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Is Jacob Trouba’s time in Winnipeg coming to an end?

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The Jacob Trouba saga may have taken another turn this weekend, and not one in the Winnipeg Jets’ direction.

For the short-term, Trouba will remain with the Jets, with player-elected arbitration ending in a one-year, $5.5 million contract awarded to the skilled defenseman. Should the Jets choose to accept these terms during their 48-hour window to do so — and they will — their top pairing with Trouba and Josh Morrissey (assuming the latter is also re-signed) remains intact for the coming season.

That’s the good news for the Jets.

The bad, however, is that after this coming season Trouba turns into a question mark.

It would seem that the 24-year-old is angling toward his exit from Winnipeg. He’s now two years away from unrestricted free agency and likely has this season left in Winnipeg before the Jets need to consider trading him to get the best return. Trading him now is an option, but not the best one if they’re serious about another Stanley Cup run in 2018-19.

Understandably, this perceived outcome has angered the local mob — many of whom have been uneasy about Trouba’s future ever since he publicly requested a trade two years ago.

Many believe his contract demands are elephantine. Trouba’s arbitration ruling is the half-way point between what the Jets offered ($4 million) and what Trouba wanted ($7 million). He’s publicly stated that he wants to stay in Winnipeg long-term, fronting that notion after the Jets were bounced from the playoffs and after his exit meeting with the team.

Since then, no long-term commitment from either side has been struck, leaving the player, his agent and Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff at a standstill.

Whatever the reason for the lack of a long-term deal up to this point is up for debate. What isn’t being disputed is the unsettlement it has created among Winnipeg’s disgruntled fanbase. These things happen when you begrudgingly watch your beloved team leave for 15 years. Hockey is woven into the fabric of the city, a symbiotic relationship that, when threatened, lashes back in a subconscious reflex.

Some fans have already resigned themselves to losing Trouba. Some have already been in that boat for a couple years now. There’s an underlying fear among fans that spawns their anger. Trouba departing threatens what the team has grown into — a Stanley Cup contender. And he could derail their present, realistic goal — becoming a Stanley Cup champion.

These are ramifications that every Jets fan is acutely aware of.

Fear is powerful.

For his part, Cheveldayoff has done well to stick to his guns — both now, and back in 2016 when Trouba publicly protested for his exit through a written release from his agent, Kurt Overhardt.

Trouba didn’t get his wish then, and it appears Cheveldayoff isn’t caving to his contract demands now either. Winnipeg can’t be viewed as an organization that gets overrun by players and so far that hasn’t been the case. Keeping up those appearances might just mean Trouba gets traded after all, but only at the last possible, opportune moment for the team, not the player.

While fans might not agree, it’s tough to blame Trouba here. Players have every right to invoke their rights, whether it be arbitration, unrestricted free agency, or asking for an enormous sum of money when it comes to a contract. Careers are short in hockey and there’s money to be made and a future to secure.

At this point though, what Trouba wants and what he’s worth simply doesn’t line up.

Matt Dumba and the Minnesota Wild sorted out a five-year, $30 million deal over the weekend. Dumba had a career year, scoring 14 goals and putting up 50 points. Trouba’s best season was eight goals and 33 points in 2016-17. He plays fewer minutes a night and doesn’t anchor the power play like Dumba. Trouba might be a better defender, but the NHL is a scoring league and production equals dollars.

So short of a career-year — one that would require Trouba to stay healthy (a struggle thus far in his five years in the NHL), in all likelihood — and barring a long-term deal after he’s eligible for one on Jan. 1 — Cheveldayoff is going to have a different decision to make next summer, providing he doesn’t intend on letting Trouba walk for free.

* * *

Replacing Trouba isn’t an easy task.

With Trouba, Winnipeg’s right defenseman depth includes himself, Dustin Byfuglien and Tyler Myers. Without him, and with Myers set to become a UFA at the end of next season, that depth is exposed pretty quickly. A good thread on how Winnipeg’s diversity on the right side has been one of their strengths:

Another year for Tucker Poolman and an uptick in playing time should reveal what the Jets have in him. Poolman has potential and showed it at times last year, but he’s still raw after coming straight out of college a year ago and was coming off bilateral shoulder surgery during the last offseason. Poolman is a restricted free agent at the moment and the Jets have yet to re-sign him.

Winnipeg has Sami Niku, who began his pro career in the AHL last year and won the league’s best defenseman award as a rookie. But Niku is to defense what Toby Enstrom was to offense. Niku is your prototypical offensive defenseman. That’s certainly a good thing, no question. But Niku isn’t a proven commodity in the NHL yet, and losing Trouba leaves a gaping hole when it comes to shutting down the best players on opposing teams.

The Jets targeted two defenseman in the middle rounds of the 2018 NHL Draft, and they’re still a few years away from making any real impact, if they make one at all.

A hefty return for Winnipeg should be involved in any trade for Trouba. In all likelihood, a willing participant in any deal would have to give up a comparable rostered defenseman or a very highly-touted prospect rearguard. A replacement is a must. They don’t need another top-six forward. They need a man that will fill Trouba’s shoes.

There will be several potential suitors for Trouba’s services, but pinning down who and what is involved is anyone’s guess.

The New York Islanders have Ryan Pulock, who played 68 games in his first full NHL season last year and put up 10 goals and 32 points. He’s 23 and from Dauphin, Manitoba — four hours or so west of Winnipeg.

The Detroit Red Wings could be another possible landing spot. Trouba is a Michigan native and the Red Wings top prospect defenseman Filip Hronek that could interest Winnipeg, although a deal like this might not give the Jets an immediate nor proven replacement.

This is all purely speculation. The above two examples offer two sides of what Cheveldayoff could target (similar roster player or well-regarded prospect in a package deal). There are several teams rebuilding at the moment, such as the New York Rangers, and others looking to take their team to the next level, such as the Boston Bruins. If the Tampa Bay Lightning can’t nail down Erik Karlsson, do they look at Trouba? You’d have to think they’d want Mikhail Sergachev in return.

It’s a tricky deal to navigate because the Jets need to fill the outgoing void. Few teams are giving up their best young defenseman for another team’s best young defenseman. These trades rarely happen.

And all of this can change with the wind. A year from now, the landscape in the NHL could be dramatically different, offering new possibilities, in the trade environment, and within the Jets organization.

Cheveldayoff will be in it pretty thick next summer. Blake Wheeler is scheduled to become a UFA and deserves a raise. Patrik Laine is likely to hit double-digits in annual average value. Kyle Connor led all rookies in goal scoring this season. There could be close to $30 million tied up in those three players alone if Connor gets signed long-term, although a bridge deal seems likely given the cap situation.

And to top it all off, Cheveldayoff might be fielding offers for one of his best defensemen.

Let the games begin.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

How Jets can continue to contend

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Right now, it’s probably almost all sadness and anger, but eventually, the Winnipeg Jets will look back at this season with mixed feelings.

[Golden Knights eliminate Jets in Game 5]

There are a ton of entries in the “Pros” column. After years of being betrayed by goaltending during the Ondrej Pavelec era, Connor Hellebuyck finished 2017-18 as a Vezina candidate and was mostly great during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Winnipeg went from never winning a playoff game in its Thrashers – Jets iteration to making it to the third round. They finished the season with the second-best record in the NHL and dispatched the top-ranked Predators during the postseason. Budding stars like Patrik Laine and Mark Scheifele took their next steps, while Kyle Connor joined this team’s absolutely bursting list of impressive assets. The future is mostly bright, and so is the present, thanks in part to the patience of the past.

Still, it had to be gutting to lose to the Vegas Golden Knights as a considerable favorite, especially considering how frustrating it was to try – and mostly fail – to solve Marc-Andre Fleury.

It’s easy to assume that the Jets will be a fixture in the West’s top rankings for ages, yet the counterpoint is chilling: what if this was actually their best shot?

Overall, the Jets are in a great position to contend for years. That said, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff needs to churn out some more wins, and some breaks need to go their way. Let’s consider what the Jets need to do to contend next season and beyond, along with some of the bumps in the road that could derail such dreams.

Central casting

In 2017-18, the Central Division was the general pick as the toughest division in the NHL. It’s difficult to imagine it getting a lot easier.

The Nashville Predators pushed Winnipeg to seven games, and David Poile’s not shy about making bold moves to get better. The Stars and Blues have a strong chance to improve next season, while the Blackhawks could rebound. Colorado seems like a young, modern team while Minnesota is, if nothing else, scrappy enough to make playoff spots tougher to come by.

Even if Cheveldayoff makes all the right moves, the Jets may simply lose to some very tough competition in the opening two rounds as long as that’s the playoff format the NHL chooses.

The next steps

It’s up to the Jets to continue to cultivate this robust bounty of talented players.

Patrik Laine is already a deadly sniper; can he become a more well-rounded threat? Nikolaj Ehlers looks great, but he failed to score a single goal in the playoffs. Could Sami Niku round out Winnipeg’s defense and will Jack Roslovic be another breakthrough young forward?

Winnipeg players reaching the next level won’t be easy, but it’s crucial.

And if the Jets’ prospects and greener NHL players can really climb, they might be able to shrug off some of the biggest team-building conundrums …

Restrictions coming

The Jets possess one of the best bargain contracts in the league in Scheifele, a legitimate top-line center in the meat of his peak at 25, only carrying a cap hit a bit over $6 million through 2023-24. Despite postseason ups and downs, extending Ehlers at a precise cap hit of $6M through 2024-25 sure looks forward-thinking.

Cheveldayoff’s biggest tests are coming up during the next two summers. Will he be able to maintain this team’s deadly and versatile arsenal once bargains and entry-level contracts expire?

The most immediate tests come in two RFAs heading for big raises: Hellebuyck and underrated defenseman Jacob Trouba. Things seemed a little tense at times with Trouba, so don’t expect another cheap and strange structure for his next contract. (If the NHL wasn’t such a country club atmosphere, you’d almost wonder if someone might send an offer sheet to Trouba and/or Hellebuyck.)

Anyway, Hellebuyck and Trouba aren’t likely to be cheap. The key will be to find the right compromise, whether that means a shorter deal or lowering cap hits with riskier, longer terms.

July also represents the first opportunity to extend some very big names.

Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor will both see their rookie deals go away after 2018-19. Laine’s cap hit could very well reach the teens in millions, while Connor might not be easy to retain after coming off of a 30-goal rookie season.

Wheeler’s next deal

Maybe the most fascinating situation comes with a pending UFA in Blake Wheeler. The 31-year-old’s been an under-the-radar star at a manageable $5.6M cap hit for years now and should command a considerable raise. That could be a tricky situation, as he’ll be 33 when his next contract kicks in.

All of these factors make it tough to imagine the team bringing back soon-to-be free agent Paul Stastny, who was a seamless addition. That’s especially true as Bryan Little‘s extension could stand as regrettable.

Ultimately, Cheveldayoff must make the right calls. Can he leverage RFA statuses to keep the core together? Will Wheeler and other nice, veteran players be affordable? These questions are mostly a little off in the distance, yet sometimes teams feel the need to be proactive. Simply put, players getting raises means that the Jets will most likely be forced to make choices and tough cuts.

(On the bright side, there’s some cap relief on the horizon as well. Toby Enstrom‘s deal is done. Tyler Myers‘ contract ends after next season. It’s not all bad.)

Backup plan?

When the Jets signed Steve Mason, it seemed like they’d either install him as the starter or as a platoon mate for Hellebuyck. An injury-ravaged season essentially pushed Mason out of the picture, and it’s reasonable to wonder what happens considering that his $4.1M cap hit runs through 2018-19.

Do the Jets try to move Mason and shuffle in Michael Hutchinson or a different backup?

Hellebuyck, even a richer version, is likely to be “the guy.” The modern NHL’s shown how valuable a good backup can be, especially during the 82-game grind of the regular season.

***

Few, if any, NHL teams are constructed to compete in both the present and future as well as the Jets right now. They’re likely to get better merely as the likes of Laine come into their own. (Laine still can’t drink legally in the U.S. at 20 years old, after all.)

On the other hand, promising things can go splat in a hurry, especially in sports. Injuries can happen. Bad contracts can gum up the works. Marc-Andre Fleury could stand on his head again.

It’s up to the Jets to prove that this past run was the beginning of something great rather than their best swing at the fence. They have the power to do just that, but it won’t be an easy task.

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Jets tweak defense for Game 5 vs. Vegas

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As “stay the course” as Paul Maurice’s message seemed with the Winnipeg Jets facing elimination in Game 5, he’s making quite a few lineup changes against the Vegas Golden Knights.

In particular, their defense will look quite different. Ben Chiarot and Toby Enstrom are being replaced by Joe Morrow and Dmitry Kulikov (pictured). On the offensive side, Joel Armia is returning to the lineup in place of Andrew Copp.

While this might feel like swapping lower-end parts (especially in Armia taking Copp’s spot), it’s worth noting that Morrow is likely to pair with Dustin Byfuglien on what is technically Winnipeg’s first duo, so these changes could make a difference. They also shine a spotlight on the gulf in talent between Winnipeg’s left and right sides on defense.

Winnipeg will ask the two returning defensemen to shake off some significant rust. Morrow, 25, hasn’t played since April 20 during the Minnesota Wild series. Kulikov, 27, has been sidelined and/or scratched since March 8.

No pressure.

At least Morrow’s already contributed a big goal during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs:

Game 5 is about to air on NBC (at 3 p.m. ET). You can also stream the action live here.

MORE:
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

Jets give Golden Knights bitter dose of reality in Game 1

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It took three rounds for the Vegas Golden Knights to trail in a series. It only took one period for the Winnipeg Jets to score as many goals (three) as the Los Angeles Kings did against Vegas in four games.

In case the previous paragraph didn’t make things clear enough, the Jets took off early in Game 1 of the 2018 Western Conference Final, generating a 3-1 lead through 20 minutes. The outcome was never really in doubt from that point on as the Jets took a 1-0 series lead via a convincing 4-2 win.

[PHT’s Three Stars for Game 1]

Marc-Andre Fleury made some difficult saves in Game 1, but the Jets ultimately got to him, especially early on. Things seemed like they might spiral out of control, particularly when a 3-0 tally survived an arduous review process.

There was some rough stuff on Saturday, with Ryan Reaves sending Jets captain Blake Wheeler into Vegas’ bench and James Neal shaking up Toby Enstrom with a hit that angered plenty of Winnipeg fans. As of this moment, Enstrom appears to be OK:

The Golden Knights enjoyed a lengthy layoff after dispatching the Sharks in six games, while the Jets were forced to play a Game 7 against the Nashville Predators on Thursday. If Winnipeg is more fatigued, it certainly didn’t show early on in this one.

Vegas, meanwhile, has to hope that it shook off the rust, not unlike how the Tampa Bay Lightning must be hoping/feeling after falling to the Washington Capitals in their Game 1.

There were times when the Golden Knights seemed a little over their heads, arguably for the first real time during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Maybe Vegas was eventually able to get it together and gain some confidence heading into Game 2? Some of the underlying numbers provide some fuel for optimism:

On the other hand, similar metrics showed that the Jets were able to really slow down the Golden Knights when they wanted to clog things up. It’s not the greatest sign for Vegas to only muster 20 shots on goal despite trailing by at least two goals most of the match (Patrik Laine made it 2-0 just 6:49 into Game 1).

It’s ultimately just one game. The Golden Knights faced some pushback after rattling the Sharks with a 7-0 drubbing in Game 1 of that series, while the Lightning and Capitals won their second-round series despite losing Game 1.

Fleury will need to bounce back, and the Golden Knights must put more pressure on Connor Hellebuyck. Gerard Gallant will need to ask himself if Vegas should slow things down, much like the Predators did during their more successful moments against the Jets. That wouldn’t be an easy choice, as the Golden Knights got this far by playing a very “free,” aggressive style not normally seen from teams believed to be underdogs.

Throwing away your blueprint after a Game 1 loss would almost certainly be foolish. On the the hand, Gallant must at least monitor the situation to ponder adjustments. He doesn’t want to make changes too late, after all.

Simply put, the Jets were one of the best teams in the NHL for a reason. Winnipeg boasts high-level scorers (and quite a few of them), a fantastic group of defensemen, and a goalie who’s rarely giving up shaky goals. That’s a tough challenge for any team, so we’ll see if the Golden Knights can defy their biggest odds yet.

(Game 2 airs on NBCSN at 8 p.m. ET on Monday. Here’s the livestream link.)

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• PHT 2018 Conference Finals Roundtable
• PHT predicts NHL’s Conference Finals
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

The Buzzer: Capitals, Predators even their respective series

Sunday’s results

Washington Capitals 4, Pittsburgh Penguins 1 (series tied 1-1): The Capitals built up another lead on Sunday, but this time they didn’t let it go, tying up the Eastern Conference Second Round series in impressive fashion, although not without controversy. Washington got off to a fast start again with Alex Ovechkin scoring 1:26 in. From there, the Caps built up a 3-0 lead before Kris Letang pulled one back. Washington would add the empty netter to tie up the best-of-7 series. Lars Ellers had three assists in the game. Braden Holtby made 32 saves for the win.

Nashville Predators 5, Winnipeg Jets 4 (2OT — series tied 1-1): A thriller from beginning to end, including three regulation periods and 25:45 of overtime. Frantic action back and forth and a double-overtime winner from Kevin Fiala that sent Nashville into the stratosphere. The game had it all and the Predators avoided having to head to Winnipeg down 2-0 in the series. Ryan Johansen scored a pair, as did Mark Scheifele, and the latter has four goals in two games in the series. Nashville needed the line of Fiala, Kyle Turris and Craig Smith to show up in the series, and they left their mark on the game-winner.

Three stars

Braden Holtby, Capitals: Holtby had a solid bounce-back game, making 32 saves as the Capitals evened their series with the Penguins in a tidy 4-1 win. Holtby simply needs to be great if they want to beat the two-time defending Stanley Cup champs, and he was certainly that and more on Sunday afternoon.

Ryan Johansen, Predators: Call the Game 2 a must-win and then scored 27 seconds into the game for a quick lead. In the third period, he dipsy-doodled around Toby Enstrom to put the Predators up 4-3.

Mark Scheifele, Jets: Scheifele, like Johansen, scored twice in the game, including a massive goal with 65 seconds left in the third period to force overtime. Scheifele has four goals over the first two games of the series.

Highlights of the Night

Kevin Fiala’s beauty game-winner in double overtime:

Johansen did Toby Enstrom dirty on this one:

Here’s Dustin Byfuglien ragdolling two grown men with ease:

Matt Murray didn’t get the win, but he did get this save:

World class release:

Factoids of the Night

Monday’s action

Boston Bruins vs. Tampa Bay Lightning (NBCSN) — Bruins lead series 1-0

Vegas Golden Knights vs. San Jose Sharks (NBCSN) — series tied 1-1


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck