Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Jets keep their heads

Some clubs lose theirs, but Setoguchi acquisition smart move

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Winnipeg Jets fans, having put down their money and agreed to keep it with the team for years to come, are going to have to trust the organization has winning on its mind.

The casual observer would have a hard time reaching that conclusion after the lack of activity from the Jets camp on the opening day of free agency.

While lots of teams spend wildly, the Jets stood mostly on the sidelines until late in the day when GM Kevin Cheveldayoff shipped a second-round pick to the Minnesota Wild to acquire former 30-goal scorer Devin Setoguchi.

There's little commitment in the deal, as the 26-year-old Albertan is in the last year of a contract that will pay him $3.25 million.

Cheveldayoff said he wanted a top-six right wing to play with Evander Kane and he got him. It wasn't expensive or splashy. We'll see if it was effective.

On the surface, the quiet day at the office on the opening of free agency could suggest the Jets are only interested in taking your money and icing a subpar hockey team. That owners Mark Chipman and David Thomson don't want to win on the ice as much as they do at the bank.

It's easy for me, having known Chipman for some time and seen his competitive streak on display again and again, to reach a different conclusion. To believe there is a plan, which stipulates spending money on overpriced free agents is counterproductive to the long-term benefit, is not a stretch from where I sit.

The Jets will have to open the chequebook at some point and get over the hump or the doubters will have their day

But no one is going to take my word, or Chipman's for that matter, forever. The Jets will have to open the chequebook at some point and get over the hump or the doubters will have their day.

The opinion of the fans matters. It can't rule the day when hockey decisions are being made, but if the ticket-buying public doesn't trust the intentions of the organization are pure and in the pursuit of a championship, they can be turned off. The Jets, even with their current bulletproof economy, can't afford such a plight. They need to keep their fans engaged just like any other organization.

But now isn't the time to give Nathan Horton a seven-year deal that will almost certainly be regrettable in the not-so-distant future.

Not now, or never for that matter, is the time to hand Ryan Clowe and his three goals from last season a deal worth $24.25 million.

Some teams made deals to augment their contender status. Those deals made sense. But lots were simply cases of chasing the market. Sorry, but the Jets should be applauded for sitting out on those deals.

Were there good deals to be made on Friday? Maybe. But lots of the high-priced UFA deals included crippling long-term contracts the Jets were wise to avoid.

Still, the "be patient," mantra is wearing thin in many corners. If and when the Jets are on the outside looking in this spring, it will be even harder to take.

But the Jets are in the midst of a rebuild and abandoning their strategy for a quick surge is like eating that burger you know you shouldn't put in your body. A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips. Or salary cap in this instance.

Some fans were asking why the Jets weren't spending the money they've been handed for tickets, merchandise and corporate sponsorships.

Well, first of all, there isn't that much money to spend. The Jets have $20 million in cap space but need to sign seven players for a complete roster. Getting RFAs Zach Bogosian, Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler under contract will eat up a minimum of $10 million against next year's cap and could go as high as $14 million. That leaves anywhere from $10 million to as little as $6 million to sign five players.

All of this is assuming the Jets will spend to the cap of $64.3 million, which is something the organization has yet to do in its short time back in Winnipeg.

The Jets just got out of onerous contracts with Nik Antropov and Ron Hainsey. Cheveldayoff, rather than pursue overpriced and aging free agents, has chosen to spend his money on his own players.

Did they get better on Friday? Yes. And Cheveldayoff might argue he also protected the future. Most of the big deals signed Friday included lots of term and those signings will almost certainly end in frustration for the organizations and the fans.

Take the Phoenix Coyotes signing Mike Ribeiro to a four-year deal worth $22 million at an average annual value of $5.5 million.

Ribeiro is 33 and will likely live up to that value for the first and second years of the contract. But by the final two years of the deal he'll be a salary-cap buster.

Cheveldayoff has signed free agents for big money, Olli Jokinen and his $4.5 million per year comes to mind, but is tight with term. Jokinen got just two years.

The Jets have saved term for their own players such as Andrew Ladd, Ondrej Pavelec, Kane and Toby Enstrom.

Cheveldayoff has taken the approach of signing UFAs as placeholders until his own drafted and developed talent can flesh out his roster. Not many placeholder deals were done on Friday. Those second-tier deals get done in the coming days when the market has substantially cooled.

Sometime down the line, if his draft, develop and retain plan spits out a contender, Cheveldayoff will likely want to use the UFA market to add some final pieces. But he's not there yet.

This part of the process is painful. It's the most tempting point to veer off course and chase a quick fix. But those almost always end up in heartache.

In the end you really have no choice but to trust Jets management. To trust they're not taking your money and loyalty for granted.

The Jets have everything going their way in terms of financial support. They know this. Breaking your trust is likely the only way they can mess this up.

They know that, too.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 6, 2013 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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