The NHL’s regular season is set to start in just over 60 days. Despite rumours that many of the team’s key pieces would be on the move, the Winnipeg Jets have yet to make any major transactions this offseason. General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff traded for defencemen Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt last summer, and those moves have created a logjam on the teams’ defensive depth chart.
Related: Jets’ Top 5 Defensive Prospects
Dylan Samberg and Ville Heinola are two defence prospects who showed promise at the NHL level last year, but they have a multitude of veteran defencemen in front of them on the current depth chart. They’ll need to give these young prospects a chance to show what they can do, especially for a small market team that needs to use valuable entry-level contracts to vault themselves into contention.
The Surplus of Defencemen Standing in the Way of Prospects
Based on how the pairings looked at the end of last year, they’ll likely look like this going into the 2022-23 campaign:
Josh Morrissey – Dylan DeMelo
Brenden Dillon – Neal Pionk
Dylan Samberg – Nate Schmidt
That projection also fails to mention Heinola, Declan Chisholm, Logan Stanley, and Leon Gawanke, all of whom are young prospects at their “make or break” moment as hockey players. Either they crack the NHL now and make a long-earning career out of it, or they remain in the AHL for another two seasons and become career depth players. That’s a total of five defencemen who are between the ages of 21 and 24 who need these minutes sooner rather than later to prove that they’re NHL players.
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The Jets have drafted defencemen well over the past four years but are now faced with a problem. They can decide to either keep their current veteran core and continue to ice a decent to above-average core on the blue line. Or, they can choose to move one or two of them to make room for their affordable, effective prospects who’ve been developed in the system for over four years.
The Jets currently have five defencemen under contract through the end of the 2023-24 season and three under contract for another season after that. By the time those contracts expire, these young defencemen will have had their development stunted because of their lack of minutes against top competition. They will continue to dominate the AHL similar to how they are now, but they’ll never get a chance to expand their skills against higher competition. No matter what strategy a team tries to follow when developing prospects, waiting until they are 25 to move them into the NHL is not one of them.
Which Jets Defencemen are Most Likely to Be Moved?
Morrissey, DeMelo, and Pionk are the least likely to get traded based on their contracts and the value that comes with them. They combine to make up the best parts of the Jets’ top-four and should become even better under new head coach Rick Bowness and the systems that he can provide.
Dillon is on an easily movable contract that most teams would be able to fit on under their salary cap. Outside of the financials, he is also a tough and physical defensive defenceman who struggled to find his footing last season but would likely strive in a new system. His contract being relatively affordable makes him a prime trade target, and other teams would take the chance that he can be a difference maker on their team.
The other prime trade option would be Schmidt, who enjoyed a bounce-back season after struggling mightily with the Vancouver Canucks during the 2020-21 season. He was traded for a third-round pick last offseason, and it paid off as he finished with 32 points in 77 games, the second-highest point total of his career. Schmidt had a great season at age 30, which showed that he can still provide plenty of value as an offensive defenceman at this stage of his career.
The one major hurdle in an attempt to move Schmidt is that he has three years remaining on his current contract at an average annual value (AAV) of $5.95 million per year. Not many teams would be willing to give up an asset for a player with that pricey contract, so the Jets would likely have to attach an asset or two to move his salary.
Whether it’s Schmidt, Dillon, or any other defenceman on the Jets’ blue line, making a move to let their young players shine would be beneficial to not only the current roster but to the future of the franchise. Heinola, Samberg, and Chisholm have all paid their dues at the AHL level, and they have all the talent to make it work with the big club.