With the calendar approaching mid-November, free agency has officially been open for over a month and yet the Winnipeg Jets still have some work to do to shore up their backend before next season begins. So how could the front office accomplish that feat?
Even though it seems most teams across the league are still focused on the free-agent market, and rightly so, that doesn’t mean the front office shouldn’t call around to see which players could become available through trade. While making a deal might not happen instantly, it could create an open dialogue that might lead to a trade in the coming weeks or months.
Considering the Jets could still benefit from adding a top-four blueliner, it’d make plenty of sense for general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff to contact the Florida Panthers about a potential blockbuster trade involving defenseman Aaron Ekblad. While it wouldn’t be easy to acquire the 2014-15 Rookie of the Year award winner, especially since he’s under contract through the 2024-25 campaign, there’s no question the club has the pieces to make this trade happen.
Sure, the first player that comes to mind when thinking about who to send the other way is forward Patrik Laine, but the front office could probably pull this off without having to part ways with him. Instead, the team could offer a package of players that would be centered around winger Nikolaj Ehlers, who’s also under contract through the 2024-25 season.
Though trade discussions surrounding Ehlers have reportedly calmed down over the last few weeks, there’s still a very strong chance Winnipeg would be open to moving him for the right price, and landing one of the top defensemen in the league probably fits that requirement. From Florida’s perspective, with forward Mike Hoffman likely leaving in free agency, they’d definitely have a ton of interest in someone who’s just 24-years old and has scored at least 25 goals in three of his first five seasons in the league.
Since the Jets would need to include another top young player in exchange for Ekblad, it’d make plenty of sense to send defenseman Sami Niku the other way, especially since he probably won’t have a starting role on this team next season. In addition, Cheveldayoff would probably also have to include a fifth or a sixth-round pick, preferably in 2022 or 2023, to complete this trade with the Panthers.
While fitting in the 6-foot-4 blueliner’s $7.5 million cap hit over the next five seasons may seem difficult, in reality, the team would only be increasing its payroll by just under $800K, as Ehlers’ and Niku’s salaries combine to $6.725 million. Since they’ll also be able to transfer center Bryan Little’s $5.2 million deal to the long-term injured reserve, they shouldn’t have any issues absorbing a little more money before the 2020-21 campaign begins.
So could Ekblad solve Winnipeg’s defensive problems moving forward? What defensive pairing could the former first-round selection be positioned on next season? And could the right-hander improve the team’s power-play unit even further?
Yes, there’s no debating that adding a player of the Ontario native’s stature would undoubtedly take a ton of pressure off goalie Connor Hellebuyck. Based on his 57 career power-play points, it also seems he’d fit perfectly on the first or second special teams unit. As for who he’d skate alongside, it’d be foolish to pair him with anyone else except for defenseman Josh Morrissey, which would push teammate Dylan DeMelo down to the second defensive pairing with Neal Pionk.
Though Ekblad wasn’t asked to shoot the puck nearly as much compared to previous seasons, he was still able to perform effectively and severed as a quality playmaker from the blue line. While a nagging upper-body injury limited his ability to throw his body around, the right-handed shooting defenseman still did the best he could to utilize his physicality during the 2019-20 campaign.
Through 67 games this past season, the two-time All-Star averaged 22:59 minutes of ice time, producing five goals, 41 points (career-high), 0.07 goals per game, 0.61 points per game (career-high), 147 shots on net, 84 blocks, 37 takeaways, and 34 hits.
Despite being eliminated from the league’s return to play after just four games, the former Barrie Colt averaged 25:13 minutes of ice time, 10 shots on net, 10 hits, four blocks, along with one takeaway during Florida’s short postseason run.
With the Jets looking to advance deeper into the playoffs next season, adding Ekblad to the mix would certainly increase their chances of meeting that goal and he’d also remain a key part of their future over the next several campaigns as well. As a result, the club wouldn’t have to worry about its defensive corps becoming a liability moving forward, which would be a major improvement compared to how thin that group was at the start of this past season.