Jets need to make room on the blue line for prospects
Let’s be honest, the Winnipeg Jets are unlikely to make the NHL playoffs this season, and while their defensive zone play has improved, it’s still a problem. They have two issues staring them in the face for next year: the first being that they have vastly underperformed this season, and the second is the fact that they have done so while spending the maximum amount allowed in salaries below the current ceiling. As the trade deadline nears, they might consider moving a defender, maybe even two, to make room for the talent jam they have in their minor league system, and do so while saving money along the way.
The club has drafted and developed a strong base of good young defensemen who are honing their skills with the Manitoba Moose in the American Hockey League (AHL). The Moose have played very well this season and are looking to have a long run at the Calder Cup this spring, and they have the defensive body to potentially make it happen.
The 2021-22 Jets defense has been better than last season. Certainly not stellar, and nothing even remotely resembling consistent. Looking to move some of their current defensemen would only make sense, as the prospects would obviously be more affordable, but could also gain valuable NHL experience before the end of this season. Let’s face it, it’s not like we’re talking about a masterpiece being dismantled here. They’ve been average at best, so what harm can it do to make a few changes?
The Jets have defensive talent in the AHL that can do the job of some of their current defensemen and do it at a discount. More importantly, some of the players I’m going to mention below won’t be waived next season, which means the Jets could potentially lose them in the future if they’re not careful.
Jets Perspectives to make room
Ville Heinola is the obvious player to make the permanent jump to the Jets’ roster next season. The Jets’ first-round pick in the 2019 NHL Draft has had a solid year in the AHL and is by far their best blue-line prospect. He showed with the Moose that he makes smart decisions with the puck, has great vision and is incredibly balanced. He’s shown flashes of that with the Jets this season, but not consistently during his limited time in the NHL, and hasn’t been able to break into the full-time roster. The coaching staff have shown they don’t fully trust the 21-year-old yet, but that’s slowly changing as he’s the Moose’s best defender most of the time.
Dylan Samberg and Declan Chisholm are also names that have played limited time with the Jets due to their battles with injuries and COVID, but they have looked good in training. Samberg is a 6-foot-4 defender, while Chisholm, at 6-foot-1, is a much more attacking defender. Samberg has seven assists with the Moose so far, while Chisholm has 24 points (seven goals, 17 assists) and both have had a real impact on the Moose’s success with their 30-17-2-2 record. which translates to the fifth-best winning percentage in the 31-team league.
Johnny Kovacevic is the other brand defender. At 6ft 5in he is tall, strong and plays a smart game and can attack. He has 22 points (9 G, 13 A) in 42 games with the Moose and has the best plus/minus rating on the team at plus-14. Kovacevic’s real charm is his shot from the right. The Jets are openly rich in left-handed defensemen and he has the potential to be a solid NHL player. Another right-handed shot is badly needed on the Jets blue line.
Jets defenders to move
Josh Morrissey is one of the main leaders of the Jets, regardless of position. He’s had a solid rebound year and was the Jets’ only consistent defenseman. Neal Pionk has been the Jets’ best defenseman for the past two years and his right-handed shooting and power-play work make him extremely valuable to the club. Logan Stanley may never be a top four defenseman, but he’s big, strong, involved and inexpensive. He would be very attractive to teams at the deadline, but as cash-strapped as the Jets are, they’re not going to move an affordable asset with the remaining length of his contract. None of these guys are going anywhere.
That leaves Nate Schmidt, Brenden Dillon, Dylan DeMelo and Nathan Beaulieu. The latter is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, and although his salary is modest at $ 1.25 million, he was the Jets’ seventh defenseman all season and will offer a poor return in a trade for the Jets. DeMelo earns $3 million per season, while Schmidt and Dillon receive salaries of $5.875 million and $3.9 million, respectively. Move one of these guys (From “Jets trade levels: Rentals will likely be moved this season but making room for prospects will ultimately be a priority”, Athleticism, 2/11/2022) at the deadline could prove difficult with only 16 teams ready to show interest, and unless a major injury presents itself next week, there seems little point in a team acquiring something other than an elite defender. I guess one or more of those guys get traded to another team in the offseason or early fall.
Dillon has been a solid physical defender who plays on the edge and for the most part did what was asked of him. Schmidt, at this point, looks like the one who should be moved. He’s been okay for the Jets this season, but not the top offensive defenseman that’s been advertised. He played well at times, but like the Jets as a whole, he was inconsistent. A trade for Schmidt would provide much-needed cap space and make room for younger, more affordable players who could do everything Schmidt offers on the ice.
The Jets just need to fix their salary cap issues, and moving more than one element of the defensive unit is an issue that simply needs to be addressed. The good news for Jets fans is that they have viable options.