Life in the Central Division isn’t easy. It was statistically the most difficult grouping to navigate through a year ago, and it might actually be tougher this time around. That could be a big problem for the Winnipeg Jets. If that proves to be the case, the ramifications could be felt throughout the entire league.
Paul Maurice’s squad made the playoffs last year for the first time since landing in Manitoba, and looked pretty good doing it. They used a potent combination of exciting young players and somewhat surprisingly strong goaltending to get there, before being ushered out of the first round by Anaheim. The Ducks were red-hot at the time and, while the Jets actually led at some point in every game of the series, they were summarily dismissed in just four games.
Regardless, the thought was that better times were ahead for Winnipeg. And, to be fair, they still might be. Basic logic dictates that a young team — in theory, at least — should only improve with more experience. Especially considering the fact that they really didn’t lose any irreplaceable pieces over the summer. And adding highly touted prospect Nikolaj Ehlers to the mix, then reacquiring former first-rounder (No. 8 overall in 2010) Alex Burmistrov from the KHL, only increased the intrigue.
The Jets started off this season on a tear, going 7-3-1 in October. But they’ve evaporated in November, managing just two wins in nine tries. Teams go through slumps — particularly young ones — so that’s not exactly unexpected. But it may be unacceptable in this case, simply because of the division they’re in and the potentially difficult questions it could raise in a few months.
At most, five playoff teams can come from the Central. That assumes nobody from the Pacific snags a wild card spot and, even in that scenario, two clubs from Winnipeg’s division would miss the postseason entirely. Barring a couple injuries that force key players to sit for large chunks of time, it’s pretty tough to envision Chicago or St. Louis falling short. And, considering they currently have the best record in hockey, it seems a little shaky to expect the Dallas Stars to miss out either. Suddenly, Winnipeg is competing with Minnesota, Nashville and Colorado for two spots. At best.
It should be noted that the Predators have looked fantastic so far this season, and the Wild aren’t far behind them. In other words, there’s very little margin for error for the Jets. And that’s putting it nicely. Honestly, they probably just used up whatever buffer zone they may have had. They need to win now.
So why exactly does that impact anyone other than Winnipeg? Because the Jets have two pretty important players that are in line to become unrestricted free agents in the summer. Andrew Ladd is the team captain, and routinely at the very top of the club’s stat sheet. And Dustin Byfuglien is a game-changing matchup nightmare on the blue line.
Both players could play pivotal roles for a contender and, again, both are currently unsigned beyond this season. On the one hand, the club can ill-afford to part ways with either of them. This is a small market team with a wealth of young players on the way up — they need some talented, established vets as a foundation to build around. If they can’t get deals done with both before the trade deadline on March 2, however, they may need to explore the possibility of moving one or both.
Yes, it would be tough to explain to the fan base that they were shipping either of them out of town. But it would be downright devastating to simply lose one or both to free agency and get absolutely nothing in return.
To that end, it’s entirely possible that Ladd — a savvy, if somewhat under-the-radar vet — could be available as teams gear up for the stretch run. Or — perhaps even more enticing, given his unique attributes — a 6-foot-5, 265-pound defenseman could be on the trading block. That D-man also brings the experience of winning a Stanley Cup during his time with the Blackhawks to whatever team might happen to add him as well. Think there might be a market for someone like that?
Of course, it is still relatively early. We’re essentially hitting the quarter mark of the NHL season this weekend. The Jets have time to turn things around, and it’s not like their 9-9-2 record (entering play on Saturday) is bad, by any means. Nor is there any guarantee that they’ll be unable to get Ladd and Byfuglien either signed during the season, or least have negotiations reach a point where they’re comfortable enough with their chances of agreeing to a deal that they’re willing to roll the dice. But it’s not always easy to finalize big contracts in the middle of the year — especially with two different players at the same time.
Obviously, the simplest remedy here is to win. If Winnipeg is firmly entrenched in a playoff spot when March rolls around, there’s no reason to become sellers. But, again, that’s where the strength of this division comes into play. A record that might have the Jets in a comfortable spot in, say, the Atlantic might not be anywhere near good enough in the Central.
If they’re fighting an uphill battle when other clubs — with more young players to deal — come looking for players just like Ladd and Byfuglien, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and the front office could be facing some tough decisions.