Why the Winnipeg Jets shouldn’t and aren’t rebuilding

Winnipeg Jets (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Winnipeg Jets (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

The Winnipeg Jets should not embark on a rebuild.

I understand fans’ frustration with the team, and the notion that this roster is not good enough to win a Cup.

I can also reason with the fact that this team peaked in 2018, wasted a great opportunity in 2019, and hasn’t really ever recovered from the Great Defensemen Exodus of 2019, when both Dustin Byfuglien and Jacob Trouba left the summer having played their last games in Winnipeg.

And though I tend to live on the optimistic side of the fence (especially in September), this team profiles as a bubble playoff team – one that will either finish 3rd in the Central or as low as 10th or 11th in the Conference. The range of possibilities is seemingly wide, and few people would see winning the Division as an option within that range.

So we have a bubble playoff team with a core that peaked five years ago. And a retooled defensive group that is acceptable, but few would rave about.

Why shouldn’t Winnipeg rebuild?

Rebuilds are brutal, long term experiences that last 1500 days

Rebuilds are the latest craze in the salary cap world (especially in online comment sections), and there is solid reasoning behind it. Most elite talent is found within the top three or five picks in the draft, and meaningful free agents do not change teams very often in this league. In Winnipeg, that reality is even more stark.

But in my eyes, clamoring for a full teardown just because a few key players are at crossroads is a bit much.

The avoidance of a rebuild right now doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be in favor of one in a year or two. But it really depends what the organization does with Mark Scheifele and Connor Hellebuyck.

Elite goalies like Hellebuyck are hard to find. If he’s willing to stay, you sign him. And it keeps that Cup window (however small it is) creaked open just a bit longer. As we’ve seen, a hot goalie (Carey Price in 2021, Jordan Binnington in 2019) can do inexplicable things to a playoff run. Hellebuyck is capable of that.

If it’s Scheifele that stays and Hellebuyck that goes, then the team can enter a more serious interrogation into whether there’s enough here. I’d argue that there likely isn’t, but a core of Scheifele, Kyle Connor, Josh Morrissey, and Nik Ehlers isn’t bad. It’s just not that good.

One could argue that those are the type of players you are trying to accumulate when rebuilding. Others would say that bar is much higher. I’d say the core the Jets have is exactly what you’re trying to find, but is missing that truly elite center or defenseman.

But even getting those in a tank and rebuild is no guarantee, and can result in a lengthy rebuild process and long term pain.

Take the Red Wings, who began their rebuild in 2015. They were cursed by lottery luck, despite being one of the worst teams in the league. They never got a top three pick, and left the rubble of their rebuild with Moritz Seider (6th in 2019) and Lucas Raymond (4th in 2020).

Seider is a stud, no doubt. Raymond looks to be a top line winger, but I’m not sure he becomes an elite or franchise winger. Which is the entire point of being bad in this league.

The Buffalo Sabres, meanwhile, completely gutted their roster in 2014, trying to win the rights to Connor McDavid. They ended up picking second, and acquired Jack Eichel, a worthy consolation prize.

But Eichel didn’t exactly work out over there, and they’ve had more than 35 wins once since 2012, and it was last season. That’s ten years of rebuilding. Rebuilding for a player like Jack Eichel, and then rebuilding all over again once it doesn’t work out with him.

That’s a long time!

Or what about Arizona? Arena and ownership jokes aside, they’ve been rebuilding basically since the Jets were reborn. They haven’t won 40 games since their surprise run in to the Conference Finals in 2012.

They’ve only picked in the top five three times over that span, and emerged with Barret Hayton (5th in 2018), Logan Cooley (3rd in 2022) and Dylan Strome (3rd in 2015). I think Cooley is a total stud, but the point is, they’ve been rebuilding for ten years and found one franchise player over that time in Clayton Keller. Cooley may eventually join him there, but they still need more.

Lastly, I’ll use the Colorado Avalanche to illustrate the volatility of going full rebuild.

The Avalanche embarked on their rebuild in 2009. Over a span of five years, they got Matt Duchene (3rd in 2009), Gabriel Landeskog (2nd in 2011), and Nathan MacKinnon (1st in 2013).

They improved briefly for a few years, and then fell back down to earth. So much so that they ended up with a 4th overall selection in 2017 in order to grab Cale Makar. That’s eight years since selecting Duchene. 2920 days!

Not to mention that they got lucky when they stole Mikko Rantanen at 10th overall in the 2015 draft. And it still took them 13 years after first drafting Duchene in 2009 to get that Cup.

Maybe it’s a bit ironic to say the Jets shouldn’t rebuild while using the Avalanche as an example – given that they eventually won through a rebuild.

But the point is it takes a long time and a lot of pain. There are no guarantees. And sometimes, you draft in the top 5 for a few years, and three years later you realize it wasn’t enough and you have to bottom out again. Not all top fives in a draft class are created equal.

Rebuilding is no exact science, and, in my mind, should be done only when your team clearly has no chance of finding the playoffs, and no players left to build around.

Philadelphia is a perfect example of a team who should rebuild (probably two years ago, if we’re being honest). A core of Travis Konecny, Sean Couturier, Carter Hart, and Travis Sanheim will not cut it.

The Jets are in a much better position than that.

Jets fans should have some faith that when/if it is time to rebuild, they’ll do it right

General manager Kevin Chevyldayoff has long been known to be a patient operator, with an impressive yet frustrating gift of saying a bunch of words without giving any real message.

That’s where part of the frustration and angst comes from for this fan base. No one really knows what the head honcho is thinking at all times. Though he did address that during media availability prior to training camp, and his message was simple.

“We’re trying to win,” he said ahead of camp.

But when that time tear it all down comes – be it one, three, or five years – and as long as Chevyldayoff is still the guy, you can be sure he’ll do it right.

Back in 2011 when this team was reborn, the Winnipeg Jets embarked on a very stubborn and long term draft and development plan. In my opinion they executed that as well as possible; finding true top line talent in the first round but outside of the top 5, meaningful depth beyond the first round (Andrew Copp, Adam Lowry), and hitting a grand slam with Connor Hellebuyck in the 5th round.

Even after Winnipeg surprisingly made the playoffs in 2015 before being defeated by the Anaheim Ducks, Chevyldayoff stayed the course, being disciplined in his free agent signings and leaving a pristine cap sheet for when the team was truly ready.

When the team got younger and graduated more draft picks (Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor), Winnipeg was steady in playing out a “backwards” year, investing in the development of their young, attacking players, and accepting the mistakes and poor defensive play in the name of player development. They missed the playoffs immediately after their 2015 appearance, and another year for that exciting core to improve was all that was needed.

In fact, before 2017, when Chevy and co. deemed Winnipeg ready to take the next step, Chevyldayoff had only signed one free agent ever to a contract worth more than $3 million AAV, which was Olli Jokinen on a two year pact for a $4.5 million AAV way back in 2012.

That was six years of patience for a fan base that was starving for a playoff caliber roster. And rather teased by all of the upcoming and young talent.

But Chevy stayed steady.

Now, unfortunately, once Chevyldayoff did loosen up the purse strings and sign some UFAs, one of them was Steve Mason, who’s two year deal with a $4.1 million cap hit soured almost immediately when he failed to perform and Connor Hellebuyck took the step forward (after a challenging 2016 season) this franchise needed.

He also signed Dmitry Kulikov that same day for 3 years at a $4.33 million AAV, which was never amazing, but decent given the depth the Jets had on defence, the number of young studs playing on ELCs and how clean Winnipeg’s cap sheet was. It made enough sense.

Now, part of that patience could also be attributed to players not lining up around the block to play in Winnipeg. Who knows what offers Chevyldayoff has made that were ultimately declined.

But Winnipeg did their first “rebuild” really, really well.

And I’d bet they could do it again.

Winnipeg has reinforcements coming for the first time in a long time

Winnipeg’s status as a quality draft and development organization has rightly come into question over the last few years, as young players such as Ville Heinola have failed to be given (or earn) reps at the NHL level. Jonathan Kovacevic slipped through the cracks of the waiver wire, Leon Gawanke signed in Germany and then his rights were traded, and based on the logjam on defence currently, Declan Chisholm is currently in danger of a similar fate.

Perhaps 2018 2nd round pick and 4th liner David Gustafsson could be given more of a chance, too.

Of course, countering all of that is Cole Perfetti’s successful integration into the lineup, though his talent level couldn’t be ignored, which isn’t the case with the previous examples.

And that brings us to the Winnipeg Jets’ current prospect pool.

Now, let’s be clear. As it stands, this pool lacks true top of the line potential.

But between our “big four” prospects – Rutger McGroarty, Colby Barlow, Brad Lambert, Chaz Lucius – there is a nice variety of playing styles, and all of those players figure to have top six or middle six potential.

Ville Heinola, Elias Salomonsson, Nikita Chibrikov, Simon Lundmark, and Daniel Zhilkin are also players who could eventually see NHL ice time.

That is all to say that this pool has decent depth and will produce NHL talent. Talent that should make their way into a Jets uniform over the next year or two.

I bring that up because there has been a decided lack of Jets’ prospect graduation of late.

Cole Perfetti, Dylan Samberg, and David Gustafsson are the only recent graduates. Kovacevic is also one, but he graduated to le rouge et bleu of the Habs. Not the blue and blue of the Jets.

You could feel it over the past three or four years, after this team’s forward group went from one of the league’s deepest to a much less impressive version. The fourth line has been poor, if not without impact for a while now, and Adam Lowry’s revolving door of third line wingers has been slowly degrading.

Over the next few years, the Jets should be able to graduate a number of prospects to the NHL ranks, improving competition and depth among the squad.

There are no future stars coming from that group. But deep hockey teams can be good hockey teams, and with time, the Jets overall forward depth could improve.

Or at worst, it should have intriguing talent coming up to replace future depth UFAs such as Nino Niederreiter, Vlad Namestnikov, Alex Iafallo, and Mason Appteton, whose deals all expire in the next year or two.

Team owners and businessmen rarely enjoy planning to reduce revenue

I’ll touch on this briefly, since I’m neither privy to these conversations, nor have any experience running a multi-million dollar enterprise.

But in order for a rebuild to happen, a general manager has to go pitch to the owner that there’s currently not enough talent, there’s not enough incoming elite talent, and there is no hope at all of making the playoffs or doing any damage there.

He then has to tell the owner that trading all marketable and useful talent and dropping revenue for five years is the best course of action. It is likely he will need to do some convincing, too.

Most owners don’t like that plan, and will only embrace it if they see it as truly the only option. Planning to reduce revenue isn’t an action that many business people gravitate towards.

The point is, rebuilding is as much as a business decision as it is a hockey decision. And I doubt Chevyldayoff convinces ownership he should embark on a rebuild while they’re still icing a good hockey team that can make the playoffs.

The Winnipeg Jets cap sheet is extremely flexible

Finally, and the most underrated part of this discussion, is how extremely flexible the Winnipeg Jets salary cap sheet is.

Take a look below:

The breadth of that flexibility will be further determined by what happens with Connor Hellebuyck and Mark Scheifele.

But as it stands, the Jets have just three players and $16.64 million committed two years from now on their theoretical 2025-26 roster: Kyle Connor, Josh Morrissey, and Adam Lowry.

Which is a decent trio to have locked up long term.

It’s that flexibility that allows Jets brass to be flexible and patient with deciding whether to tear things down.

Many times when fans are clamoring for rebuilds, the reason is twofold: they don’t have the correct talent level, and have ill-advised long term contracts for ageing or underperforming players. The team isn’t good enough, and they have no salary cap space to tinker with.

The Vancouver Canucks are a recent example of that, as they’ve been in cap hell for half a decade now despite minimal post-season appearances.

That makes rebuilding solve two problems: you acquire assets for the future, and also create cap space, which can be weaponized for further future assets or intelligently allocated to improve the hockey team.

I’ll listen to, and probably accept that the Jets might not have the correct talent level. But their cap sheet is very good, other than Neal Pionk and Nate Schmidt, whose contracts expire after next season. Given the logjam on defense, it would be great to pawn off Schmidt. But that is probably costing a first rounder or more for a team to chew up $12 million in cap space for the next two years. So that’s not going to happen.

The point is that the Jets are in a great spot to decide their true course of action next offseason.

By then they’ll have clarity on Scheifele and Hellebuyck. Schmidt and Pionk will become pending UFAs and be much easier to move, buyout, or trade as rentals at the deadline. Nik Ehlers, Mason Appleton, and Vladislav Namestnikov will also be pending UFAs, offering even more trade fodder if the team decides to prioritize future assets.

There doesn’t need to be an all-in teardown while this team can still make the playoffs and employ a top three goaltender.

And that is especially true when one has created the gift of cap flexibility. There is no rush to go all in on a rebuild.

Let the season play out.

Approach the trade deadline with a level head, and make decisions on Hellebuyck and Scheifele.

Then decide next offseason whether the painful path of a 4-8 year rebuild is worth it.