Jets GM about to shed austerity manacles, do some talent shopping
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 04/03/2020 (1001 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
You may not like their championship odds this spring, but hold off on writing the obituary for the Winnipeg Jets. Any reports of the death of the team’s Stanley Cup aspirations are greatly exaggerated.
With a strong core from the draft-and-develop model locked in to long-term deals and the organization vowing to be a salary-cap team while their window of opportunity remains open, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff is about to have plenty of freedom to reload his roster for several more deep runs, regardless of how the current season plays out.
No, you won’t find any photos of Cheveldayoff overlooking the Las Vegas strip while holding a makeshift money phone in his hands. Unlike one of his former players, that’s not his style, but there’s no question he will have stacks of cash to play with this summer, both internally and externally.
Even more so than initially forecast, in fact, with the NHL revealing Wednesday that next year’s salary cap ceiling is predicted to come in between US$84 million and $88.2 million, a sharp rise from the current US$81.5-million maximum.
That should be raising plenty of eyebrows around these parts, and, perhaps, season-ticket prices for years to come.
As of today, the Jets have 14 current roster players under contract for next year with a combined cap hit of US$65.9 million: forwards Blake Wheeler, Kyle Connor, Patrik Laine, Mark Scheifele, Bryan Little, Nikolaj Ehlers, Mathieu Perreault, Adam Lowry and Andrew Copp; defencemen Josh Morrissey, Neal Pionk, Tucker Poolman and Carl Dahlstrom; and goaltender Connor Hellebuyck.
The list doesn’t include suspended defenceman Dustin Byfuglien and his US$7.6-million cap hit. The soon-to-be 35-year-old is expected to reach a contract termination with the Jets in the near future, wiping his money off the books.
Add it all up and there could be more than US$22 million for nine more players to fill out next year’s 23-man roster. That number could go up if Little’s season-ending head-ear injury isn’t fully healed and he’s unable to resume playing, moving him to long-term injured reserve and clearing further cap space.
Four of those spots are essentially spoken for. Forwards Jack Roslovic, Mason Appleton and Jansen Harkins, and defenceman Sami Niku are pending restricted free agents who need new deals. They currently make a combined US$3.2 million on their entry level contracts. None will be commanding a ransom at this point in their careers, the way previous RFAs such as Laine and Connor did last summer. Their pay hikes will be modest.
That will still leave a pile of dough for July 1 free agency and/or trades in which salary gets added. Cheveldayoff can cast a wide net, and he shouldn’t have to look far to find at least one solution.
Defenceman Dylan DeMelo has come as advertised since being acquired from the Ottawa Senators days before last month’s trade deadline. The 26-year-old pending UFA is smooth, smart and seems to make all the right reads and decisions, which is what his underlying metrics suggested. He also boosts the play of those around him.
I’d argue the blue-line pairings rolled out by coach Paul Maurice in Tuesday night’s 3-1 win over Buffalo were the best we’ve seen all year, with DeMelo and Morrissey matched together for the first time. Kulikov-Pionk and Beaulieu-Poolman were the others.
Cheveldayoff should be on the phone with DeMelo’s agent daily finding out what it will take to get his name on a multi-year extension. The Ontario product, who grew up playing minor hockey with Scheifele, is a great fit for the Jets. DeMelo should ultimately help Morrissey’s game settle after an up-and-down year that included the loss of longtime partner Jacob Trouba and a rotating cast of skaters to his right, which only enhances his value.
Keeping him around beyond this season should be a top priority.
I’d also consider getting UFA Nathan Beaulieu back in the fold, provided the price is right for a bottom-pairing defender. He’s not only a solid depth option, but oozes character and is willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good, whether it’s a painful shot block or a well-timed scrap. Wheeler has called him one of the best teammates he’s ever had.
Beyond that, it would be wise to scour the market for some additional help that would be improvements over other UFA defencemen, including Kulikov, Luca Sbisa and Anthony Bitetto.
Some intriguing options around the league include Calgary’s Travis Hamonic, the pride of St. Malo, who is a physically imposing presence the Jets could surely use. Same with Brandon’s Joel Edmundson, currently patrolling the blue line for Carolina. Brendan Dillon, acquired by Washington at the trade deadline from San Jose, would also check off many of the required boxes to get bigger and tougher on the back end.
Of course, the need for outside help could be mitigated if prospects Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg push for full-time work with the big club next year. The smooth-skating Heinola impressed in his eight-game audition earlier this season before returning to Finland for another year, while the rugged Samberg is in his final college season with two-time defending champion Minnesota-Duluth and still needs to be signed by the Jets.
As a result, the state of the defence looks a lot more promising these days.
Up front, the Jets have a number of depth players slated to walk this summer, including Cody Eakin, Nick Shore, Gabriel Bourque, Mark Letestu and Logan Shaw. Little’s status will impact how desperate the need is at forward. Goaltender Laurent Brossoit is also a pending UFA, so if he doesn’t re-sign, a new backup will need to be found.
Fortunately, the Jets’ newfound financial flexibility will make it a lot easier to fix some of these holes on the fly, unlike last year when salary-cap constraints led to Trouba, Tyler Myers, Ben Chiarot and Brandon Tanev all finding new homes.
As Evander Kane showed us a few years ago — and as Cheveldayoff is about to experience this summer — money can indeed talk.
Now it’s up to the GM to make sure he uses it wisely.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.