With a brand new season just around the corner and Winnipeg Jets general manager (GM) Kevin Cheveldayoff in the thick of strengthening his roster, it’s time to consider which prospects are “untouchable.” That is to say, who are the young guns that will not be part of a trade package?
A Prospect Defined
Let me begin by saying that very few prospects are untouchable. If a team’s needs are great enough, all but the most elite players, like a Connor McDavid or a Sidney Crosby, could and would be moved in exchange for essential talent. To wax cynical, almost anything is for sale, at a price. That’s especially true in the cut-throat NHL business.
Before I hear howls of outrage over who I left off the list of untouchables, I’ll define a prospect. For this article, it’s a player who was drafted and/or signed by an NHL team and has been assigned to a farm team — typically in the American Hockey League (AHL) or the ECHL – or they might still be playing for the team they were drafted from in the Canadian Hockey League (CHL), the NCAA, the United States Hockey League (USHL) or various European leagues.
Lastly, for these purposes, a prospect is also a player who has played no more than 25 games in the NHL with the club that signed them. Basically, if they’ve played 25 or more games with the big club and haven’t earned a permanent spot on the roster, they simply aren’t untouchable. I don’t want to pick on any particular prospect in Winnipeg’s stable, but Kristian Vesalainen is case and point. Once considered a top prospect by many Jets fans, he has since bounced between the Jets and the Manitoba Moose.
Why the “Untouchable” Lists Change
Most NHL fans have a list of prospects who they reckon are untouchable and believe that every player on that list will one day become part of the soul of the club. Woe betides any GM who dares trade them away. Yet, the truth is, any list of untouchable prospects can change for many reasons. Whether a team believes it has a shot at winning the Stanley Cup, or they must scrap everything and rebuild will determine, at least in part, who remains on the list and who doesn’t. As do the vagaries of the free agency market, the expiration of contracts, injuries, personality clashes and team chemistry.
Most important is the development of the prospects themselves. Why do so many top draft picks never match their lofty expectations? This is the stuff of Shakespearian tragedy.
So, now in the dog days of a Winnipeg summer, we ask who are the Jets’ untouchables, at least for now? The team has plenty of prospects, but only a handful can be considered a potential foundation stone for a Stanley Cup champion. What’s more, if the list is longer than five players, then no real choices have been made about who is truly untouchable.
Here are the five:
Berdin stayed in Russia for the start of the 2020-21 season; he played for SKA St. Petersburg of the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) for a short time before making his return to North America. In the 2020-21 AHL season, he started in 30 games with a 2.89 GAA (goals-against average) along with a .897 SV% (save percentage). He performed well this past season that included an eight-game winning streak.
Berdin has been described as a workhorse; he wants the crease every game. The Jets have locked up goaltender Eric Comrie on a one-year, $750,000 deal that will make him Connor Hellebuyck’s backup, so Berdin will likely see another year of development with the Moose, but he has the potential to become an NHL goaltender.
The 6-foot-4, 215-pound defenceman made his AHL debut last season where he recorded seven points in 32 games with the Moose. Before signing his entry-level contract (ELC) with the Jets, Dylan Samberg played three seasons with The University of Minnesota-Duluth Gophers, where he won two NCAA titles.
Samberg is a big-bodied defenceman who is not afraid to use his power to deflate the opposition’s offensive chances. His skating is very strong and is now one of his best assets. He possesses a pass-first mentality but is not afraid to use his powerful shot to get on the scoreboard.
While the Jets have bolstered their defence core during the offseason, Samberg has the potential to succeed at the NHL level and could see some time on the third-pairing this season.
Chaz Lucius was drafted 18th overall in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft. He is a dominating offensive forward who has an elite toolkit. He racked up 18 points (13 goals, five assists) in 12 games with the United States Development Program (USNTDP) last season in the United States Hockey League (USHL).
Lucius has quick hands and a pro release that makes him a goal-scoring threat whenever he is on the ice. His intelligence is off the charts, which allows him to make quick passes to help develop plays. He will attend the University of Minnesota next season, but his days in Winnipeg are not far ahead. Expect him to make his NHL debut in the next couple of years.
The 20-year-old Finnish defender was the Jets’ 20th overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft. Ville Heinola has quickly established himself as an elite defenceman in the Jets’ system. Last season, he started with Lukko of the Finnish Men’s League (LIIGA), where he registered 14 points in 19 games. He made his return to North America, and although he played five games with the Jets, he mostly played with the Moose, where he scored 11 points in 19 games.
Heinola has excellent vision, offensive instincts, and is extremely poised under pressure. His hockey IQ is off the charts and that helps him make smart and cautious plays; he is never afraid to slow the play down to grasp better situational control.
He also represented Team Finland at the World Junior Championship, where he tallied four assists, took home a bronze medal and was named to the WJC All-Star team. While the Jets have been busy this offseason acquiring more defencemen, Heinola has the chance to crack the lineup in a third-pairing role.
The 10th overall selection of the 2020 Draft has already begun turning heads at the pro level. Cole Perfetti made his AHL debut this past season with the Moose, where he starred in his rookie campaign, recording 26 points in 32 games. Before making his Moose debut, he suited up for Team Canada at the WJC, where he racked up six points in seven games, helping to secure a silver medal.
Perfetti is a pure threat on the ice. His offensive awareness and high hockey IQ allow him to move effortlessly, and he is a flawless puck carrier who uses his intelligence to his advantage when creating plays. Along with elite passing skills, he has the vision and discipline to become one of the top playmakers in the NHL.
Perfetti has all the skills to land a spot on the Jets’ starting lineup in 2021-22 and could make an instant impact.
Here are just a few of the other prospects who many readers will argue should be included on the list of untouchables:
Nikita Chibrikov – C, SKA St. Petersburg
David Gustafsson – C, Manitoba Moose
Leon Gawanke – D, Manitoba Moose
Simon Lundmark – D, Linkoping HC
Declan Chisholm – D, Manitoba Moose
Johnathan Kovacevic – D, Manitoba Moose
Harrison Blaisdell – C, University of New Hampshire
Passionate debates over a list of untouchable prospects for any franchise can be heard in bars and living rooms across the country. Most of the time, it is all but impossible to defend why some players did not make the list.
Born and raised in Kamloops B.C. and a die hard fan of the Kamloops Blazers, hockey has always been apart of my life. Now, I am looking to get into the sports media world and make it a career. I will be covering the Winnipeg Jets for The Hockey Writers.