Where do the Winnipeg Jets go from here?
Normally a figure-of-speech, I mean that quite literally in this case. The NHL club still doesn’t know where it will be playing the 2021 season, with less than two weeks until training camp starts Jan. 3, and just more than three weeks until the puck drops for real Jan. 13.
The organizational hope is half the games will be held inside Bell MTS Place, and the other half in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal as part of the tantalizing new all-Canadian division meant to get around COVID-19 travel restrictions. But universal approval from government and health officials in all five provinces had yet to come as of Monday. And so we wait, with a hub city format in one of these locations (likely Edmonton) being the fallback plan.
Their nomad status is the biggest issue currently facing the Jets, but it’s not the only one. Navigating all the health and safety protocols and keeping everyone safe, regardless of where they skate, will be a season-long storyline, including whether fans are eventually allowed back in, even in small doses to start.
As for the on-ice product, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and coach Paul Maurice have several important items remaining on their collective to-do lists to get their club primed to enter the starting block for a four-month, 56-game sprint like no other.
Sorry, fellas, but you’re not going to have much time to put your feet up over the holidays. Here’s a look at a few of the most pressing matters.
1) The Jack Roslovic situation:
The 23-year-old restricted free agent forward is still without a contract. Roslovic is coming off a career-best season in terms of offensive numbers (12 goals 17 assists), and is no doubt looking for a significant pay bump, but not in the realm that should make this a complicated process that drags.
But the matter is complicated by the fact he’s also looking for a new home, with trade speculation swirling earlier in the off-season and the Jets exploring what they might get in return, perhaps in an attempt to boost their blue-line. To date, Cheveldayoff hasn’t found a deal he likes.
Roslovic’s agent, Claude Lemieux, told me recently there’s been nothing happening in terms of contract talks, which raises the possibility the winger/centre won’t be here to start the season due to an impasse. Perhaps business will soon pick up, and Roslovic is not the only RFA in the league that still needs to re-sign. Or maybe the trade market heats up.
Either way, a solution needs to be found in short order.
2) The Patrik Laine situation:
Assuming Cheveldayoff doesn’t pull the trigger on a long-rumoured blockbuster, this is going to fall more into Maurice’s department, along with the team’s leadership group. Laine’s agent, Mike Liut, went on record a few months ago saying a trade would be "mutually beneficial" for both parties. And yet he remains a Jet, with one year left on his current deal until he becomes an RFA next summer.
Well that’s a bit awkward, isn’t it?
You know Laine is going to be asked about this at every turn by us nosy media types, especially playing in only Canadian markets. But forget about us. I imagine many of his teammates will have questions for Laine as well, some of them rather pointed.
Is this going to become a season-long distraction, or something that can quickly blow over? Time will tell.
3) The roster and the taxi squad:
There’s no change to the maximum roster size of 23 players, nor the US$81.5 million salary cap ceiling for that group. But an added twist this year is the requirement to assign between four and six skaters to a "taxi squad." This will be a group separate from a club’s AHL team and travels and practices with the big club to stay ready to be rotated into the lineup.
A big question for Cheveldayoff and company is how they’ll utilize this. Do they want some of their promising young prospects such as David Gustafsson, Kristian Vesalainen, Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg here, presuming they aren’t part of the opening-night lineup? Or would they prefer they go down to the farm and play. But even that is iffy, considering the AHL won’t start until February at the earliest, and perhaps not at all.
And where does 18-year-old Cole Perfetti fit in? The 10th-overall draft pick can’t be assigned to the AHL, and the Ontario Hockey League may not play at all this year, so keeping him around might just be the best option.
Looking at the current roster and assuming no moves are made (and Roslovic is signed), the following 21 players are locks to make the team out of camp:
GOAL (2) — Connor Hellebuyck, Laurent Brossoit
FORWARDS (13) : Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, Paul Stastny, Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers, Adam Lowry, Andrew Copp, Jack Roslovic, Mathieu Perreault, Nate Thompson, Jansen Harkins, Mason Appleton
DEFENCE (6) : Josh Morrissey, Dylan DeMelo, Neal Pionk, Derek Forbort, Nathan Beaulieu, Tucker Poolman
That would leave up to two more skater spots with the big club, which might both go to defencemen. And between four and six spots with the taxi squad, with one of those automatically needed for a third goaltender all teams are required to carry.
Here are the prime candidates to fill those roles out of what is expected to be the group that is invited to camp.
GOAL: Eric Comrie, Mikhail Berdin
PREDICTION: Comrie to the taxi squad, Berdin to the AHL.
DEFENCE: Sami Niku, Luca Sbisa, Ville Heinola, Dylan Samberg, Nelson Nogier, Logan Stanley, Declan Chisholm, Leon Gawanke, Johnny Kovacevic, Luke Green
PREDICTION: Sbisa and Niku to the NHL roster, Heinola and Samberg to the taxi squad, the rest to the AHL.
FORWARDS: Dominic Toninato, Cole Perfetti, David Gustafsson, Kristian Vesalainen, Joona Luoto, C.J. Suess, Kristian Reichel, Skyler McKenzie
PREDICTION: Toninato, Perfetti and Gustafsson to the taxi squad, the rest to the AHL.
It’s also worth noting depth forward Marko Dano would be part of this list, but he broke his wrist a few weeks ago while playing overseas and underwent surgery. It’s not clear how much time he might miss, or where he might fit in once he’s ready to return.
4) The salary cap situation:
The Jets are just over the cap ceiling right now, which has to change in time for the season. Veteran centre Bryan Little is expected to be placed on long-term injured reserve as his career is over due to a devastating ear/head injury suffered last year. That will provide some financial breathing room, but not a ton. This will be an issue that will have to be managed closely all year.
It’s possible the Jets might want to carry only 21 or 22 skaters at times, instead of 23, to give them a little more comfort. Other cap-crunched teams, like Toronto, are expected to do that this season, especially since those on the taxi squad don’t count towards the cap. If Winnipeg goes that route, it will make the competition for work even more intense.
There’s work to be done, before the race begins, where the Jets will be one of 31 teams looking to take a victory lap with the Stanley Cup next summer. My advice to everyone: Limber up and stretch. It’s time to hit the ground running.
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.