When the dust settled on Monday after the clock struck 2 p.m. and the NHL trade deadline had passed, the Winnipeg Jets finally found out who was coming, who was going and who was staying.
The moment of truth was on the horizon and the sense of relief was definitely palpable.
For a team that had underachieved through the first three-quarters of the season, the Jets were in a precarious position in the Western Conference and that certainly led to some anxiety, especially for those players who routinely found themselves spinning around the rumour mill.
As it turns out, Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff swung a total of six deals and was able to accomplish two goals at once by both buying and selling. Make no mistake, this was a delicate dance and one that was not easy to achieve.
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Whether or not Cheveldayoff did enough to keep his team in the race while planning for the future won’t fully be known until late April.
What we do know is that Cheveldayoff stayed patient with his most coveted asset and turned versatile forward Andrew Copp into a prospect (forward Morgan Barron), two second-round picks (one of which can become a first if the New York Rangers win two rounds and Copp suits up in 50 per cent of the playoff games) and improved his draft capital for 2023 (moving a sixth while receiving a fifth back).
Now, it’s important to remember Copp is a difficult guy to replace, both on and off the ice, as someone who contributes on both the power play and penalty kill and averages nearly 20 minutes a game while showing the versatility to move up and down the lineup and play centre or wing.
By bringing back Mason Appleton and bringing in left-winger Zach Sanford, the Jets provided an opportunity to reshape the identity of the third line, with those players expected to flank Adam Lowry once he exits the NHL’s COVID-19 protocols on Friday to suit up against Patrik Laine and the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Appleton supplies speed, Sanford brings some sandpaper and both guys have the potential to be important complementary pieces when it comes to providing secondary scoring and filling in on the penalty kill.
Sanford also has the experience of capturing the Stanley Cup with the St. Louis Blues in 2019.
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The departure of depth defenceman Nathan Beaulieu to the Pittsburgh Penguins means that once he is back to full health, he won’t be jumping back ahead of any of the Jets’ defence prospects that are already pushing for work behind the regular six.
Being able to offload the final two seasons and change of Bryan Little’s contract was also an important piece of business for the Jets as it helped get them out of some of the salary-cap gymnastics they’ve been forced to deal with.
Achieving that brought with it a cost as well, in forward prospect Nathan Smith, a Hobey Baker finalist in the NCAA after his outstanding season with Minnesota State University Mankato.
Once Smith’s advisor informed the Jets that he had no intention of signing with the organization when his college season was complete, trying to get something in return was essential.
This subject of the deadline would not be complete without discussing the player the Jets didn’t move, veteran forward Paul Stastny — the other pending unrestricted free agent on the roster.
Keeping Stastny in the fold also sent a message that the Jets were not giving up on the current season — even if a remarkable finish will be required to overcome the Dallas Stars in the chase for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
“Yeah, he’s a fantastic guy. A fantastic professional. A veteran, a guy that’s been through that’s pretty much seen it all in his career,” said Jets centre Mark Scheifele.
“Having a guy like him in our room is huge, especially coming down this stretch of tough games and a lot of uncertainty. So having a guy like that that’s experienced a lot, is a guy that young guys, I think, gotta rely on to ask advice and learn from.
“I think to learn from and ask questions to a guy like that, it’s just a free education.”
Intentional or not, Jets interim head coach Dave Lowry actually provided a glimmer of hope that Stastny could be interested in sticking around beyond this season — which could have factored into the decision behind not moving him on Monday.
“(Stastny) is a valuable piece and you are going to have to keep some guys on expiring contracts,” said Lowry.
“The organization felt with Copper that he wasn’t going to come back, so now what you have to do is to find a way to protect your organization, and that’s not the case with (Stastny).”
The future of Stastny and several other core players could ultimately be determined by what happens during the final 18 games of the season.
While it might be an exaggeration to suggest that it’s playoffs or bust for this group, if the Jets don’t find a way to at least stay in the race, let alone squeak in under the wire, the off-season roster reconstruction may require some significant surgery rather than just a minor renovation.
For the time being, it’s time to see how the Jets respond to this late vote of confidence from the general manager.
“There is a good team in that room,” said Jets captain Blake Wheeler. “Hopefully we can stay competitive and stay in the fight, stay within striking distance so these last handful of weeks anything can happen.”
Ken Wiebe covers the Winnipeg Jets for Sportsnet.ca and is a regular contributor to CJOB.
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