It’s hard to look at the haul the Winnipeg Jets got for Jacob Trouba and not think, ‘Man, that’s underwhelming.’
That is, of course, because the return was exactly that. And unless general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff could pull off the impossible, he was never going to replace Jacob Trouba with Jacob Trouba.
[Related: Rangers land Trouba, Jets get Pionk and first-rounder]
It was Mission: Impossible and Cheveldayoff was no Tom Cruise. The Jets were always going to lose that deal. Rarely can you replace a top-pairing defenseman that was drafted and developed from within and had helped build a flourishing partnership with Josh Morrissey into one of the better shutdown tandems in the NHL.
One half of that is missing in Winnipeg now and Neal Pionk doesn’t fill that void. This is the CliffsNotes version.
Losing Trouba — Winnipeg’s worst kept secret — is a massive blow to the Jets. They lose a 50-point defenseman and ability to play in all phases of the game while munching on big minutes every night.
“We’re certainly getting a really good player,” Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton said.
Those weren’t words Cheveldayoff uttered during his conference call with the media on Monday night.
“We’re really excited to get Neal in the acquisition as well,” Cheveldayoff said after talking about getting back into the first round of this year’s draft via the trade with the 20th overall pick. “He’s a young player that we believe has upside that is going to continue to grow.”
Pionk may indeed grow, and the Jets may indeed like Pionk over whatever else was offered to them. But there’s no question it’s a step backward for Winnipeg in terms of talent.
The Rangers got a piece that will instantly make their team better (assuming they sign Trouba long-term). Winnipeg does not.
The Jets don’t need a defenseman that can play well on the power play. They have that in Dustin Byfuglien. Morrissey can do that job, too. And Sami Niku showed good signs in limited opportunities with the man-advantage.
No, what the Jets need is a good 5-on-5 defenseman and they aren’t getting that in Pionk.
And it’s not just my words that suggest that…
But all of this is really moot.
Trouba had been playing on borrowed time ever since his agent requested that his client be traded on a warm July’s night in Winnipeg in 2016.
His agent’s ransom note published on Twitter that night said Trouba wanted to realize his potential as a top-pairing, right-side defenseman. The Jets did just that, but it all seemed like a smokescreen for the desired eventual outcome.
Trouba wanted out.
Cheveldayoff stood his ground for three years until the clock ran out, likely to be expected by both agent and player. He didn’t get pushed around by Trouba until the tables turned and he had the choice of getting something for him or getting nothing at all.
He had to get something for him. No GM wants a John Tavares ending.
And maybe Trouba just wanted what’s best for him. In a time where players are increasingly looked at as commodities and not humans, Trouba gave to the Jets what he owed them for drafting him back in 2012 and then seized control of his own future.
“It’s a great opportunity for myself and my fiancée,” said Trouba, who spoke with the Winnipeg Sun’s Ken Wiebe. “Her career is as important as my career. We both are passionate about different things and our goal from a couple of years back was we wanted to make this work. And we decided we wanted to make this work. This is part of it, to be realistic with you.
“From a life standpoint, that’s what I decided in the end. I’m going to marry the girl and I want her to be happy and for her dreams to be fulfilled. She’s worked extremely hard to get where she is with schooling and the time she’s put in. I want her to see her be successful just as much as I want to be successful.”
If you’re searching for positives here, one is that the situation is finally over. Both sides can finally move on.
Another is that Trouba’s exit means more wiggle room when it comes to the salary cap and they found a way into the first round this year. The Jets have done well to find quality players in the opening round in the past. Perhaps they’ve got a Mark Scheifele-esque guy (only a defenseman this time) they got good intel on.
“It’s a really interesting draft, once you get past the ones everybody’s talking about on the top end, I think it really spreads out,” Cheveldayoff said. “I think there are players we’re going to see at 20- we’re going to have higher on our list.”
Even then, that player is a few years away from making a meaningful impact. Last year at this time, the Jets were legitimate Stanley Cup contenders after a solid showing from a team oozing with young talent and the right mix of contracts.
Some believed this year was where their window was widest to make that run. Instead, they struggled down the stretch and got bounced in six games in Round 1 by the current Stanley Cup champs. In hindsight, it would have been better to trade Trouba a year ago. But a year ago, it would have been stupid to trade Trouba without hindsight’s benefit.
And now reality sets in.
Cheveldayoff said as much in his conference call about the “hard cap world,” and few GMs this summer face one as paramount in terms of the team’s future success as he does.
He has to sign Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor and those two, depending on how the deals come together, could command well over $15 million combined if both sign long-term. Trimming the fat may continue, too. Decisions on trading Mathieu Perreault and buying out Dmitry Kulikov to find more cap relief have to be made.
And then they need to sort out if they bring Tyler Myers back. And Ben Chiarot. And Brandon Tanev.
And then decisions on what pieces from the team’s farm system down the hall with the American Hockey League’s Manitoba Moose are going to make the jump to the bigger dressing room in the show.
“There’s no question we have a challenging summer still ahead of us,” Cheveldayoff said. “We still got lots of moving parts or balls in the air, so to speak.”
So more changes are likely coming, and a team will emerge next season very different than the one from a year ago.
And given how last season ended, perhaps a shakeup in that dressing room is what was needed anyway.
Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck.