Analysis: Expect Winnipeg Jets to make splash before trade deadline

Dip your toe in the water or go full-on cannonball?

Those appear to be the choices facing Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff as the April 12 NHL trade deadline quickly approaches.

The rules of engagement have taken a turn for the better for all teams in the North Division after last week’s announcement the quarantine rules for NHL teams have been updated.

That move from the 14-day quarantine to the seven-day modified quarantine will certainly have an impact on the marketplace, but it’s a bit early to project the true value.

For teams like the Jets looking for an upgrade, it’s an obvious benefit that an incoming player only needs to be sidelined for seven days instead of the full two weeks.

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However, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will lead to a flurry of trades – or that the market will be flooded with players looking for new homes with a contender.

It just means that this staring contest will go on a bit longer, because making a pre-emptive strike and blinking first usually means paying a premium for a highly sought-after asset.

With the Jets ready to wrap up a season-high seven-game road trip on Monday night against the Calgary Flames, the Jets needs aren’t overly difficult to identify.

Unlike the past three deadlines, the Jets won’t be looking to address the second-line centre position.

The off-season acquisition of Paul Stastny from the Vegas Golden Knights and the in-season move to obtain Pierre-Luc Dubois from the Columbus Blue Jackets already took care of that.

The Jets have ample depth down the middle at the NHL level, while David Gustafsson is waiting in the wings in the American Hockey League with the Manitoba Moose.

Jansen Harkins is waiting patiently as well and can be used at centre as well, though he’s spent the majority of his time in the NHL on the wing.

The Jets won’t be focusing on the forward position in a potential trade, but don’t discount the potential of adding a depth forward with term either – since it would be one of the ways the Jets could help their position when it comes to exposing a player for the Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft.

There is still ample time to get that sorted out and won’t be a priority right now, but it’s possible the Jets could seek a forward with a reasonable salary or is a pending RFA as both an insurance policy and a way to satisfy the expansion rules.

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However, the position at the top of Cheveldayoff’s wish list is a defenceman – and most likely an impact defender that would be used on one of the top-two pairings.

The most consistent pairing for the Jets this season has been Neal Pionk and Derek Forbort.

It’s been a revolving door of partners for Josh Morrissey and the most likely outcome includes finding a partner to play with him on the right side (though Morrissey could also move to his off-side if necessary).

Dylan DeMelo has been used mostly on the third pairing this season, though he did spend a recent stretch with Morrissey – a spot currently being filled by Tucker Poolman.

Logan Stanley has taken some important steps in his development this season – and he was rewarded by scoring his first NHL goal on Saturday night against the Flames – and he’s doing his part to show Jets head coach Paul Maurice that he should keep him in the lineup during the stretch run.

When Cheveldayoff mentioned internal options in his most recent media availability, he was talking about Stanley, 2019 first-rounder Ville Heinola and 2017 second-rounder Dylan Samberg.

Mattias Ekholm of the Nashville Predators has been identified as the primary target for the Jets and most other teams considering a big move.

But a recent run of success has the Predators in a playoff position on Monday morning, so Ekholm is either off the market entirely or his price tag has certainly gone up for those trying to acquire him from David Poile.

Things are a bit murkier when it comes to Blue Jackets defenceman David Savard, who is a pending unrestricted free agent.

A surge by the Blue Jackets had some believing Savard could be off the market as well, but Columbus has hit another rough patch, so it will be interesting to see if GM Jarmo Kekalainen will be buying or selling.

Savard makes sense on a lot of levels for the Jets and the price tag probably wouldn’t be as high as it is/was for Ekholm (who has another season on his contract with a salary of $5 million but a cap hit of $3.75 million).

Another player to keep an eye on is Anaheim Ducks blue-liner Josh Manson, who recently returned from an oblique injury.

Manson has dealt with injuries during the past several seasons, but when healthy brings a nice combination of size, mobility and playoff experience – he’s a hard-nosed player that can move the puck efficiently.

Manson has one more season left on his current deal, carrying an AAV of $4.1 million and has a modified no-trade clause (a 12-team list).

Jamie Oleksiak of the Dallas Stars also checks a number of boxes.

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The 14th overall pick in the 2011 NHL Draft is someone that the Jets have a lot of familiarity with, both from his nine seasons in the Central Division and his run to the Calder Cup championship in 2014 with the Texas Stars against the St. John’s IceCaps (the Jets’ top affiliate at the time).

Oleksiak, a pending UFA, is a towering presence at 6-foot-7, 255 pounds, has some offensive upside and was a valued contributor to the Stars run to the Stanley Cup final in 2020.

Unknowns

Due to the compressed nature of this pandemic season, there have been and will continue to be a number of unknowns – and one of them is how much action there will be during these next two weeks.

A lot can happen between now and the deadline and if you’re searching for concrete proof, look no further than 2018, when the St. Louis Blues shocked many by making Stastny available to the Jets despite being in striking distance of a playoff spot in the Central Division.

All to say that the trade boards could look dramatically different in two weeks than they do right now, but the Jets needs are going to be the same.

The crystal ball remains a bit cloudy when it comes to the intended target, though it would be a surprise if the Jets don’t find a way to bolster the defence corps.

What’s the asking price and what are the Jets willing to pay when it comes to sacrificing a piece of the future to try and improve right now?

That’s what this is ultimately going to boil down to.

The smart money is that Cheveldayoff opts for the cannonball approach and makes a bigger splash.

Ken Wiebe covers the Winnipeg Jets for sportsnet.ca and is a regular contributor to CJOB. He can be reached at kenjr@shaw.ca.

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