The Winnipeg Jets aren’t waiting until free agency begins Wednesday to get working on their roster.
Two major moves were made Monday night, with the club acquiring defenceman Brenden Dillon in a trade with Washington and re-signing veteran centre Paul Stastny. A pair of second-round draft picks in 2022 and 2023 went to the Capitals in return.
Not that there was any doubt, but both developments are a sign that general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff is in "win-now" mode, an obvious retooling rather than a rebuilding. Which is how it should be, considering he has a a former Vezina Trophy winner in Connor Hellebuyck in net and a deep forward core that isn’t getting any younger, or cheaper, to build around.
Dillon, 30, provides an instant upgrade to Winnipeg’s top four. The 6-4, 220-pounder from British Columbia had two goals and 17 assists in 56 regular-season games last year, along with 49 penalty minutes and an impressive plus-15 (second-best on the team). He’s also played for Dallas and San Jose over his 654-game NHL career, and was actually a former defence partner of Dylan DeMelo with the Sharks.
The left-shot rearguard is signed for three more seasons at US$3.9 million per year and will bring plenty of tools, including a physical presence and penalty-killing acumen. He had 143 hits and 61 blocks last season. Dillon likely slots in on the second-pairing behind Josh Morrissey, replacing pending unrestricted free agent Derek Forbort who is expected to find another hockey home.
DeMelo and Neal Pionk are currently the top two right-shot defencemen. Winnipeg also has Logan Stanley, Nathan Beaulieu, Sami Niku and bright young prospects Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg in the mix, and Cheveldayoff may still be looking to boost a group that has consistently given up far too many shots and dangerous scoring chances in recent years. Dillon should help in that regard.
Washington was looking to clear some cap space, with several players to sign including UFA captain Alex Ovechkin. Dillon was a casualty of that.
As for Stastny, he and the Jets just can’t quit each other. And their mutually-beneficial relationship has been extended for another season in a signing that makes plenty of sense for both sides. Stastny, 35, inked a new one-year contract that will pay him US$3.75 million for the 2021-22 season. He was set to become a UFA on Wednesday.
The move allows the Jets to hold on to a valuable veteran forward, one whose contributions go beyond the scoresheet. Stastny may not wear a letter on his sweater, but he is a key part of Winnipeg’s leadership group. And the Quebec native, who is the son of Hockey Hall of Famer Peter Stastny, clearly likes the fit around here.
He showed last year he’s still got some game left, scoring 13 goals and adding 16 assists in 56 regular-season contests, and a goal and an assist in six playoff games. He also celebrated playing in his 1,000th career NHL game in the final week of the season.
Stastny was first acquired by Winnipeg at the 2018 trade deadline, agreeing to waive his no-trade clause to come over from St. Louis. He wasn’t re-signed that summer — the Jets simply didn’t have the cap space at the time — and signed a three-year, US$19.5-million contract. (US$6.5 million per year). However, the Jets came calling again last off-season, looking to fill a hole up the middle created by Bryan Little’s career-ending injury. Stastny once again agreed to waive his no-trade clause to head north.
Now, he’s chosen to stay put, rather than test the free agent waters. It comes at a price point the Jets can afford, especially with the US$81.5-million salary cap ceiling not budging, while giving Stastny some stability.
Although the Jets lost forward Mason Appleton to Seattle in the expansion draft last week, this allows them to bring back their top seven forwards in Stastny, captain Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Adam Lowry and Andrew Copp.
Stastny moved to the wing for part of last season once the Jets acquired Dubois in a trade with Columbus, sending Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic the other way. He also moved up and down the lineup, and that versatility will be useful going forward
The Jets still have plenty off work to do on their roster, with depth forwards Mathieu Perreault, Trevor Lewis and Nate Thompson all UFAs. There’s also the matter of the backup goalie position (Laurent Brossoit is a UFA) and perhaps some further adds to the blue line (Forbort, Tucker Poolman and Jordie Benn are UFAs).
Winnipeg is expected to be active on all of those fronts over the coming days. As Cheveldayoff said this past weekend, there are numerous balls in the air at the moment. He also needs to get new contracts done for restricted free agents Copp, Pionk and Stanley.
But by keeping Stastny in the fold, and bringing to Dillon town, an extremely busy and important summer stretch is off to a strong start.
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.