WINNIPEG – If imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery, what can the Winnipeg Jets learn from the four teams left standing in the Stanley Cup playoffs when it comes to rebuilding their defence corps?
With free agency set to open in one month, restocking the blue line is at the top of the priority list for Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, and you can be sure meetings with his pro scouts have helped create a wish list, complete with a plan for the pursuit.
But before diving into the prospective candidates, let’s take a quick look at the blue line construction of the Dallas Stars, Vegas Golden Knights, Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Islanders.
Circumstances are obviously different for all four of those franchises – especially the Golden Knights, who are only three years removed from an expansion draft and are just starting to see the fruits of their draft labour.
The Golden Knights’ top pairing of Shea Theodore and Alec Martinez were acquired via trade, Theodore in an expansion side deal the Anaheim Ducks surely regret, and Martinez prior to the 2020 trade deadline from the rebuilding Los Angeles Kings.
Nate Schmidt, Brayden McNabb and Jon Merrill were all chosen in the expansion draft, while Nick Holden was signed on July 1 of 2019 and Zach Whitecloud was signed as a college free agent.
Nicolas Hague, the Golden Knights’ second-rounder in 2017, got his first taste of the NHL this season and figures to be a regular next season.
That defence corps would feature another mobile puck-mover in Erik Brannstrom, the Golden Knights’ first-rounder in 2017, but he was the centrepiece of the deal that brought in Mark Stone from the Ottawa Senators at the 2019 trade deadline.
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The Stars’ defence corps has a distinctly homegrown flavour to it, with Miro Heiskanen (third overall in 2017), John Klingberg (fifth round, 2010), Esa Lindell (third round, 2012) and Jamie Oleksiak (14th overall in 2014) all chosen in the draft.
Oleksiak is an interesting study as he was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins in December of 2017 but brought back into the fold in a deal back in January.
With Roman Polak choosing not to return to play, Oleksiak is playing alongside Heiskanen on the top pairing and has grown into the player the Stars envisioned when they selected him in the first round in 2014.
Standing six-foot-seven and considered a late bloomer, there could be some parallels to his career trajectory and that of Jets 2016 first-rounder Logan Stanley, who is still waiting for his first opportunity after spending his first two pro seasons with the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League.
Joel Hanley was signed to a two-way deal as an unrestricted free agent, while Taylor Fedun was acquired in a trade with the Buffalo Sabres.
The Stars’ eighth D-man right now is 2019 first-rounder Thomas Harley, who just completed his third season with the Mississauga Steelheads of the Ontario Hockey League and could be in the mix for a roster spot next season.
The other interesting dynamic with the Stars is that 2014 first-rounder Julius Honka spent this past season playing in Finland after asking for a trade.
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Over in the East, there are two contrasting approaches on display.
The Islanders also have a homegrown feel, with five of their eight blue-liners chosen by the organization – including first-rounders Ryan Pulock (15th overall, 2015) and Noah Dobson (12th overall, 2018).
Scott Mayfield (second round, 2011), Matt Pelech (third round, 2012) and Devon Toews (fourth round, 2014) are all important contributors that came via the draft.
Nick Leddy came aboard in a deal with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2014, then re-upped before testing the UFA market.
Johnny Boychuk brought Stanley Cup-winning experience in a trade with the Boston Bruins and also signed a lucrative extension, while Andy Greene, the long-time New Jersey Devils captain, waived his no-movement clause to join the Islanders at the deadline in 2020.
Meanwhile, the Lightning have taken a radically different approach to the three teams mentioned previously.
The only homegrown D-men on the roster right now is Victor Hedman, a perennial Norris Trophy candidate (and 2018 winner) who was chosen second overall in 2009.
The Lightning boast three other first-rounders on the blue line – Mikhail Sergachev (2013, ninth overall by the Montreal Canadiens), Zach Bogosian (2008, third overall by the Atlanta Thrashers) and Braydon Coburn (2003, 8th overall, Thrashers) – but they were acquired via trade or free agency.
Bogosian has spent plenty of time on the top pairing after being placed on unconditional waivers by the Buffalo Sabres in February.
Ryan McDonagh was acquired in a blockbuster deal with the Rangers and signed an extension, while Eric Cernak was involved in a deal with the Los Angeles Kings.
Kevin Shattenkirk was a value free agent signing after having his contract bought out by the Rangers, Luke Schenn was inked as a free agent on July 1 of 2019 as a depth signing while Jan Rutta was acquired from the Blackhawks in January of 2019.
Although Rutta has yet to appear in a playoff game in 2020, he spent a good chunk of the season on a pairing with Hedman.
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Which brings us back to the Jets, whose defence corps was overhauled last season after the departure of Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot in free agency, Jacob Trouba in a trade and the unexpected departure of Dustin Byfuglien.
As you can see above, this is not a one-size-fits-all situation for Cheveldayoff and company.
The only blue-liners under contract for next season are Josh Morrissey, Neal Pionk, Tucker Poolman and Carl Dahlstrom, which means there are going to be some holes to fill even if some of the unrestricted free agents are brought back.
Trade deadline acquisition Dylan DeMelo made a strong contribution in a short period of time and is a natural fit to return to the Jets, but he’s about to be a UFA for the first time in his career and could be motivated to find out his value on the open market.
Although both Cheveldayoff and Jets head coach Paul Maurice downplayed the inquisition, you can expect the organization to try and bring in a player or two that adds size to the back end in addition to skill.
This is not to suggest a one-dimensional bruiser or heavyweight will land on the roster, but blending a bit more muscle to the skill in the system would be a wise move.
Dylan Samberg would help in that regard if he shows he’s ready to make the jump from the college ranks.
He brings a physical dimension and it will be interesting to see if he forces his way onto a pairing with Poolman or if he shows he can handle even more than that.
Ville Heinola, the 2019 first-rounder who was part of the deal for Trouba, will be another interesting study, as will pending restricted free agent Sami Niku – who could either work his way into the mix or be involved in an off-season deal.
Nathan Beaulieu, Luca Sbisa and Anthony Bitetto are all well-liked, high-character guys who would be under consideration to return but it’s hard to see room for more than one of them at this point.
What approach will the Jets take to their off-season upgrades?
Will it be more conservative or will Cheveldayoff swing for the fences?
I made a case for the Jets to take a run at landing St. Louis Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo, but that’s going to record big dollars, even if he’s willing to take a shorter-term deal in an unpredictable marketplace that includes a flat salary cap.
With that in mind, here’s a closer look at who else could be on the Jets’ radar either in free agency or trade and how they could fit.
As mentioned in Vol. 2 of the Jets mailbag last month, Boston Bruins blue-liner Torey Krug would help improve the defence corps but plays primarily on the left side and made it clear during his season-ending availability that he’s looking for a long-term deal, so that’s why he’s not included on this list.
That doesn’t rule him out by any means, it just means it’s unlikely the two sides will find a fit – unless Krug changes his opinion or the marketplace changes.
Here we go:
Josh Manson, Anaheim Ducks
Contract status: $4.1 million AAV for two more seasons
The skinny: He’s an alternate captain and valued leader for the rebuilding Ducks, but unless the two sides see an extension on the horizon, he could be a candidate to be moved for the right price. Manson has a modified no-trade clause, but he’s from the Prairies and his father Dave played for the 1.0 version of the Jets, so perhaps he could be convinced. Given his size and mobility, he’d be a perfect fit on the shutdown pairing with Morrissey. He’s not expected to return to the career-high 34 points he produced in 2017-18, but he would definitely bring some bite to the back end and would bolster the leadership group as well.
Brenden Dillon, Washington Capitals
Contract status: Pending UFA, AAV of $3.27 million last season
The skinny: The longtime San Jose Sharks blue-liner was linked to the Jets before they picked up DeMelo and he would check off a lot of boxes when it comes to what they’re looking for. Ideally suited for a shutdown role, Dillon plays a heavy game but moves well for a big man. He’s got 70 games of playoff experience, including a trip to the Stanley Cup final with the Sharks in 2016 and has experience playing in the Central Division from his time with the Dallas Stars. He’s probably looking for a raise but isn’t going to break the bank when you consider the intangibles he brings.
Rasmus Ristolainen, Buffalo Sabres
Age: 25 (26 on Oct. 27)
Contract status: Two more seasons with an AAV of $5.4 million
The skinny: Speaking of players the rumour mill has linked to the Jets in the past, Ristolainen is on that list. Despite his age, the Finnish blue-liner has already accrued seven seasons of NHL experience. While things improved somewhat under the tutelage of head coach Ralph Krueger, there’s a belief Ristolainen could benefit from a change of scenery. Might a GM change (Kevin Adams replacing Jason Botterill) expedite that process? Only time will tell. Although there have been some concerns about his defensive play, Ristolainen has shown an ability to provide offence (42 goals, 185 points in 493 NHL games) and already has four 40-plus point seasons on his resume. He’s also a physical force, contributing 1,162 hits (including three consecutive 200-plus hit seasons) while averaging more than 24 minutes per game. It would take a significant package to pry Ristolainen out of Buffalo, but perhaps the two organizations are ready to tackle another blockbuster.
T.J. Brodie, Calgary Flames
Contract status: Pending UFA, AAV of $4.65 million last season
The skinny: You could make the argument that Brodie was the Flames’ most consistent D-man against the Jets and Stars during the post-season. While he doesn’t play an overly physical game, he brings size and is an excellent defender, thanks to his positioning and hockey sense. His production dipped to four goals and 19 points in 61 games last season, but he had six consecutive 30-plus point campaigns prior to that (including a career-best 45 points in 2015-16). He could also help the Jets improve their penalty kill. Brodie prefers playing on the right side (his off side) and would also make a good partner for Morrissey.
Travis Hamonic, Calgary Flames
Contract status: pending UFA, AAV of $3.86 million last season
The skinny: The Manitoba product just finished a seven-year contract and was one of several NHL players to opt out of the return-to-play plan, citing family reasons. He was limited to 50 games last season, but still averaged more than 21 minutes per game, playing regularly on a pairing with Noah Hanifin. Hamonic plays with an edge and was an effective penalty killer and shot-blocker. Starting the next chapter in his home province makes sense for Hamonic on a number of levels, as long as the two sides can find a term and dollar value that makes sense.