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There are two kinds of people in the world: those who believe Marko Dano is a great hockey player given a raw deal in Winnipeg; and those who wondered what took so long when the Jets sent him sent packing last month.
With Dano, there appeared to be no middle ground. Regardless where you may stand, one thing is clear: the organization is playing a dangerous game these days when it comes to managing some of their young assets.
Fortunately for Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, he’s avoided getting burned. So far.
However, a franchise that prides itself on the draft-and-development model can’t keep cutting players such as Dano loose with absolutely no return and expect not to feel it down the road. Prospects don’t grow on trees, and you don’t want to get into the habit of rolling the dice that a player you’ve invested plenty of resources in doesn’t finally put it all together as soon as he gets a one-way ticket out of town.
Just ask the numerous GMs in the NHL how it felt to to watch their previous “lost causes” blossom last season with the Vegas Golden Knights.
Dano made his return to Winnipeg on Friday night with the Colorado Avalanche, the team that plucked him off the scrap heap last month when the Jets decided to finally move on from the 23-year-old Austrian-born winger to give playing time to other emerging talents such as Brendan Lemieux and Kristian Vesalainen.
It’s safe to say the Avalanche version of Dano is pretty much the same one we saw for parts of the four seasons he spent here. Dano entered play against the Jets with no points in his first six games with Colorado, playing only a handful of minutes each night in a bottom-six role. There was even some healthy scratches mixed in recently for good measure.
“I came to a team that was doing great. The coaches didn’t want to make changes early on, so I’ve got to wait for my chance. I’m happy to play at least a couple minutes and be a part of a team,” Dano said Friday following the team’s morning skate at Bell MTS Place.
Dano spent much of last season as a press box regular, unable to crack the Jets’ lineup but stuck in limbo when Winnipeg decided they didn’t want to risk losing him by trying to send him to the Manitoba Moose. A similar scenario looked inevitable when he was a healthy scratch in the first four games of the season, only for Cheveldayoff to seemingly switch gears by exposing him on waivers.
Presumably, by that point, Cheveldayoff had tried to find a fellow GM who might have given the Jets something back in a trade. Even a late-round draft pick would have been better than nothing. But it appears there were no takers. Why pay for something you can eventually get for free, as the Avalanche found out.
“They didn’t see the opportunity for me to play in Winnipeg. I was happy that they gave me a chance to either play in the minors and play some minutes there, or, like it happened, give some other teams a chance to pick me up. Last year was tough but I always came to the rink and did my work, and now they kind of helped me out,” Dano said.
Dano’s lack of instant success with Colorado likely has the ‘good riddance’ crowd now shouting ‘I told you so’ from the rooftops.
After all, the 27th-overall pick in the 2013 NHL Draft is already on his fourth organization and seems unable to establish much of a presence at this level no matter how many fresh starts he gets. Maybe he’s destined to be just another in a long list of players who never figure it out, even if Dano believes his best days are still to come.
“Now it’s just getting more comfortable and it’s my goal to bring my game every night,” said Dano. “I’m 23 years old, so I feel like this is the best age for a hockey player. I think I did good work in the summer, came in shape and now I just have to get back to game tempo and game pace. It’s going to take a little while but I feel like I can be a good fit to this team.”
You wonder how many nights Dano has left to prove his case? He appears well on his way to following the Alexander Burmistrov plan if things don’t change soon. Remember Burmistrov? The eighth-overall pick in the 2010 draft by Atlanta was another young Jets talent that many felt Jets head coach Paul Maurice (and Claude Noel before him) simply never gave a fair shake.
Like Dano, he eventually ran out of chances in Winnipeg and was placed on waivers in 2017. The Arizona Coyotes took a chance in grabbing him, only to be met with similar disappointment. Then the Vancouver Canucks signed him, only to bid him farewell a few months later when the enigmatic Russian opted to “retire” from the NHL at the age of 26 and take his talents to the KHL.
Consider that another potential bullet dodged by Cheveldayoff.
Then there’s the case of Joel Armia, another skilled young forward the Jets were forced to move on from with zero return. Unlike fellow first-rounders Dano and Burmistrov, this wasn’t a waiver-wire transaction meant to give an opportunity to someone else in the pipeline.
Moving Armia was a necessary evil to clear valuable salary-cap space in the form of dumping goaltender Steve Mason’s US$4.1-million contract, which Cheveldayoff had signed only a year earlier. The Montreal Canadiens were willing to take it on — and then promptly buy Mason out and swallow the cap hit — as long as Winnipeg gave them something of value. Enter Armia, the 25-year-old Finnish forward.
The 16th-overall pick in the 2011 draft was off to a solid start in a top-six role with the Habs, putting up three goals and four assists through his first 15 regular-season games. That had him on pace to shatter the career-highs of 12 goals and 17 assists he set with Winnipeg last season in 79 games.
Unfortunately, a knee injury suffered earlier this month is expected to sideline Armia for the next six to eight weeks. But he appears to have the necessary tools to become an NHL regular and perhaps serve as a cautionary tale for the Jets.
Which brings us to Nic Petan, who seems to be the next player in that Burmistrov/Dano/Armia mould eliciting strong reactions from both supporters and critics. The 23-year-old pending restricted free agent is no longer waiver exempt and is still struggling to carve out a regular role in the lineup in his fourth pro season.
If Petan doesn’t have a long-term future in Winnipeg — especially with other young forwards such as Lemieux, Vesalainen and Moose players Mason Appleton and C.J. Suess knocking on the door for regular duty — then Cheveldayoff must find a way to salvage something for him.
The prospect pool isn’t bottomless. And the Jets are no longer in the position where they can afford to let another one get away for nothing.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.