The Winnipeg Jets are between a rock and a hard place without a clear solution to the problem, as they are a team who should, on paper, be a contender. Sadly for Jets fans last season they were mere pretenders and as the season dissolved, it was clear there were some issues that needed to be dealt with, as they now have a huge contract to move, a player who wants to go home and a leader who was anything but last year.
Can the Jets emerge from their attempts to trade captain Blake Wheeler? The indications from Pierre-Luc Dubois that he’d prefer to play in Montreal? The brazen statements made by Mark Scheifele at the end of last season? That is the uphill battle general manager (GM) Kevin Cheveldayoff and his staff face in the last six weeks of the summer, one they indicated would be the turning point to propelling the Jets back into a playoff squad this fall. Wheeler’s salary, Dubois’ desire to play at home and Scheifele’s discontent have created a labyrinth of obstacles they need to unravel, and it’s not going to be easy to do so.
If I’m #NHLJets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff, I’m hanging up the phone with Montreal if Nick Suzuki isn’t part of a Pierre-Luc Dubois trade.— Mike McIntyre (@mikemcintyrewpg) July 16, 2022
Anything less should be a non-starter.
That said, Winnipeg not in huge position of strength given UFA status in 2 years.
Rock, meet hard place.
The front office made it clear that the offseason was going to focus on reloading the roster and staying competitive for a playoff run this season as opposed to rebuilding for success in future years. Yet, the very players fans are counting on to lead the Jets out of last year’s dark season are the ones who, for different reasons, have created difficulties for the front office to accomplish the very thing they’ve promised.
Wheeler’s Contract Holds the Jets Hostage
At 36 years old, Wheeler has shown he is still a point-per-game player, but he comes with a contract that has a cap hit of $8.25 million. Despite contracting COVID-19 in October and suffering a serious knee injury in December, he still managed to record 60 points (17 goals, 43 assists) in 65 games, and while the Jets were in the hunt for a playoff spot in March was arguably their best forward. He has also been the face of the franchise for 11 years and the last member of the Atlanta Thrashers to still wear a Jets uniform. He may have lost a step in quickness over the years, but will still be a productive forward for a couple more seasons beyond this one.
The issue is, that Wheeler’s contract has a no-movement clause that reverted to a five-team trade list on July 1. That means he can control where he is moved, which in turn limits the Jets’ ability to create cap space. Having the power to veto a deal to a team not on his list is his right, but it does hinder Cheveldayoff’s ability to move him without being creative. It’s not that they can’t, it just makes it more difficult.
Wheeler’s contract is the other issue with a cap hit of $8.25 million for the next two seasons. That’s a lot of cash for a player in the twilight of his career that would possibly be a third-line forward on a contending team. The Jets may have to absorb some of his salary to finalize a deal, but the extra cap space would provide them with the opportunity to draw in a younger free agent (or two) with a more team-friendly contract. It could also create a spot for one of their NHL-ready prospects to step into the lineup at a considerable savings. According to Frank Seravalli of Daily Faceoff, the Jets have already been entertaining calls about their captain, but don’t expect Cheveldayoff to make any hasty moves, that’s simply not how he plays the game.
Dubois’ Desires are Hostage Taking for the Jets
When Pierre-Luc Dubois was dealt to Winnipeg for Patrik Laine in the winter of 2021, they had every intention of making him a Jet long-term. That would give the team, alongside Scheifele, two top-ranked centres that would drive their offence for the foreseeable future. At the start of last season, it looked like all was going according to plan. While Scheifele had a slow start to the year, Dubois exploded out of the gate and continued to be one of their most consistent players throughout the season.
Dubois became a fan favourite last season with his physical and sometimes reckless play, as he was a force that not only created space for linemate Kyle Connor but proved to be a real presence in the crease where he scored most of his goals. In the dirty areas where few players wanted to go, he thrived. His strength and rugged play also made him an invaluable member of the Jets’ offensive unit while his leadership became evident – even obvious – as the season progressed.
Dubois became a leader that some have speculated could be the future captain of the Jets. He showed leadership qualities beyond his 23 years this past season and took the role on willingly.Declan Schroeder, The Hockey Writers
That was until a couple of weeks ago when his representatives made it public knowledge that he would like to play in Montreal for his favourite childhood team, the Canadiens. This has put the Jets in a bit of a pickle, as they either have to move him or throw an absurd amount of money his way in a long-term contract that might make him reconsider. They invested a great deal to obtain his services and after only a season-and-a-half are being forced into trading him.
Related Article: Pierre-Luc Dubois Has Jets & Cheveldayoff in a Bind
They just signed Dubois to a one-year, $6 million dollar deal this week, but that doesn’t do much more than buy time to come up with a more favourable solution. Unlike Wheeler, the Jets can trade him to any team and look for the best possible deal – and there will be offers. They have no obligation to the Canadiens, in fact, the Habs have some leverage here by waiting two seasons for him to become an unrestricted free agent and simply sign him without giving up any assets.
Another issue is, how do the Jets trade a top-line forward without getting a bunch of prospects in return? They need a replacement for Dubois in terms of on-ice minutes and production, and he’s not exactly an easy player to replace. The front office has made it clear this is not a rebuild, and not getting a player of his calibre in return would be counterproductive.
What about Dubois’ level of play this coming season? Should he repeat his play of 2021-22, the Jets’ asking price would be high. Though, if he regresses or is injured during the year, does that not lower his value and tie their hands further? So many questions nobody without a crystal ball can answer. What is certain is that uncertainty in sport doesn’t breed success. As a result, the Jets’ administration has again been handcuffed.
The New Scheifele Needs to be the Old Scheifele
After a slow start to the season, Scheifele had an offensively strong but defensively weak season all wrapped up with a lack of effort. He was a player who missed 15 games and was still the team’s second-leading scorer with 70 points but also owned the Jets’ worst plus/minus rating at minus-17. However, he is still a point-per-game player with a team-friendly contract at $6.25 million per season for the next two years.
By the end of last season, it appeared Scheifele was disinterested and despondent on the ice. He wallowed through a forgettable, lacklustre season and by March it slowly came out that he may be the source of issues and schisms within the dressing room.
Scheifele was called out by Paul Stastny for being selfish, uncommitted and lacking respect for his teammates to which he retorted by discussing his future with the media as if he were a free agent instead of a player under contract for two more seasons. In fact, it sounded to most that he was calling for a trade.
“As much as Scheifele’s season went off the rails and his exit interview left room to question his happiness in Winnipeg, one thing I keep hearing about him is that he is welcoming toward young players. I wonder if a summer of reflection and the opportunity to step into an even more prominent leadership role might bring back some of the happy-go-lucky, fun-loving hockey nerdiness that Scheifele was known for early in his Jets career” – Murat Ates (from “Introducing Winnipeg Jets’ 2 first-round picks, plus updating trade possibilities”, The Athletic, 8/7/22).
At the time, it seemed like he was on his way out but as it has turned out, he may be the key to turning things around. He has already been on record telling new head coach Rick Bowness that he’s all-in for this season and is excited about the future. The one who was thought to be the first one out now looks to be the last one in.
Cheveldayoff Holds the Key
There is no real solution we could speculate on here. The Jets’ general manager has a plethora of boxes to tick before the start of the season and although he has been quiet during this free agent summer, he has one thing going for him… patience. Jacob Trouba and Evander Kane both requested trades and had to wait three seasons and Laine and Jack Roslovic were not dealt until Cheveldayoff found a good fit. They, too, waited.
Can he move Wheeler and his hefty contract? He’s going to have to get creative, but I think it will happen before training camp. Will he move Dubois knowing he wants out in just two years? This one will take more time to find reciprocal value in return, but I doubt he will be a Jet in two years. He will have to trade this huge asset sometime in the next two seasons, but this is where his patience will be an asset. In other words, don’t look for a trade anytime soon, but if the right deal crosses his desk I am sure he will make that move.
Can Scheifele and his attitude rebound to be the leader Jets fans have become accustomed to? He says so, but time will tell and is the GM looking to move him? You can’t tell me Cheveldayoff’s phone wasn’t constantly ringing after the season exit press conferences.
Regardless of what happens down the road, these three players for different reasons, bring important issues that need to be dealt with. Individually this wouldn’t be a problem, however, collectively along with a promise to turn the Jets around this season, they are no closer to a solution. It’s going to take some time to sort this all out and the clock is ticking.
Keith Forsyth is a freelance writer and sports junkie from rural Manitoba who is covering the Winnipeg Jets for The Hockey Writers. Keith loves all sports and is a huge fan of the NFL (Skol Vikings… if you know, you know) and the Montreal Expos (they’re coming back… you watch!). He recently retired from the education world teaching high school, where his greatest passion was coaching young athletes. He brings that same logical, behind the bench type of approach to you as he delivers an insightful look into the NHL and specifically the Jets. For interview requests or content info, follow Keith on Twitter or his social media accounts. They appear under his photo on articles like this one.