Tucker Poolman

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Jets shut down Penguins despite makeshift defense

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PITTSBURGH — Thanks to trades, free agency departures, an injury, and some recent personal matters, the Winnipeg Jets’ defense has been completely decimated over the past six months, leaving them with a makeshift unit for their game in Pittsburgh on Tuesday night against the Penguins.

None of their top-eight defenders in ice-time from a year ago were available on Tuesday, and the unit as a whole had just 350 total games of NHL experience. You would be forgiven if you did not give them much of a chance to win with that lineup, especially after giving up a goal to Sidney Crosby just 32 seconds into the first period.

They not only won, they completely shut down the Penguins and received three goals from their makeshift blue line on their way to an impressive 4-1 win to wrap up their season-opening four-game road trip.

“Those guys have worked really hard back there, they are learning every shift,” said Jets coach Paul Maurice. “I think the forwards did a nice job too, and what our forwards do well is cause enough concern deep in the offensive zone that they draw people off our back end, and that’s what happened on a number of those goals.”

The defense started making an impact just five minutes after Crosby’s goal when 18-year-old rookie Ville Heinola blasted a slap shot between Matt Murray‘s arm and body that trickled into the back of the net for his first NHL goal. Maurice was asked if a first career goal from a young player can help lift a bench send some positive energy around the lineup.

“It depends if they like the kid or not,” he said. “And they really like this guy. He has a big smile on his face, he works really hard, and the players always respect talent. He does so many good little things that the guys on the ice appreciate.”

Heinola played 17:24 in the win, finishing as a plus-three along with the goal. With Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot gone and Dustin Byfuglien‘s future unsettled, the Jets are going to have to lean on young defenders like Heinola and Neal Pionk to take on significant roles right from the start.

Pionk also scored a goal in the win, already his second with the team after coming over from the New York Rangers in the Trouba trade.

“It feels good,” said Pionk. “We have a younger D corps, but they are all here for a reason. We are all here for a reason. We have proved it at other levels. If play our system we are going to be alright.”

Given all of the issues and questions the Jets have had on their blue line, they still managed to wrap up their four-game road trip to open the season with two wins, and that is just fine with Maurice.

“I’m happy with it, missing the guys we have. Then they feel good, like the defense have done something to make that happen. They have played a big part in that. You play .500 on the road and win your home games you are a good team.”

The Jets open their home schedule on Thursday against the Minnesota Wild.

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Jets’ defense takes yet another blow ahead of game vs. Penguins

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When the Winnipeg Jets had their 2018-19 season end this past April, their defense was made up of the following players: Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, Josh Morrissey, Tyler Myers, Ben Chiarot, and Dmitry Kulikov. Not a great group by any means, but a formidable one that was good enough to help make the Jets a playoff team.

How many of those players will be in the lineup for them on Tuesday night when they visit the Pittsburgh Penguins?

Zero.

None of them.

Due to a series of roster moves and unfortunate circumstances the entire defense the team used a year ago is not available as the team prepares to open its current four-game road trip.

Trouba, Myers, and Chiarot all left the team over the summer (Trouba was traded to the Rangers; Myers and Chiarot departed in free agency), while Byfuglien stepped away just before the start of training camp to reportedly consider his future in the NHL.

All of that alone was enough to decimate their blue line.

The departures continued on Tuesday when the Jets announced that Kulikov has been given a personal leave from the team.

Morrissey, meanwhile, suffered an injury during warmups before the team’s most recent game against the New York Islanders and was held out of Sunday’s game. After practicing on Monday, coach Paul Maurice announced on Tuesday that the team is going to hold Morrissey out for at least another game (Tuesday in Pittsburgh) as a precaution.

This all means the Jets’ defense on Tuesday is going to include Sami Niku, Carl Dahlstrom, Neal Pionk, Ville Heinola, Anthony Bitetto and Tucker Poolman.

Combined NHL games for those six players: 350.

Heinola, 18, was the team’s first-round draft pick this past season and has played just three games so far, while Dahlstrom was claimed on waivers a week ago from the Chicago Blackhawks. Pionk is the “experienced” member of that group and was acquired over the summer from the Rangers in the Trouba trade. Calling that group a “makeshift defense” would be a monumental understatement.

Even though they are facing a Penguins team that is without two of its top three centers (Evgeni Malkin and Nick Bjugstad) it is still a dangerous team offensively with the Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel occupying the top line.

The Jets’ defense was always going to be a massive question mark this season, and it just seems to keep finding ways to get even more shorthanded. Starting goalie Connor Hellebuyck is going to need to play the best hockey of his career to keep this thing together.

MORE:
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

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

Winnipeg’s Paul Stastny problem

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WINNIPEG — The Winnipeg Jets have quite the conundrum on their hands.

It’s nothing earth-shattering. It’s one of those problems you can file on the good-headache-to-have category, but it’s still something that needs to be addressed, one way or another.

The man central to the issue is center Paul Stastny

He’s the guy no one knew was coming to Winnipeg at the trade deadline until Kevin Cheveldayoff shipped a first rounder and a prospect to the St. Louis Blues to get, shortly after Blues general manager Doug Armstrong dangled Stastny in front of the playoff-charging Jets.

Everything clicked as soon as Stastny donned the Jets sweater in late February. The son of Hall of Famer Peter meshed immediately with superstar sniper Patrik Laine and the dancing Dane, Nikolaj Ehlers — two pillars of Winnipeg’s seemingly bright future.

Stastny slid perfectly in between the duo, providing a center that could play with the two gifted wingers. Stastny knew his role and played it well: feed the men on either side of him.

Laine and Ehlers gushed about Stastny, providing joy to the team and to fans alike.

The deal of the trade deadline was so satisfying that Jets are working hard to find a way to keep the goods for good.

And therein lies the problem.

How does a team with such a bevy of talent that needs to get paid to afford a player that’s tough to fit on the ledger?

CapFriendly will show that the Jets are currently at roughly $54.5 million when it comes to the salary cap. We know the cap will increase to $79.5 million this season, meaning the Jets have some $25 million to play with (and actually less when you consider they could have around $4 million in entry-level contract bonuses to pay out.)

To someone unaware of what the Jets are facing, it looks easy to fit Stastny in. But the Jets have 16 total restricted free agents, nine of which were on the team for most of the year and seven more in the minors.

And not all of them are low-priced restricted free agents either.

Connor Hellebuyck set several records on his way to being voted as the runner-up to Pekka Rinne for the Vezina Trophy.

Winnipeg’s top pairing on defense in Josh Morrissey and Jacob Trouba need money, too. They’re one of the best shutdown duos in the league. Trouba is looking long-term and for big money, while Cheveldayoff may be able to get Morrissey to sign a bridge. Either way, the money needs to be spent.

The Jets then need to lock up third-line center Adam Lowry, wingers Joel Armia and Brandon Tanev and defenseman Tucker Poolman and Joe Morrow while also figuring out what to do with Marko Dano and several aforementioned minor leaguers (who only count if they play in the Show.)

[On Paul Stastny and his impact with the Jets]

That $25 million goes quick, and the Jets will have Kyle Connor, who led all rookies with 31 goals, versatile forward Jack Roslovic and, of course, Laine to pay coming up as well.

Stastny isn’t looking to play for a pittance, of course, so there are some scenarios that must occur to make this work.

Let’s delve into them.

Trade money away

The best way to make room is to clean out some space.

As we saw this weekend with the Washington Capitals, they needed to move Brooks Orpik’s $5.5 million cap hit to make way for John Carlson’s eight-year, $64 million extension.

There are some options here for the Jets. Names that immediately come to mind are Trouba’s fellow d-man Tyler Myers, who’s cap hit for the Jets is $5.5 million per year, forward Mathieu Perreault at $4.125 million a year and goalie Steve Mason at $4.1 million with one year left on his two-year $8.2 million deal.

Trading Trouba isn’t desirable. He’s far too valuable an asset, but the Jets also have a kid named Sami Niku, who captured the American Hockey League’s best defenseman award in his rookie season, looking to earn a roster spot this season. If Trouba’s demands are too high, it might become the best option, but likely not until the 2019-20 season.

Myers is getting a lot for a third-pairing defenseman, but Jets head coach loves himself some Myers. Myers will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of next season, however, and the Jets won’t be able to afford him at his current price point then regardless. Moving Myers would be an option that makes the most sense if there’s a market for him. He’s a big man capable of playing a lot of minutes, and there are teams that need that, so it’s surely a possibility if the Jets are willing to explore it.

That said, and as already mentioned, Maurice likes Myers and uses him a lot on the penalty kill, on the second power-play unit and Maurice has already chatted with Myers, a right-hand shot, moving to the left side this season to perhaps play with Dustin Byfuglien with Toby Enstrom departing as a free agent.

It’s unlikely a team will want to risk paying Mason after his injury-plagued season. And trading Perreault, who can play anywhere in the lineup and make any linemates better, shouldn’t make sense from an organizational standpoint. He’s too valuable, even if he’s a little overpaid.

Wizardry on the balance sheet

Figuring this out seems a futile endeavor.

There are a lot of unknowns with the RFAs right now. At this point, the Jets have just seven players signed to contracts past next season.

If Cheveldayoff could just get every player he possesses to sign Mark Scheifele-type deals, the Jets would have a better team than they already do. But that’s just not the case.

Sure, Morrissey may take a bridge. Lowry might, too. But Trouba likely won’t, and even if he heads to arbitration, will make more than the $3 million he’s commanding on his current bridge contract.

Hellebuyck needs to be paid like the elite level goalie he is.

It’s tight, to say the least.

Sign Stastny short-term

Hockey Analytics guru Matt Cane’s prediction of Stastny’s next contract is three years at roughly $5.4 million annually.

The problem for the Jets isn’t the 2018-19 season, it’s the one after.

With Winnipeg’s biggest contract — Laine — still a year away from kicking in, and with the shedding of other contracts at the end of next season — Myers’ $5.5 million, potentially Blake Wheeler’s $5.6 million and Mason’s $4.1 million — the Jets could give Stastny a home for a reasonable price on a deal that would make sense for all parties.

Wheeler is going to want a big raise after his 91-point season, but he’ll be 33 after next season and may price himself out of Winnipeg.

But if Wheeler stays, it’s not crazy to think that Wheeler, Laine and Connor could make well over $20 million combined beginning in the 2019-20 season.

Breakup and remain friends

As good as the fling was between Stastny and the Jets, getting him signed might just not make sense in the end.

Laine needs a center. So does Ehlers. Roslovic could grow into that role. The Jets were a better team with Stastny, but have young players become a year older and better by the same token.

It was good while it lasted, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out.

Long story short

Much of this is guesswork. We look at the cap, we look at the players and we try to figure out what makes the most sense.

Simply, if Stastny wants to stay in Winnipeg, he needs to take less money and less term.

The benefit of him being in Winnipeg is he gets to play next to Laine and on a team that appears to have a solid window that’s open for a few runs at the Stanley Cup.

If he wants long-term security, he will look elsewhere. There will be no shortage of suitors willing to pay more, and for longer, for a productive center.

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