The Ghost of Chris Thorburn

How the Winnipeg Jets need to approach the 2021 Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft

“The Ghost of Chris Thorburn”

In the lead up to the 2017 Expansion Draft, fans of the Winnipeg Jets knew the team a really good roster. It was important that the impact of losing a player to the Sin City expansion club needed to be minimized so the Jets could continue its upward trajectory and “take flight”.  It was an exciting, interesting, and nerve wracking time. Exciting and interesting because the Expansion Draft was such an unprecedented event – the ability to see the birth of a team in real time was an intriguing proposition. It was also quite nerve wracking because each team was quite surely going to lose a good player. There were a lot of variables at play.

Looking back, I believe that GM Kevin Cheveldayoff adeptly maneuvered in uncharted territory to position the Jets for their best ever season. And that’s exactly what the 2017/18 season delivered, a regular season record of 52-20-10, 114 points, 32 home wins, which was good for 2nd overall in the NHL (Wait, 2nd overall? I had forgotten this … good times). I think the technical term for such a season is “sweet”. Chevy was able to chart a path that eliminated the uncertainty and disruption that such an event could unleash. It’s the same approach I think the Jets should take with Kraken Expansion Draft – move assets to protect the existing (but top heavy) roster.

Just prior to the 2017 Expansion Draft, it was announced that the Jets had completed a trade with the Vegas. The trade sent the Jets’ 13th overall pick in 2017, and a 3rd round pick in 2019 to the Golden Knights in exchange for their 24th overall pick in 2017, and agreement to select UFA Chris Thorburn from the Jets in the Expansion Draft.  Moving down in the 1st round was the cost of protecting the existing roster. And considering that Chris Thorburn was 4th liner that was unlikely to be re-signed, there was minimal impact. Mission Accomplished. 

For an excellent summary of the 2021 Expansion Draft rules, as well as a few projected elections, check of this great FHN article here.

On June 18, 2017, the NHL revealed the various protected lists from across the league. The Jets chose to protect seven forwards, three defenders, and one goalie (7-3-1 format). Now, the Jets were in a bit of a sweet spot at the time as there were several key players that were exempt from the protection list, including Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers, and Josh Morrissey.  The main article of intrigue surrounded Toby Enstrom – who Chevy managed to convince to waive his NMC, enabling him to be exposed. Like in 2017, I believe the Jets should pursue the 7-3-1 format. This works best for a team that is top heavy, especially in forwards – which the Jets are. Like in 2017, the Jets do have some internal debate, but it’s around the edges.

Let’s first look at who might comprise the list of seven forwards to be protected under the 7-3-1 format. Based on the rules, the Jets will have to protect their captain, Blake Wheeler, as he has a NMC attached to his contract. Fine. It would be beyond shocking if the Jets did not also include on that protected list the following: Mark Scheifele; Kyle Connor; and Nikolaj Ehlers. Each of these players have been, and should continue to be, critical pieces that drive the success of the club. With his new cap friendly contract, I also think it’s a lock that Adam Lowry gets protected. With all the filthy lucre the Jets gave up to get him, I think it’s nearly certain that Pierre-Luc Dubois also makes that list. So that’s six of seven.

Here’s where the debate starts. I don’t think it’s much of a debate, but reasonable arguments could be made on both sides: Andrew Copp or Mason Appleton. Copp is an RFA who is a Swiss army knife of a player. He can play up and down the lineup as well as contribute effectively on both special teams. A true jack-of-all-trades but master of none, his protection status will likely be driven by where contract negotiations are leading up to the announcement of the protected list on July 18. Because of his versatility, I prefer protecting Copp to Appleton. But Appleton does have elements to his game that make him an intriguing prospect moving forward. Primarily, he can skate like the wind. And after trading Laine and Roslovic, he is the 2nd best right-handed shot on the roster.  The key problem with Appleton is that he is one of the very few players that meet the Expansion Draft requirement of being under contract and having played the requisite number of games over the past two seasons.  In a perfect world, we keep both but more on that later.

Just to be clear, I don’t think there is much reason or likelihood that any of the notable UFAs, such as Paul Stastny or Mathieu Perreault, will be protected. They could possibly be re-signed, but that won’t happen until after the Expansion Draft. Also, the Jets don’t have the same crop of exempt talent like they did in 2017. Certainly the likes of Ville Heinola, Cole Perfetti, and Dylan Samberg project well for becoming full time NHLers – but they aren’t of the same calibre that Laine, Ehlers, and Morrissey represented in 2017.  So, this means the Jets don’t have as much waiting in the minors or (in the case of Ville Heinola) in the pressbox to fill holes created through losing a player in the expansion draft. So, we need to protect what we have.

Let’s next examine who the three defensemen will be that should be protected. There is lots of concern and disgruntlement about the play of Josh Morrissey last season (and perhaps rightfully so), but his secured contract status and what I think remains a strong belief in the organization that Josh will be a solid player for a long time, I think gets #44 on the protected list. Neal Pionk has had an impressive two seasons in a Jets jersey, so despite the lack of long-term contract being in place, I believe the Jets will want to keep, protect, and re-sign Mr. Pionk. That will make many in ‘Peg city rejoice, myself included. Which brings us to the debate that is currently ripping Jets fandom apart.  Do the Jets protect young and very tall Logan Stanley? Or do they protect the unspectacular but highly effective Dylan DeMelo?

Let me start this paragraph by saying that anyone who thinks Stanley is, or ever will be, better than DeMelo is insane. With that out of the way, let’s quickly examine this. Logan Stanley was hanging like an albatross around GM Chevldayoff’s neck until this season. The Jets traded up back into the 1st round (after selecting Patrik Laine 2nd overall) to select the 6’7” defenseman and his development since then has been slow to say the least. In fact, it wasn’t until this season that the former 1st rounder got any sniff at the NHL level. His short time with the AHL affiliate Manitoba Moose suggested he might be an adequate 3rd pair defender at best. Since getting the lineup via injury (is there any other way for someone under the age of 25 to get into the Jets lineup?), he play has been steady, sheltered, and unspectacular. But he’s 6’7” and only going to get better, right? Have I mentioned he’s 6’7”? Anyway, we are going to protect DeMelo.

Goaltending analysis: protect former Vezina winner and galactically good Connor Hellebuyck. Analysis concluded.

So all brings us back to 2017. Protect the roster by negotiating a deal with the expansion club, setting the table for an elite team performance in the next season. Such an approach in 2021 effectively neutralizes all of the Copp vs. Appleton debate and Stanley vs. DeMelo insanity – debates that only serves to further divide an already agitated fan base.  It also protects what is still a contending roster that is somewhat bereft of NHL-ready replacements. This Jets team can still make a run at it in in 2021/22, if it can resolve its problems on the back end (see Mike’s awesome article from last week for more on that) – which, admittedly, is a big if. But losing a current roster player isn’t going to make this massive challenge any easier. Our window is now.

Maneuvering might not be as simple as it was last time. We are moving from unchartered territory and into Kraken-infested waters. I would expect the Kraken will examine every single transaction that preceded the 2017 expansion draft to determine how they can squeeze out every single ounce of talent made available. But if the ghost of Chris Thorburn could tell us anything, he might echo the immortal words of Mike McDermott from the movie Rounders – “you can’t lose what you don’t put in the middle … but you can’t win much either”. Hey Chevy – it’s time to go “all in” on this roster. 

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