On your mark, get set… sign
Pressure mounting on Jets GM to improve team
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 08/10/2020 (964 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Memo to Kevin Cheveldayoff: Slow and steady won’t win this particular race. And the Winnipeg Jets general manager better be ready to hit the ground running on Friday as the pistol sounds to signal the start of NHL free agency.
His team has a solid core already in place, a few significant holes to fill and money to spend. Add it up and there’s no reason we shouldn’t see the most aggressive version of Cheveldayoff in his nearly decade-long history in Winnipeg.
It may not be his usual style, but Cheveldayoff seems to recognize the urgency, based on recent comments.
“We’re actively looking and planning to be in both of those markets,” he said Monday of both free agent signings and trades, two areas the “draft-and-develop” Jets have traditionally been fairly quiet in.
Cheveldayoff had a solid start to his week, getting a pair of unrestricted free agents under contract before they could hit the open market. In backup goalie Laurent Brossoit (one year, US$1.5 million), you keep a guy who is close with your Vezina Trophy winner in Connor Hellebuyck and should be highly motivated while playing in a limited role. In shutdown defenceman Dylan DeMelo (four years, US$3 million per season), you retain a valuable piece to a blue line that is in dire need of help.
Then there was the just-completed NHL draft, where the Jets hope they’ve found their star centre of the future in 10th-overall pick Cole Perfetti, who fell a few slots from his projected range right into their laps. You gotta be lucky to be good, right?
But there’s no time for Cheveldayoff to put his feet up and relax. The focus is right back to the present, with the 2020-21 season targeted to begin as early as Jan. 1 and the Jets trying to retool their roster to become the Stanley Cup contender they clearly were just a couple of seasons ago, before a salary-cap crunch led to an extreme makeover of the roster.
The needs are obvious: A strong, two-way centre to play behind Mark Scheifele and at least one defenceman who can join DeMelo, Josh Morrissey and Neal Pionk in the top-four mix are priorities. Additional blue-line and bottom-six forward depth, particularly that bring size, grit and can help kill penalties, is also being explored.
Fortunately for Cheveldayoff, there are options at his disposal. The unique economic climate owing to COVID-19 has meant a flat salary cap of US$81.5 million going forward and is forcing many teams to make some difficult decisions. We’ve seen that in recent days with plenty of pending restricted free agents not given qualifying offers and cut loose by their clubs and several other skaters being bought out. They’ll all be up for auction starting Friday.
Then there are cash-strapped teams such as the Vegas Golden Knights and Tampa Bay Lightning, which have to shed salary and may be ripe to trade valuable pieces for pennies on the dollar.
Assuming Bryan Little’s career is over — discussions seem to be heading in that direction — the veteran Jets centre will be placed on long-term injured relief and his salary will come off the books. Winnipeg will then have approximately US$67 million tied up on 17 players who could be on the roster next season. That doesn’t include restricted free agents Jack Roslovic, Mason Appleton, Jansen Harkins and Sami Niku, who will eat up a chunk of the approximately US$14.5 million remaining once they are signed to new deals.
Still, that should leave enough cash for Cheveldayoff to take a run at a few targets.
If a trade for Lightning centre Anthony Cirelli isn’t in the cards, how about one for Paul Stastny, who was a huge part of the Jets’ 2018 march to the Western Conference final? Winnipeg couldn’t retain the restricted free agent that summer because of their looming cap crunch, but things have changed dramatically since then, especially with the devastating injury to Little, termination of Dustin Byfuglien’s contract, departure of Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, Ben Chiarot and Brandon Tanev and expiry of Dmitry Kulikov’s deal.
With one year left at US$6.5 million and the Golden Knights desperately needing to clear cap space, it would seem to be an ideal match. The price would likely be low for the Jets, perhaps a late-round draft pick. Stastny, 34, has battled injuries the last two seasons in Sin City, but he’s still a valuable two-way centreman who fit like a glove with Winnipeg — and especially Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers on the second line — and would likely waive his no-trade clause for a return.
Failing that, UFA centres such as Erik Haula, Derick Brassard or Vladislav Namestnikov or bought-out/not qualified middle men such as Kyle Turris, Nick Cousins or Alexander Wennberg could also be options worth exploring on a short-term, team-friendly “prove yourself” deal that could serve as a stop-gap until Perfetti might be ready to assume that role in a season or two.
On the blue line, St. Malo product Travis Hamonic has been linked to Winnipeg, and there’s no question he’d love to come play for the Jets. Hamonic would also check off many of the boxes in terms of playing a rugged style and helping with killing penalties. Other UFA names they might look at include Sami Vatanen, T.J. Brodie, Kevin Shattenkirk, Erik Gustafsson, Troy Stecher, Chris Tanev and even old friend Zach Bogosian.
Again, these could help buy some time until Jets prospects such as Dylan Samberg and Ville Heinola are ready for those roles. In terms of additional, immediate help, the Jets could also revisit their own pending UFAs. Defenceman Nathan Beaulieu is a possibility, while Kulikov and centre Cody Eakin are long shots.
The biggest unknown is whether Laine is still being shopped around the league and if Cheveldayoff ultimately finds a match and pulls the trigger on what would be a blockbuster trade that rocks his roster to its core and overshadows free agency. Talk on that front may have cooled in recent days, but the nuclear option remains a possibility.
Pressure is mounting and the stakes are high, especially for one of the longest-tenured general managers in the league, who is about to enter his 10th season in Winnipeg but has just two playoff series victories on his Jets resumé.
The steps Cheveldayoff takes in the coming days will go a long way in determining whether he can ultimately take a victory lap — or gets left in the dust by his competitors.
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.