The Winnipeg Jets ended Wednesday the same way they started — without a head coach. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a potentially seismic day when it comes to both the short- and long-term direction of the NHL team.
For starters, you can scratch Florida off the ever-shrinking list of possible landing spots for Barry Trotz. The Presidents Trophy-winning Panthers, still stinging from a second-round sweep at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning, stunned the hockey world when they pulled the plug on interim bench boss Andrew Brunette and brought in Paul Maurice to be their new leader.
Yes, the very same Maurice who abandoned ship here in River City last December, citing burnout. Now, six months later, he’s taking his talents to South Beach where he’ll try to lead one of the league’s deepest rosters to the promised land.
My belief that Winnipeg and Trotz get a deal done is stronger than ever with Florida out of the picture. It was the one club, given all it just accomplished, that I figured could throw a real wrench in those plans. Now, with only the Boston Bruins, Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks left with vacancies, the path to Trotz seems to be clearer than ever.
However, that might, ultimately, end up being just one piece of an even bigger puzzle.
Someone with Maurice’s pedigree is going to have a significant say in how the rest of the coaching staff is configured, and I’d expect another familiar face or two — hello Jamie Kompon — to join him. But I’ll go a step further and suggest the veteran coach will also have input into the Panthers roster, and that’s where things could get extremely interesting.
It’s no coincidence that mere moments after Maurice’s hiring was announced, NHL insider Frank Seravalli released his updated Daily Faceoff "trade bait" list. And making his debut, in the No. 3 spot no less, was none other than Jets captain Blake Wheeler, behind scoring studs Alex DeBrincat (Chicago) and Kevin Fiala (Minnesota Wild).
As Seravalli wrote, "Sources say the Jets have begun to explore the market and engage with teams on the possibility of moving Wheeler." The soon-to-be 36-year-old, who has two years left on a contract that carries a salary-cap hit of US $8.25 million, currently has a full no-move clause in his contract which is set to expire on July 1. At that point, the Minnesota product can provide a five-team list of teams he’d accept a trade to, which is something Seravalli added Wheeler would be willing to entertain "if it’s a proper fit for his family and his career."
Could Wheeler, who has previously gone on record saying he’d "go through a wall" for Maurice, decide to join him for what would clearly represent his best shot at an immediate Stanley Cup before his playing days come to an end? No doubt the interest would be mutual on Maurice’s behalf, who has made no secret of his affection for Wheeler.
Could (Blake) Wheeler, who has previously gone on record saying he’d “go through a wall” for Maurice, decide to join him for what would clearly represent his best shot at an immediate Stanley Cup before his playing days come to an end?
In fact, I truly believe Maurice’s decision to step down last Dec. 17 was at least partially influenced by something that happened one week earlier in Vancouver. Wheeler went down with a serious knee injury, one that would keep him out of the lineup for nearly six weeks. Given the streaky play of his squad, and the looming absence of his captain, that might have been the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
A Wheeler trade would be complicated. Winnipeg would likely have to retain some salary and/or take a bloated contract back in return. Florida currently has very little cap room to work with. But we know the Panthers management cherishes the idea of veteran experience, as proven by the signing of greybeard Joe Thornton last year and the acquisition of Claude Giroux at the trade deadline. Both are pending UFAs not expected to be retained. Wheeler, for what it’s worth, also spends considerable off-season time with his family in the Sunshine State.
With 60 points in 65 games, he is still a capable player and could help solidify a legitimate contender. But Wheeler’s cap hit is the biggest on the team, and using some of it to address other holes on the Jets roster could be a case of addition by subtraction as the Jets try to quickly retool on the fly and build around a core that includes the likes of Connor Hellebuyck, Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Josh Morrissey.
"Winnipeg is definitely willing to be creative in how they develop interest in Wheeler," TSN insider Darren Dreger said Wednesday. That could also mean needing to add a sweetener to any trade, such as a bright young prospect.
Even if something isn’t worked out between Winnipeg and Florida, the very fact Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff is seemingly open to the idea of moving Wheeler gives you a sense of how important a summer this is. The organization is thinking big — like, really, really big — after missing the playoffs for the seventh time in 11 years, and failing to sell out a single game all season. They recognize a major jolt is needed, and breaking the bank to land a future Hall-of-Famer like Trotz would be a step in that direction. But it would only be the beginning, rather than the end.
They (Jets) recognize a major jolt is needed, and breaking the bank to land a future Hall–of–Famer like (Barry) Trotz would be a step in that direction.
There’s also the matter of Mark Scheifele and a potential trade of the unhappy centre. Suddenly, plenty of eyes in the hockey world are focused on Winnipeg.
As for Maurice, I’m not sure he could have dreamed of a better scenario for his next spot. Yes, the pressure is clearly going to be ramped up, especially in an organization that just tied a can to the guy that led them to the NHL’s best regular-season record. But the potential payoff is worth it.
Like all in his profession, Maurice has his strengths and weaknesses. He’s a terrific communicator and motivator, one who works well with a veteran roster. But he can also be stubborn and loyal to a fault, and he’s yet to win a Stanley Cup in his 24 years of big-league coaching, with just one season where his team exceeded 100 points. That would be the 2017-18 Jets, who made it to the Western Conference Final before being ousted by Vegas in five games.
Maurice made a significant impact in this market, and his sudden resignation caught everyone by surprise. It also got the winds of change blowing around here. Wouldn’t it be something if Wednesday’s unexpected developments regarding the ex-coach ultimately provide another big gust in True North’s direction?
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.