Expansion Draft Preview: Winnipeg Jets

This is one in a continuing series of articles outlining the options available to the Seattle Kraken during the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft. To learn more about the draft, please see our Expansion Draft Primer.

Check out articles like this one for every NHL team on our Expansion Draft Previews page.

Quick: name all the Canadian NHL teams. Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary… Ottawa! And… hold on, I’ll get it…

Admit it, you forget the Winnipeg Jets exist every once in a while too. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, in fact we can hardly be blamed. Seeing the Jets logo on television outside of Manitoba happens once or twice a year, and only if they’re playing one of the marquee teams on a Saturday night. On top of that, they’re a team that rarely garners headlines. And that’s kind of by design.

After the early-season trade drama that saw two disgruntled forwards swap teams, the Jets have largely been quietly going about their business. They sit 3rd in their division, tied with Montreal for the two remaining playoff berths, though whichever team the Jets wind up facing this post-season is going to be difficult. They’ve shown that in their current losing streak, being outscored 21-6 and dropping 5 in a row to potential first-round opponents Edmonton and Toronto.

Newly-acquired center Pierre-Luc Dubois has adapted well to his new surroundings, posting 20 points in 35 games. Prodigal forward Patrik Laine has not fared so well in Columbus, and the Jets’ locker room is a more constructive place following the change. Winnipeg General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff made one depth move at the trade deadline, acquiring rental defenseman Jordie Benn from Vancouver, but otherwise the front office has been quiet.

The Jets win by committee: there are 11 players with at least 20 points on the board this season; first-line center Mark Scheifele has been leading the charge, racking up 19 goals and 36 assists. With Laine gone the closest thing the Jets have to a “superstar” is goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, though his 21-16-3 record and .912 save percentage are a far cry from the performance that won him the Vezina Trophy in 2019-20.

The Jets are a work-a-day team; a collection of role players that fit well into head coach Paul Maurice’s system, and that makes identifying suitable candidates for selection in the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft a difficult task. Let’s take a look at the choices.

Protected List

Cheveldayoff is another GM who has done a masterful job at roster management in preparation for the expansion draft. The Jets’ exempt players have not cracked the lineup for more than a handful of games this season, and “Chevy” has filled holes in the lineup with a squadron of unrestricted free agents — minimizing his exposure when the Seattle Kraken come calling in July. There is little chance that the Jets will use the 8-and-1 protection scheme, so on the assumption that they are using the 7-3-1 we project the following players will be protected.

Forwards: Blake Wheeler (NMC), Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers, Pierre-Luc DuBois, Adam Lowry, Andrew Copp

Defensemen: Joshua Morrissey, Neal Pionk, Logan Stanley

Goaltender: Connor Hellebuyck

A couple of notes about the list above. Among the forwards, the one with the potential to lose his protection slot is Adam Lowry, but that seems unlikely due to his 5-year, cap-friendly contract. With the defensemen there is more of a debate, and it’s 6-to-5 and pick ’em that the Jets opt to protect Dylan DeMelo instead of Logan Stanley. In protecting Stanley we believe the Jets will favor youth and cost over experience, and Stanley would be an instant and little-debated selection for Seattle — standing 6’7″ and leading all Jets defensemen in plus-minus.

The following players will become unrestricted free agents at the end of this season, and as such are unlikely to be either protected or selected: forwards Paul Stastny, Matthieu Perreault, Nate Thompson, and Trevor Lewis; defensemen Jordie Benn, Derek Forbort, and Tucker Poolman; and backup goaltenders Laurent Brossoit and Eric Comrie.

As we mentioned, there are no regular roster players who are exempt from the draft. The only other question mark is the situation with center Bryan Little, still signed for another 3 years, but out of the lineup since November of 2019 following a gruesome injury where he took a puck to the ear. His future in the NHL is in doubt, and we expect him to receive a career-threatening injury exemption in advance of the draft.

Who’s Left?

Two forwards and three defensemen are on offer from the Jets’ lineup, plus a young netminder that might pique Seattle’s interest.

RW Mason Appleton, $900,000 AAV, signed through 2022. Appleton has proved his versatility, filling in for the injured Nik Ehlers on the top line the last few games. He has little to show for the effort, 0 points and a plus-1 rating while notching 2 penalty minutes. And that’s kind of indicative of Appleton’s career so far: rather un-noteworthy in most respects. He’s a serviceable bottom-six forward, but not much more.

LW Jansen Harkins, $725,000 AAV, signed through 2022. It’s hard to get a picture of what Harkins will eventually morph into. He’s a hard-nosed, blue-collar forward with a hard-to-play-against label. He racked up 82 points in 156 games with the AHL Manitoba Moose, accumulating 88 penalty minutes in the process. He has decent speed, is a reasonable passer, but he just hasn’t yet shown a particular strength in any department in the NHL. Hard to select a guy when he’s such a question mark.

RD Dylan DeMelo, $3 million AAV, signed through 2024. Right-shot defensemen are a hot commodity, though DeMelo’s strengths are not offensive. The 6’1″, 195 lb. defender plays a stay-at-home style, but has a sensational instincts on the transition — often breaking teammates up-ice with tape-to-tape stretch passes of 100 feet or more. He is a regular on the Jets’ penalty kill and blocks an above-average number of shots. DeMelo is a solid middle-pairing blueliner, and budget-friendly at that position for another 3 years.

LD Nathan Beaulieu, $1.25 million AAV, signed through 2022. A former first-round pick by the Montreal Canadiens, Beaulieu had his best years with the Habs before being moved to Buffalo. He has two injury-riddled seasons in the books with Winnipeg, and is now out for the year following shoulder surgery.

RD Sami Niku, $725,000 AAV, signed through 2022. Still a work in progress, Niku has potential that may still be untapped. In his only full season with the Moose, he posted 54 points and a plus-17 in 76 games. The last two seasons have been split between the Jets and their minor league affiliate, and the Jets have him in a bottom-pairing, shut-down role. When left to his puck-moving instincts the Finland native has good vision and a sneaky wrist shot that can find the twine even from long distance.

G Mikhail Berdin, $758,000 AAV, signed through 2023. Berdin has been the go-to backstop for the AHL Moose for the past 3 seasons. He’s a pincushion down there, regularly fending off 40+ shots a night, and doing an admirable job — 89 games, 2.69 GAA, .912 save percentage. He doesn’t appear to have any glaring issues in his play, though admittedly the video I have on him is limited and out of date. The Kraken scouts will have a better idea of what his future could hold, and if the skaters we outlined aren’t to their liking, perhaps Berdin is an option they would consider.

One Deal Down

During the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft the Winnipeg Jets cut a deal with the Golden Knights. The two teams exchanged 1st-round picks, and Winnipeg sent over a 3rd-round pick, and in exchange (not Las) Vegas selected pending unrestricted free agent Chris Thorburn — who then signed with St. Louis and never put on a Golden Knights jersey.

Given that Cheveldayoff was willing to cut a deal with (not Las) Vegas, it’s not impossible to believe that he would be willing to do the same thing with Seattle. However, Ron Francis has made it clear that the price has gone up, and the Jets have a lot less to lose having had several years to get their house in order. Handing over a 1st-round pick plus another asset just to protect Mason Appleton doesn’t seem reasonable.

In the end I expect that Dylan DeMelo will get the longest look from the Kraken, with Niku the possible alternative. DeMelo is a known commodity with a proven track record, and in the flat-cap universe it’s hard to ignore such options, even if they’re hot highlight-reel regulars. If money is an issue, a shorter and cheaper contract with Niku might be to Seattle’s liking.

With Winnipeg being the smallest hockey market in Canada, they rarely get any TV exposure in the U.S. We wish we could offer you the chance to see the Jets in the coming days, but without the NHL subscription packages I’m afraid we’re out of luck. Hopefully they will make the post-season and give Kraken fans more of a chance to scout the Jets’ roster before the expansion draft gets underway.

Author: Tim Currell

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