WINNIPEG — Losing out on re-signing veteran center Paul Stastny is a tough pill to swallow for the Winnipeg Jets. But they aren’t choking on it.
Sure, it will sting for a little while.
Stastny came in and found a nice home nestled in between sniper Patrik Laine and speedster Nikolaj Ehlers. The trio gelled immediately following the trade deadline after the Jets shipped a first rounder and a prospect to the St. Louis Blues for Stastny’s services in their eventual run to the Western Conference Final.
The Jets loved Stastny’s attitude, his leadership and his play from the outset.
And there’s no doubt Stastny made the team better — the Jets were 14-4-1 with him in the lineup. He was also great in Winnipeg’s second-round series against the Nashville Predators, culminating in a three-point game in the Jets 5-1 Game 7 victory,
They liked him so much they performed some roster surgery to try and make him fit, sending Steve Mason’s large contract to the Montreal Canadiens along with forward Joel Armia, who was due for a raise.
They offered him term. Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said he tendered the same three-year contract length the Golden Knights gave Stastny.
And they presented him a team that seemingly has a wide-open window to win a Stanley Cup.
But what the Jets couldn’t match was the $6.5 million valuation Geroge McPhee levied on Stastny.
The Jets were simply priced out and Stastny chose to join a similar situation in terms of contending status for slightly more money than the Jets were able to offer.
Cheveldayoff said the Jets went to the very edge and then crossed it to try and bring Stastny back. The almighty dollar, in its almightiness, ruled the day.
“Hockey is a great game but can be an awful business sometimes,” general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said on Sunday. “We put our best foot forward and maybe even six inches beyond even our best foot to make sure that we would have no regrets if it wasn’t good enough. Because at the end of the day, it was just a reality of what we could or couldn’t do given the good problems that we have in front of us in keeping this solid team together.”
Simply, they fell victim to their own success in developing top-tier talent. It’s not a bad thing, but you can’t always get what you want, a man named Mick Jagger once said.
“We’re at a point in time here where, and I keep going back and talking about when we played in the 2015 playoffs and Mark Scheifele got one assist or something like that in the playoffs, and you see how much of a driver he is right now,” Cheveldayoff said. “You see what the players that were young back then at 21 and are now 25, and you’ve got a good group of 20-, 21-, 22-year-old players that just went through a very rigorous experience in three rounds of the playoffs and they’re going to be better for it.”
The biggest thing for Jets fans to remember is that the team was already good sans Stastny.
When the trade deadline day opened on Feb. 26, the Jets had 37 wins and were sitting in third place overall in the Western Conference. With Stastny — and a little late-season fluttering by the Golden Knights — the Jets moved into second place by the end of the season, four points back of the Predators for the Presidents’ Trophy.
Reality bites sometimes, but it’s not biting the Jets in a hurtful manner.
Despite losing a top-tier second-line center, the Jets’ roster is filled with young, hungry talent. And a lot of that young talent has begun to blossom in such a way that it needs more than careful nurturing to grow.
The Jets need to water their crop with money.
The list this offseason — on that includes Vezina runner-up Connor Hellebuyck, top defensive shutdown duo Josh Morrissey and Jacob Trouba and several other depth guys — is long. And it doesn’t include three other big-ticket items that are on the horizon, including a Laine contract that could touch double digits, rookie goal-scoring leader this past year Kyle Connor and 91-point forward Blake Wheeler, who will be a free agent at the end of the 2018-19 season.
Cheveldayoff has some finagling to do, and Stastny electing to head to Sin City may have been a bit of a blessing in disguise, at least on the ledger.
With July 1 gone with the wind, and Stastny, too, the Jets can now focus their efforts on their hefty RFA contingent and perhaps ramp up the dialogue with Wheeler and Laine.
“When it’s all said and done, you guys are going to look at the salary cap and roster and say, ‘OK, how were they going to do this anyway?” Cheveldayoff said. “Again, we’ve got a good group of guys here and we’ve got lots of work ahead of us on our RFAs. That’s where things pick up on July 2.”
Cheveldayoff said he’s confident his internal stable of talent can fill the void. Perhaps Bryan Little has a bounce-back season. Or maybe Jack Roslovic takes the next step in his development and slides in between the two Scandanavians.
“Obviously when you have good young players it gives opportunities,” Cheveldayoff said. “But at the end of the day, the biggest thing, and I was reminded of the fact even walking over here, Josh Morrissey became Josh Morrissey because of the opportunity that he got and what he earned in training camp. We’re in a real good spot because Josh Morrissey has developed to where he has.
“So, Kristian Vesalainen, Nikolaj Ehlers, you’ve got to have coaches willing to play these guys when they’re young and give them opportunities. Back, several years ago, that’s all we had, that’s all we could do is play those young guys and let them grow and have our lumps with them. Now you’ve got a core of veterans, you’ve got a core of middle-aged kind of veterans, and you’ve got a core of young guys, and they’re all kind of moving in the same direction, and that’s pretty exciting.”