The Winnipeg Jets are determined to upgrade their defensemen group before next season, either through trades or free agency.
“We’re hopeful,” general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff told NHL.com this week. “We’re going to look long and hard at it here. There’s got to be the fit. There’s got to be opportunity. You’ve got to have the (NHL salary) cap space and it’s got to upgrade our team.”
That task could become more complicated Wednesday if defenseman Dylan DeMelo is selected by the Seattle Kraken in the 2021 Expansion Draft presented by Upper Deck on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; ESPN2, SN1, SN NOW).
DeMelo is one of 22 Jets players player available to the Seattle Kraken, who will choose one player from each of the 30 participating teams (the Vegas Golden Knights are exempt), including at least 14 forwards, nine defensemen and three goalies.
DeMelo, who signed a four-year, $12 million contract ($3 million average annual value) with the Jets on Oct. 7, 2020, had nine assists in 52 games this season. The 28-year-old has had a variety of defense partners since he was acquired from the Ottawa Senators in a trade Feb. 18, 2020, including playing with Josh Morrissey on the top pair. DeMelo missed Winnipeg’s final three playoff games because of a lower-body injury after being held without a point through the first five.
Cheveldayoff said it was not an easy choice to leave DeMelo exposed to Seattle.
“All 30 teams involved in the expansion process had to make some tough protection and exposure decisions at forward and defense,” Cheveldayoff said. “Whichever player will be selected off our club will create a scenario where we will have to try to replace that player. It’s very difficult, but it’s part of the process for everyone this offseason.”
Each team had the option to protect seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie, or eight skaters and one goalie.
Winnipeg decided to protect three defensemen: Morrissey, Neal Pionk and Logan Stanley. Morrissey led the Jets in average ice time per game (23:33), and Pionk was second at 21:58. Stanley, a first-round pick (No. 18) in the 2016 NHL Draft, scored four points (one goal, three assists) in 37 games as a rookie this season. He played in each of Winnipeg’s eight Stanley Cup Playoff games and scored three points (two goals, one assist).
“We have some good, young defensemen that are in the pipeline or are knocking at the door,” Cheveldayoff said. “Can they knock it down like Logan Stanley did this year? That’s what you’re hoping for. But that’s not going to stop you from looking at all other avenues when you have the opportunity.”
The Jets have made dramatic changes on defense since being eliminated by the St. Louis Blues in the 2019 Western Conference First Round. Jacob Trouba was traded to the New York Rangers on June 17, 2019, Tyler Myers (Vancouver Canucks) and Ben Chiarot (Montreal Canadiens) left as unrestricted free agents and Dustin Byfuglien agreed to have his contract terminated April 17, 2020 after he asked to take a leave of absence prior to the start of the 2019-20 season.
Winnipeg (30-23-3) finished third in the seven-team Scotia North Division this season. The Jets were 10th in the NHL in goals-against per game (2.71) even though they gave up the 12th-most shots per game (30.6). They swept the Edmonton Oilers in the Stanley Cup First Round but were then swept by the Montreal Canadiens in the second round.
Cheveldayoff said a draft-and-develop strategy will continue to be important as has been the case with defensemen prospects Ville Heinola, a first-round pick (No. 20) in the 2019 NHL Draft, and Dylan Samberg, a second-round selection (No. 43) in the 2017 NHL Draft.
Winnipeg has four picks in the 2021 NHL Draft, including the No. 18 selection in the first round Friday (8 p.m. ET; ESPN2, SN, SN NOW, TVAS). Rounds 2-7 will be held Saturday (11 a.m. ET; NHLN, SN, SN NOW).
Although the Jets hope another prospect will have a breakthrough like Stanley, Cheveldayoff said the team is always looking for help and it could also come via free agency, which begins July 28.
“… We’re going to look to be active,” Cheveldayoff said. “I think everybody is in that mode right now.”