision comes next summer. Still, I wouldn’t rule out anything at this point — including a pre-emptive trade, a long-term contract or even an offer sheet. It’s hard not to think of the Montreal Canadiens as a long-term suitor for Dubois’ services, whether now or in the less-immediate future.

Untouchable by way of contract status

Wheeler would not be a highly sought-after commodity if the Jets put his $8.25 million cap hit on the market. They won’t, because Wheeler has been such a foundational piece of the organization for so long. That said, Wheeler’s full no-movement clause becomes a five-team no-trade list following this summer’s draft. There are so many permutations of what could happen in Winnipeg this summer. If one of those involves a Scheifele trade and Stastny signs elsewhere, then I wonder if Wheeler feels like a little bit more of an island than he’s used to. He’s a “Day 1” Jets star whose peak years were among the league’s absolute best. Winnipeg will do right by him; I’m no longer sure exactly what that looks like from Wheeler’s perspective.

Goodbye to Paul Maurice’s statue/Cups/captain prophecy but what about the player?

Elliotte Friedman reported on Hockey Night in Canada last weekend that Scheifele did not ask Cheveldayoff for a trade at their exit meeting.

I don’t think that matters — or, at least, I don’t think it brings a permanent end to Scheifele trade watch. Scheifele is still on schedule to reach free agency at 31 in the summer of 2024. He still told all of us, “I have to think about my career and what’s best for me.”

The simplest interpretation of Scheifele’s end-of-season news conference is that his comments reflect an honest, open assessment of where Scheifele is at. He sincerely needs time to reflect. He is not all-in on the future, nor is he 100 percent removed. One source even told me that, despite the obvious issues in Winnipeg, Scheifele is more likely to be a Jet next season than not.

Personally, I feel that talking about the team’s issues as if he is separate from them is a bad look.

But Scheifele is still a very good player on a very good contract. Winnipeg is trying to win and Scheifele can help that happen. I imagine that Cheveldayoff probably wants to watch at least one season where both Scheifele and Dubois are producing to their potential.

And yet.

I think the best way to put it is that the situation is evolving. Winnipeg’s first order of business is signing its new head coach. From there, we shall see.

Not going anywhere

Adam Lowry gets to breathe a sigh of relief now that his dad is no longer his head coach. I’m sure father and son tried to make the best of an awkward situation but it couldn’t have been to limit their off-ice contact or navigate last season’s optics. One wonders how long the 29-year-old Lowry will be able to play his heavy, physical game at the level to which he’s accustomed but he’s a dependable fixture on a team that needs more that it can count on, not less.

Pionk didn’t have a good season but he had two very good ones before this one. He’s taking time to rest and recover from injury, forgoing the World Championship in the name of good health. One expects him to be part of the foundation.

Winnipeg didn’t reacquire Mason Appleton just to ship him out again. He’s one of three right-shooting forwards on the Jets roster; he’ll sign an affordable contract this summer and provides enough sandpaper with his skill to provide a different look from the right wing.

Stanley may be some distance from top-four excellence but he’s also a valued member of the organization. I don’t think Winnipeg protected him in the Seattle expansion draft just to trade him one year later.

Samberg looked so steady in his late-season NHL audition with Winnipeg that many are now pencilling him into the top four for next season. Whether or not that happens — and whether or not there are growing pains if it does — Samberg is part of the present and future too.

UFAs: A mixture of flight paths

Stastny is a unique case. I have long thought that he is unlikely to sign in Winnipeg this summer. I thought it was strange the Jets kept him past the deadline — less so, now that we’ve been able to appreciate even more of his candour about the team and what went wrong this season. It seems he may have been a glue of sorts, connecting young and old players in a way that made keeping him for the stretch run valuable — even if Stastny departs as a free agent. The interesting thing is Stastny’s on-ice performance. He was very good — again — scoring 45 points in 71 games while playing the role of defensive conscience on a line that would otherwise have gone without it. Does he re-sign? Find a contender to join? Retire? I can’t choose a path with confidence but believe the 36-year-old still has plenty to offer a team.

I will be stunned if Zach Sanford signs in Winnipeg this summer.

I will not be stunned at all if Comrie re-signs, despite the Jets’ unforced error in letting him become a free agent. All it would have taken on Winnipeg’s part was to dress Comrie in three more games (assuming he played at least 30 minutes in each) to keep Comrie away from Group VI UFA status. That’s not how it went, so Comrie has a choice. In an ideal world, he chooses Winnipeg, gets a small something extra on his contract for his trouble and matches last season’s terrific performance.

Adam Brooks was a welcome 13th forward and I’m sure the homecoming was appreciated after his adventures on waivers. That said, I wonder if Brooks ends up starring in the AHL, whether in Manitoba or elsewhere, as opposed to claiming a roster spot with the Jets.

The inevitable defence decision: Someone is on his way out

Dillon was the subject of interest at the trade deadline. His $3.9 million AAV contract and top-four track record make him an appealing option for the Jets and for other teams, too. Should the Jets trade him? I’d be cautious of any analysis that says he’s spent; he kept a clean defensive zone in Washington and for San Jose for several seasons. I’m more inclined to suggest he was unable to create structure in a chaotic defensive context. We know that defensive impacts don’t travel well from team to team; perhaps a new coach and a new system sees an even more effective Dillon in 2022-23.

Schmidt rebounded from a season in Vancouver where everything went wrong to post 32 points in 77 games. Defensively, the Schmidt-Stanley pairing was an absolute mess, but Schmidt had success away from Stanley that offers a glimmer of hope. Of course, hope seems inefficient, given Schmidt’s $5.95 million AAV contract — it’s just another situation where a player’s defensive results could improve in a better defensive climate.

Heinola completely controls the AHL game, even when he’s outmuscled. Every play runs through him, every pass is incisive and he’s a threat every time he’s in the offensive zone. The Moose exploit his strengths by encouraging him to be very aggressive in the neutral zone, stepping up on transition plays to turn pucks over and go on the attack. He’s shown strength in those areas for Winnipeg, too, but is certainly some distance from dominance. The Jets may field calls on Heinola in an effort to play a heavier, more veteran-laden defence corps next season and I won’t believe he’s a long-term Jet until he is an everyday defenceman.

DeMelo quietly makes everybody’s numbers look better and his $3 million contract makes him a reasonable cap hit, whether you’re Winnipeg or an inquiring team. If results are all that matter, the Jets would be happy to keep DeMelo and Morrissey together for the foreseeable future. I do wonder if Winnipeg makes the decision that it needs to get bigger on the back end — if that happens, DeMelo is more likely to be moved than Morrissey or Pionk.

So what will the Jets actually do about this logjam? Every trade possibility depends on what Winnipeg gets back. I don’t automatically think of any one of these four players as safe heading into next year even if only one of them ends up moving.

Various stages of crossroads

Evgeny Svechnikov produced with top-six talent, shining in spurts as a complement to Connor and Dubois and disappearing for long stretches, too. The universal lesson is that quality of linemates dictates success for complementary players and the Svechnikov-specific lesson is that consistency goes a long way toward impressing coaches. Svechnikov needs a new contract this summer and while I don’t think that’s necessarily a challenge, I wonder what his future holds.

Morgan Barron isn’t a risk to be moved. The 23-year-old Barron’s goal will be to avoid the minors, where he’s scored at most of a point per game, and establish himself as a full-time NHL player. Lowry seemed to like him; we’ll see what the new coach has in mind.

Jansen Harkins likely thought he was more than a nine and a half minutes per game player when the season began, particularly with the glaring hole on the third line. Barry Trotz’s Islanders didn’t have any forwards average fewer than 10 minutes per game last season (or above 18 minutes) which is probably an appealing thought to depth players with eyes on the coaching market. Harkins also needs a new contract this summer.

David Gustafsson is unlikely to move — his mission will be similar to Barron’s in that an NHL job is the goal. Just add a need to stay healthy and a note that Gustafsson will require waivers starting next season. They’ll need to make room for him, risk losing him for free or consider moving him for more immediate help.

Kristian Vesalainen was a failed experiment on the third line and I do wonder about a change of scenery for him. He will also require waivers starting next season.

Dominic Toninato’s job is probably secure; the question will be about how much Winnipeg’s new coach wants to use him compared to some of the other players in this section.

Mikhail Berdin’s KHL rights were recently traded — the same week that Winnipeg signed promising Finnish goaltender Oskari Salminen to a contract starting next season. There isn’t room for both goaltenders plus Arvid Holm plus RFA goaltender Philippe Desrosiers on the Moose; I wonder if it’s Berdin who moves.

(Photo of Pierre-Luc Dubois and Mark Scheifele: Jonathan Kozub / NHLI via Getty Images)

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