HERE are two kinds of people in the world: those who believe Marko Dano is a great hockey player given a raw deal in Winnipeg; and those who wondered what took so long when the Jets sent him sent packing last month.
With Dano, there appeared to be no middle ground. Regardless where you may stand, one thing is clear: the organization is playing a dangerous game these days when it comes to managing some of their young assets.
Fortunately for Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, he’s avoided getting burned. So far.
However, a franchise that prides itself on the draft-and-development model can’t keep cutting players such as Dano loose with absolutely no return and expect not to feel it down the road. Prospects don’t grow on trees, and you don’t want to get into the habit of rolling the dice that a player you’ve invested plenty of resources in doesn’t finally put it all together as soon as he gets a one-way ticket out of town.
Just ask the numerous GMs in the NHL how it felt to to watch their previous “lost causes” blossom last season with the Vegas Golden Knights.
Dano made his return to Winnipeg on Friday night with the Colorado Avalanche, the team that plucked him off the scrap heap last month when the Jets decided to finally move on from the 23-year-old Austrian-born winger to give playing time to other emerging talents such as Brendan Lemieux and Kristian Vesalainen.
It’s safe to say the Avalanche version of Dano is pretty much the same one we saw for parts of the four seasons he spent here. Dano entered play against the Jets with no points in his first six games with Colorado, playing only a handful of minutes each night in a bottom-six role. There was even some healthy scratches mixed in recently for good measure.
“I came to a team that was doing great. The coaches didn’t want to make changes early on, so I’ve got to wait for my chance. I’m happy to play at least a couple minutes and be a part of a team,” Dano said Friday following the team’s morning skate at Bell MTS Place.
Dano spent much of last season as a press box regular, unable to crack the Jets’ lineup but stuck in limbo when Winnipeg decided they didn’t want to risk losing him by trying to send him to the Manitoba Moose. A similar scenario looked inevitable when he was a healthy scratch in the first four games of the season, only for Cheveldayoff to seemingly switch gears by exposing him on waivers.
Presumably, by that point, Cheveldayoff had tried to find a fellow GM who might have given the Jets something back in a trade. Even a late-round draft pick would have been better than nothing. But it appears there were no takers. Why pay for something you can eventually get for free, as the Avalanche found out.
“They didn’t see the opportunity for me to play in Winnipeg. I was happy that they gave me a chance to either play in the minors and play some minutes there, or, like it happened, give some other teams a chance to pick me up. Last year was tough but I always came to the rink and did my work, and now they kind of helped me out,” Dano said.
Dano’s lack of instant success with Colorado likely has the ‘good riddance’ crowd now shouting ‘I told you so’ from the rooftops.
SURE, the Colorado Avalanche have one of the best top lines in the NHL. But Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler served up one heck of a reminder Friday night that whatever group he happens to be skating with isn’t too shabby, either.
Wheeler had a career-high five points as the Jets skated to an impressive 5-2 victory over their division rivals at Bell MTS Place. Winnipeg improves to 9-5-1 on the season. Colorado drops to 7-6-3 in losing for a fifth straight game, four of them in regulation.
“Blake took it to another level. He’s a guy that drives our bus every single day in practice, in the gym and basically in every aspect of being a professional hockey player. He’s the guy that we follow,” said defenceman Josh Morrissey, who revealed he had an inkling Wheeler was about to erupt.
“I drove to the game with him and you could tell he was ready to go. He’s a big guy that has so much skill and competes so hard. Like I said,” said Morrissey.
Coming into the night, all of the talk was about the trio of Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen. But Winnipeg’s big guns came to play, not only silencing Colorado’s weapons but chipping in with plenty of offence of their own.
It all revolved around Wheeler. He set up Kyle Connor’s power-play goal midway through the opening frame, set up Mark Scheifele’s one-timer tally a few minutes later, set up Nikolaj Ehlers
Jets head coach Paul Maurice said earlier in the day he wasn’t sure what to expect from his team, which hadn’t played in a full week following the Global Series in Helsinki. But the Jets came flying out of the game with perhaps their best first period of the season, then followed it up with 40 more solid minutes.
“We were hard and sharp right from the start,” said Maurice.
“Morrissey and (Jacob) Trouba were very strong and all of those D who ended up going out against (the top line), that had a big part of it. But we played a pretty good five-man defensive game. We had a block there early in the third where we weren’t quite as strong, but other than that, all five were in on all pucks. We didn’t let them turn it into a one-on-one game or cause an awful lot of confusion because they beat somebody one on one and then all of those seams open. It was a really which extends a franchise record.
Winnipeg also snapped a dubious streak by not taking the game’s first penalty for the first time in 11 games.
Scheifele then scored his seventh of the season just over three minutes later, one-timing a pass from Wheeler past Varlamov.
Colorado defenceman Erik Johnson cut the deficit in half early in the third when he beat Hellebuyck high, but Winnipeg quickly responded when Wheeler stole a puck, patiently waited out an Avalanche defender and then fed Ehlers for his third goal of the year.
“That pass that he made to Nikky was unbelievable, just dangling that dollar bill in front of the D and then making them bite and sliding it over. It’s fun to watch,” said Scheifele.
That proved to be the game-winner as Tyson Jost scored with just over 13 minutes left to make it a one-goal
After all, the 27th-overall pick in the 2013 NHL Draft is already on his fourth organization and seems unable to establish much of a presence at this level no matter how many fresh starts he gets. Maybe he’s destined to be just another in a long list of players who never figure it out, even if Dano believes his best days are still to come.
“Now it’s just getting more comfortable and it’s my goal to bring my game every night,” said Dano. “I’m 23 years old, so I feel like this is the best age for a hockey player. I think I did good work in the summer, came in shape, and now I just have to get back to game tempo and game pace. It’s going to take a little while, but I feel like I can be a good fit to this team.”
You wonder how many games Dano has left to prove his case? He appears on his way to following the Alexander Burmistrov plan if things don’t change soon. Remember Burmistrov? The eighth-overall pick in the 2010 draft by Atlanta was another young Jets talent that many felt Jets head coach Paul Maurice (and Claude Noel before him) simply never gave a fair shake.
Like Dano, he eventually ran out of chances in Winnipeg and was placed on waivers in 2017. The Arizona Coyotes took a chance in grabbing him, only to be met with similar disappointment. Then the Vancouver Canucks signed him, only to bid him farewell a few months later when the enigmatic Russian opted to “retire” from the NHL at the age of 26 and take his talents to the KHL.
Consider that another potential bullet dodged by Cheveldayoff.
Then there’s the case of Joel Armia, another skilled young forward the Jets were forced to move on from with zero return. Unlike fellow first-rounders Dano and Burmistrov, this wasn’t a waiver-wire transaction meant to give an opportunity to someone else in the pipeline.
Moving Armia was a necessary evil to clear valuable salary-cap space in the form of dumping goaltender Steve Mason’s US$4.1-million contract, which Cheveldayoff had signed only a year earlier but became a major anchor. The Montreal Canadiens were willing to take it on — and then promptly buy Mason out and swallow the cap hit — as long as Winnipeg gave them something of value. Enter Armia, the 25-year-old Finnish forward.
The 16th-overall pick in the 2011 draft was off to a solid start in a topsix role with the Habs, putting up three goals and four assists through his first 15 regular-season games. That had him on pace to shatter the career-highs of 12 goals and 17 assists he set with Winnipeg last season in 79 games.
Unfortunately, a knee injury suffered earlier this month is expected to sideline Armia for the next six to eight weeks. But he appears to have the necessary tools to become an NHL regular and perhaps serve as a cautionary tale for the Jets going forward.
Which brings us to Nic Petan, who seems to be the next player in that Burmistrov/Dano/Armia mould eliciting strong reactions from both supporters and critics. The 23-year-old pending restricted free agent is no longer waiver exempt and is still struggling to carve out a regular role in the lineup in his fourth pro season.
If Petan doesn’t have a long-term future in Winnipeg — especially with other young forwards such as Lemieux, Vesalainen and Moose players Mason Appleton and C.J. Suess knocking on the door for regular duty — then Cheveldayoff must find a way to salvage something for him.
The prospect pool isn’t bottomless. And the Jets are no longer in the position where they can afford to let another one get away for nothing.
Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck saves a shot from Avalanche defenceman Tyson Barrie during Friday night’s game at Bell MTS Place.
Avalanche forward Marko Dano skates prior to Friday’s game against the Jets.