Jets in the driver’s seat


Fresh off appearing in the NHL’s Final Four in the spring of 2018, the Winnipeg Jets found themselves at a proverbial fork in the road. Key contracts were up for renewal, money was tight and tough decisions had to be made. But the route the franchise took — one they emphatically doubled-down on this week — was based around one simple fact.

Blake Wheeler, decided to stay put rather than find a new hockey home to end his career. Nearly everything general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and his staff have done since that five-year, US$41.25 million extension was signed revolves around the goal of winning a Stanley Cup before the captain’s contract runs out after the 2023-24 season.

“It was one of those things where if he had gone off into free agency, I think the path of the organization would have likely gone in a different direction,” Cheveldayoff recently admitted.

Call it the Wheeler Window. It’s wide open now, after the Jets finally undid some of the damage caused by Dustin Byfuglien’s stunning retirement by adding two big pieces to the blue line in Nate Schmidt and Brenden Dillon. They also re-signed veteran forward Paul Stastny and put themselves uncomfortably close to eclipsing the salary-cap ceiling in the process, re-enforcing the “all in” mentality. All of which should add some extra urgency around here, effective immediately.

Nearly everything general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff has done since Blake Wheeler's five-year, US$41.25 million extension was signed revolves around the goal of winning a Stanley Cup.

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Nearly everything general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff has done since Blake Wheeler’s five-year, US$41.25 million extension was signed revolves around the goal of winning a Stanley Cup.

“It puts the bullseye back in the locker room,” a source told me this week. Translation: There’s no excuses now.

They have arguably the league’s best goaltender, a deep forward core and now a blue-line that has gone from a weakness to a strength in the blink of an eye. Not since that magical run to the Western Conference Final, when they had the likes of Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, Toby Enstrom and Ben Chiarot in the fold, have they had the kind of versatility and depth they now possess.

Schmidt and Dillon, along with Josh Morrissey, Neal Pionk and Dylan DeMelo, are the big five, with all kinds of tantalizing options of partnerships and match-ups. You’ll note Morrissey is the only drafted and developed defender of that bunch, unlike most of the homegrown forward group. The rest have come via trades. Logan Stanley, Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg represent the next wave. And there are some other good young piecess on the farm as well.

The fact Cheveldayoff didn’t have to mortgage the future by giving up any prospects, or even a first-round draft pick, to land Schmidt and Dillon in an impressive piece of business, as he took advantage of both the Canucks and Capitals needing to shed some salary for other important items on their respective to-do lists.

No, they don’t come cheap. But did you see the kind of money being tossed around in unrestricted free agency Wednesday? Derek Forbort and Tucker Poolman received a combined nine-years, US$19 million from Vancouver and Boston. Their immediate replacements in Schmidt and Dillon, both massive upgrades for Winnipeg, carry a total of seven-years, $35.5 million on their remaining deals, which the Jets will happily absorb.

New Winnipeg Jet Brenden Dillon (right) clears former Winnipeg Jet Brandon Tanev from in front of the Washington Capitals net in February. (Keith Srakocic / The Associated Press files)</p>
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New Winnipeg Jet Brenden Dillon (right) clears former Winnipeg Jet Brandon Tanev from in front of the Washington Capitals net in February. (Keith Srakocic / The Associated Press files)

As Cheveldayoff noted in his Zoom availability, there was nobody like those two players he could have found on the open market.

But make no mistake: The clock is now ticking on the current incarnation of the Jets. When Wheeler’s contract runs out three years from now at the age of 37, Connor Hellebuyck and Mark Scheifele are set to join him as UFAs that summer. Same with Dillon and DeMelo. Schmidt and Nikolaj Ehlers will have just one year left. Kyle Connor two.

The point is, the Jets could look a lot different by then. Sure, ideally you strike a perfect balance between the present and the future, allowing you to turn the roster over without missing a beat. But the reality is few teams are able to do that. There’s a natural ebb-and-blow to a franchise, and there’s no question where the Jets are with theirs.

If this current core is going to get to the promised land, the time really is now.

Some might view the moves this week as a reflection that Cheveldayoff is on the hot seat heading into his 11th season at the helm of the Jets. I’m not so sure about that. While I’m not suggesting he has a job for life around here, he has the trust of a very loyal owner in Mark Chipman. There’s a unique synergy that runs all the way down to coach Paul Maurice and Wheeler himself. No question the coach and the captain have the ear of the GM and owner, wielding more power than you’d see in many markets.

Winnipeg Jets' Jansen Harkins is checked by Vancouver Canucks' Nate Schmidt (88) during a game in February.

DARRYL DYCK / CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Winnipeg Jets’ Jansen Harkins is checked by Vancouver Canucks’ Nate Schmidt (88) during a game in February.

However, don’t underestimate the need for True North to continue icing a competitive product, especially in a post-pandemic world where a nightly sell-out at the newly renamed Canada Life Centre is no longer the guarantee it was for the first decade since the NHL returned. The organization is now offering 11-game mini-packs for sale, a sign that their once-lengthy waiting list for season tickets has all but dried up.

A Jets team that can hang with the hockey heavyweights is a sure-fire way to keep the passion flowing around here for the foreseeable future.

All that’s likely left to do this summer is a bit more tinkering in the form of some cheap depth moves, along with getting restricted free agents Pionk, Stanley and Andrew Copp inked to new deals. By my count, the club has about US$10 million to play with for that trio to stay under the US$81.5 million ceiling. It’s going to be close, and potentially means having to make a subsequent move or two to create some space. But such is the price you pay for trying to build a champion.

The journey has been a bumpy one, with plenty of unexpected obstacles along the way. But there’s no turning back now. After a few seasons of trying to get up to speed following a number of costly departures, Cheveldayoff has given Maurice the keys to a souped-up sports car.

It’s up to him, his staff and the players to get to the finish line, and not drive it off a cliff.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

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