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Jets’ turbulent offseason capped with injuries to Little, Beaulieu

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Few teams come into the very beginning of the 2019-20 season quite as bruised and bewildered as the Winnipeg Jets.

After a tough end to last season that included a Round 1 exit, the Jets absorbed body blows that were more than just flesh wounds during the offseason. They waved goodbye to some key players from rental Kevin Hayes to defensive mainstays including Jacob Trouba and Tyler Myers. Things were bumpy, to say the least, with Patrik Laine, from ambivalent comments about his future, not-so-kind comments about linemates such as Bryan Little, and finally a very short-term truce with the team via a two-year deal. There was also uncertainty with Kyle Connor until he signed a lengthy pact. If that wasn’t all enough, Dustin Byfuglien is contemplating retirement, and didn’t exactly give the Jets a ton of notice about what’s either a soul-searching sojourn or the end of a truly unique NHL career.

After all the corny (yet inevitable) “day off” jokes that once followed GM Kevin Cheveldayoff, one couldn’t blame the executive if he felt both relieved and exhausted as the season merely begins.

Unfortunately, the hits kept coming in the final days of an offseason that rarely felt like time off.

The Jets provided two unfortunate bits of injury news on Tuesday, as the team announced that Little is out indefinitely with a concussion, while defenseman Nathan Beaulieu is IR-bound with an upper-body injury that’s expected to sideline him for about four weeks. Both injuries happened during what ended up being a very costly 4-1 preseason win against the Minnesota Wild.

(This Luke Kunin hit injured Little, and Scott Billeck reports for the Winnipeg Sun that head coach Paul Maurice was understandably unhappy about it.)

All of these injuries, free agent losses, and Byfuglien-sized curveballs create some massive craters in the Jets’ lineup, which is troubling since Winnipeg looked so wobbly at times last season, even with the likes of Trouba in the mix. Money Puck’s month-to-month expected goals chart presented their plummeting play in a dramatic way:

Some of those months were without Byfuglien, but again, with Trouba. Taking Ben Chiarot and Beaulieu out of an already troubled group slices up that defense even more.

Meanwhile, the Little injury stacks the deck against Maurice and the Jets, too.

The team shared line rushes that would include Andrew Copp as a second-line center, with Adam Lowry possibly as the 3C.

That doesn’t inspire the highest level of confidence, although maybe this is a time where Maurice should be more willing to experiment. While this would be out of necessity, you never know when you might find different things that work, possibly giving you a Plan B (to Z!) for when matchups become tougher during playoff skirmishes.

What if Jack Roslovic could thrive in a 2C or 3C role? Is it possible that breaking up Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele could benefit the likes of Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers? Considering his traditionally impressive possession stats, would Mathieu Perreault be worth a look at one of those center spots, too?

It’s possible that none of those alignments would be optimal, but you don’t need to look too hard to see that these aren’t the most optimal times for the Jets.

Again, though, sometimes bigger challenges bring out the best in players. In the past, it might have felt like the Jets had a luxurious surplus of talent, maybe allowing some to believe – consciously or subconsciously – that they could “flip the switch” and turn things around, even with red flags waving.

Under the current circumstances, they’re going to depend on not just Scheifele and Wheeler, but also Laine, Ehlers, Josh Morrissey, and Connor Hellebuyck. Without pressure, you can’t get diamonds, and so maybe that thought will serve as the Jets’ silver lining.

Because, frankly, there are some uncomfortable forces bearing down on them as the season begins.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

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