Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

No joke -- Jets have decision at centre ice

Bring back Jokinen or give youth a shot?

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On the surface, the question is "Will the Winnipeg Jets be better with or without Olli Jokinen?" but the deeper consideration is "Can they afford to have him taking up space in the lineup?"

If re-signed, Jokinen would come back as the Jets' third-line centre and there is evidence to suggest that's not a bad fit if the price is reasonable. However, the true issue for an organization in the development stage hinges more on what a commitment to Jokinen does to the growth of centre prospect Adam Lowry.

Lowry likely needs a little more time in the AHL before he's ready for full-time work in the NHL but if he comes to camp and is close, there needs to be space for him in the lineup. Same goes if he's ready at Christmas.

Does re-signing Jokinen get in the way of Lowry? This wouldn't matter if the Jets were a contender but they're a long way from that status. Bringing back Jokinen isn't simply about the small picture determination of whether he makes the team better or not.

Sometimes the big trees need to be cleared out to let the saplings flourish and that has to be a consideration for Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff.

Jokinen's agent Ian Pulver said Tuesday he's had limited discussion with the Jets and will begin speaking to other teams about his player when the interview period for pending unrestricted free agents begins today. Teams and UFAs can discuss the parameters of a deal but can't officially conclude a transaction until July 1.

Pulver said Cheveldayoff had neither "closed nor opened the door to Jokinen's return," for next season. Jokinen completed a two-year deal that paid him $4.5 million last season.

Cheveldayoff won't be spending to the cap this year and one can expect the Jets to top out around $65 million in payroll, give or take a few million. If the Jets can take the $3 million-plus it will require to get Jokinen back in a Jets uniform and spend it elsewhere, the team can potentially benefit both in terms of Lowry's development and depth in other areas.

The downside is Lowry could come to camp not ready for the NHL and Jets fans would be forced to stare at a hole in the middle of the third line.

Perhaps Eric O'Dell can hold down the job for half a season or more until Lowry is ready. For Cheveldayoff, it's about weighing the cost of Jokinen and his abilities against the cost of younger players and what they may or may not be ready to bring to the table.

Does Jokinen's case, when put up against that presented by an O'Dell/Lowry combination, make the Jets a more likely candidate to reach the post-season? Based on track record the quick answer is yes. But the unknown of Lowry's promise has to be giving Cheveldayoff pause.

The Jets are all about draft and develop, right? Maybe Cheveldayoff is ready to make an investment in terms of opportunity in one of his players.

Looking at the organization at the centre ice position as the Jets sit today, there's no question Jokinen is deserving of more time with the club. Right now, all things taken into account, Jokinen is at worst the franchise's third-best centre and maybe even ranks second.

Bryan Little is a more complete player and Mark Scheifele is going to take a big bite out of the opportunity at centre ice this coming season whether Jokinen is in Winnipeg or not.

The other side to all this is there aren't many players on the market right now like Jokinen and he's stated he's willing to sign in Winnipeg. Would he take a one-year deal in the neighbourhood of $3 million? If so, it would be hard to say no to a 35-year-old centre with leadership qualities, durability and offence.

Jokinen scored 18 goals and 43 points last season and played in all 82 games for the Jets. Over the last decade he's played 774 games and only Joe Thornton (775) and Marty St. Louis (778) have played in more.

The UFA pool at centre ice is shallow this year and Jokinen's 18 goals ranks third among the group behind Paul Stastny (25) and Brad Richards (20).

Jokinen won a bronze medal with Finland at the Olympics and a silver at the worlds.

Jets coach Paul Maurice gushed at season's end about Jokinen.

"Olli's figured it out. He can still play a number of years," said Maurice. "I've loved having him... Olli is a great pro. He's great with his teammates. In my mind, he's a winner."

Constructed as they are right now, the Jets aren't a playoff team and one can argue moving on without Jokinen opens the door for the youth movement.

The other side of the coin is to believe the Jets are close to fighting for a post-season berth and letting Jokinen walk only adds another hole for Cheveldayoff to fill.

Maybe the GM has a big move planned and needs the cash to execute his plan.

Then again, perhaps Cheveldayoff wants to see where the market falls on Jokinen and then try to strike a deal at the best price.

Lots of options for a GM trying to improve his team and get a core that has so far underachieved over the hurdle and into the playoffs.

Does Olli help or hurt the Jets in this quest? That's for Cheveldayoff to determine. And the ensuing wins and losses to pass judgment.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca

witter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 25, 2014 C1

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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