WINNIPEG - On a day that will go down as one of the quieter trade deadlines in recent memory, the Winnipeg Jets were busy burning the phone lines before swinging a deal late in the day, sending forward Drew Stafford to the Boston Bruins in exchange for a conditional sixth-round draft choice in 2018.
General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said the deal came together at the last minute, and it wasn't officially announced until well after the 2:00pm CT deadline.
The pick, which is a guaranteed asset, becomes a fifth-round choice if Stafford plays in 50 percent of the games and the Bruins make the playoffs, or a fourth-rounder if they advance to the second round.
With Marko Dano and Andrew Copp soon to return from injury, Cheveldayoff had the flexibility to make this kind of a move with a player on an expiring contract.
"We made a decision that we weren't going to re-sign Drew in the summertime," the GM said. "If there was an opportunity there for players that are going to be a big part of our future. … It's not like we're calling somebody up to give them a better chance. These are players that have been with us for the vast majority of the year, so it's a matter of getting them back into the lineup."
Stafford, meanwhile, is joining a Bruins team that is very much in the playoff race, currently sitting third in the Atlantic Division, three points up on the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Video: TRADE DEADLINE | Drew Stafford
"I'm excited," Stafford said. "It's a great opportunity to get back in the mix. It's very similar to when I got moved here. It's a team that's right in the hunt and that's why you play, to get into the playoffs, and for me to get an opportunity to help them win games, I couldn't be happier."
The 31-year-old product of Minneapolis, Minnesota, is set become an unrestricted free agent on Jul. 1.
Stafford, who was originally acquired as part of the Evander Kane trade back in the winter of 2015, re-signed with the Jets after putting up nine goals and 19 points in 26 regular-season games, and another two (1G, 1A) in the Jets' brief appearance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs later that spring.
Stafford will definitely miss that about Winnipeg. The way he and the rest of the team were embraced around that time was the "coolest thing" in his mind, and it's a memory he'll carry with him for the rest of his career.
"We had some tough years with the way things were changing in Buffalo and it became a bit of a rebuild," he said. "I'm extremely grateful for the opportunity from Chevy and (Head Coach Paul Maurice), and to make the playoffs with the group that we had… It was awesome."
It's been a difficult year for Stafford, who's been hampered by injuries and has only four goals and 13 points in 40 games, but he is capable of putting up points, and should get a good opportunity in a middle-six role with the Bruins down the stretch.
Video: WPG@BUF: Stafford knocks in his own rebound for lead
"It's unfortunate the way things have gone here in Winnipeg these last couple years, but I have a lot of faith in this group moving forward," Stafford said. "They've got a lot of good pieces, some excellent young talent, and they'll find success."
In a lengthy press conference on Wednesday at MTS Centre, Cheveldayoff answered all kinds of questions about the trade market, the Jets' goaltending situation, his evaluation of the coaching staff and what kind of expectations he has for the rest of the year.
Goaltending has been a hot topic for the Jets all year, as the club has a combined save percentage of .896 between its three goalies, Connor Hellebuyck, Ondrej Pavelec and Michael Hutchinson.
Still, it's important to remember at what stage these players are in their careers. Hellebuyck, in particular, is only 23 and is in his first full year in the National Hockey League. It's critical the team stays patient with this young player as he learns one of sports' most unforgiving positions on the fly, and in front of more than 15,000 live and in person each night.
Video: WPG@MTL: Hellebuyck stones Beaulieu on the doorstep
Hellebuyck has a 20-15-3 record, along with a 2.87 goals-against average and a .907 save percentage to pace Winnipeg's three netminders.
"They have to be better," Cheveldayoff said, cautioning that this is very much of a work in progress with respect to the players' individual development. "To continue to grow you have to challenge yourself. I think there's tremendous capacity for growth, certainly in Connor. Obviously Hutch is in a different situation here right now given the goaltending situation. But they're all professionals and they'll have to fight through it. Ondrej is on the last year of his deal, and he's in a little different circumstance from a career standpoint.
"Much like any young goaltender they go through the different phases of their careers. Helly is in a very important phase right now where he needs to continue to grow and continue to learn, and smooth out the consistency. Coming into the break, the opportunity of going 3-0-2 in the last five games, those are the things to continue to build upon. There's an element of mental toughness that has to come into play for goaltending that's different from players. For young goaltenders there are trials and tribulations that they're going to have to get through, and Helly is going to have to fight his way through it."
The GM added that he was involved in some other discussions involving other players - "taking calls" - over the course of the day, but there was nothing overly intriguing or worth mortgaging the future over. The Jets, who are currently five points out of a wild-card playoff spot, have 18 games left to make a push and get back to the spring dance, and they're confident they have the group to at least make it interesting.
"Make the playoffs," Cheveldayoff said when asked about his expectations. "We're still going to try and continue to push, and we've got a big game coming up here on Friday (vs. St. Louis). … The message to the group is this: I love Blake (Wheeler)'s leadership, I love how (Mark Scheifele) has grown by leaps and bounds on and off the ice, and how (Dustin Byfuglien) has taken a player like Josh (Morrissey) under his wing, and we're now not afraid to play Josh with someone else at any point in time. This should not be looked it in any other way than it's a re-assurance and a re-confirmation that this group can and will get better, and with the (injured) guys coming back into the lineup, it gives us our best chance to win."
- Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.com