Just two moves on quiet first day

Jets add backup goaltender, forward on budget-minded deals

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As other teams across the NHL threw money around on Day 1 of free agency — to the tune of US$806 million over 109 signings by late Wednesday — Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff barely dipped his hand into the piggy bank.

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As other teams across the NHL threw money around on Day 1 of free agency — to the tune of US$806 million over 109 signings by late Wednesday — Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff barely dipped his hand into the piggy bank.

With plenty of work to do to fill holes in his lineup, including a handful of important restricted free agents still in need of contracts for the upcoming season, Cheveldayoff was limited to two pieces of business.

First, he addressed a need for a backup goaltender behind Connor Hellebuyck, inking David Rittich to a one-year deal worth US$900,000. Next, the Jets GM signed Swedish forward Kevin Stenlund to a one-year, two-way contract worth a league-minimum $750,000.

THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES/Liam Richards The Winnipeg Jets signed former Calgary Flames and, most recently, Nashville Predators goaltender David Rittich as a free agent Wednesday.

It marked quite the shift from the buzz a year ago, when the Jets seemingly went “all-in” by trading for a pair of defencemen in Nate Schmidt (Vancouver) and Brenden Dillon (Washington), in what was dubbed “The Summer of Chevy.” That season didn’t go nearly as planned, with the Jets falling well short of expectations, missing out on the playoffs and finishing sixth in the Central Division.

“Last year, we’re sitting here at this time, and we made the trades for the two defencemen, and everyone is already engraving the names on the Stanley Cup,” Cheveldayoff told the assembled media at Canada Life Centre. “So, there’s a lot to prove. The players have a lot to prove to themselves and I know the coaching staff is excited about that.”

Rittich replaces former No. 2 Eric Comrie, who signed for two years with the Buffalo Sabres at US$1.8 million per season. Rittich was an NHL all-star with the Calgary Flames in 2020, but has seen his stock drop significantly in recent years.

The 29-year-old played in 17 games, starting 12, as a backup for the Nashville Predators in 2021-22, finishing with a 6-3-4 record, a 3.57 goals-against average and .886 save percentage.

“It’s a veteran backup netminder who’s had some experience in a bigger role and is hungry to push and to prove,” Cheveldayoff said of Rittich. “But he also understands he’s there to support as well and to work.”

As for Comrie, Cheveldayoff said the Jets offered an undisclosed raise from the $750,000 they paid him last season. The issue in re-signing the 27-year-old, who was 10-5-1 with a 2.58 GAA and a .920 save percentage, in what was his first real shot at proving he’s a reliable backup, had more to do with an opportunity to play more games.

Winnipeg needed to play Comrie an additional 90 minutes last season to have him qualify as a restricted free agent. The Jets GM said that wouldn’t have mattered, though, predicting that with his arbitration rights he would have proven too costly for their budget.

Cheveldayoff echoed the same excuse for why he didn’t extend a qualifying offer to forward Evgeny Svechnikov, who he claimed would also be too rich despite registering just 19 points (7G, 12A) in 72 games.

“We also have to look at what opportunities might be out there for other players,” Cheveldayoff said. “Cole Perfetti’s going to play a big role on this team. Morgan Barron came in and showed what he can do.”

It’s unclear how much, if any, time Stenlund will play up with the Jets, with his season likely to start in the AHL with the Manitoba Moose. The 25-year-old brings size, at 6-4 and 211 pounds, but has been limited to just 11 goals and nine assists in 71 NHL games, all with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

The Jets still have a lot of business to take care of beyond adding players through free agency, including finding deals for five restricted free agents. Top of the list is centre Pierre-Luc Dubois, with forwards Jansen Harkins, Mason Appleton, David Gustafsson and Jeff Malott also in the same situation.

The Jets have spent just over US$67 million, leaving them with just over US$14 million to find room for their RFAs and anyone else they might want to add to their 23-man roster. A more realistic number would come closer to US$5 million to play with, assuming Winnipeg would want to spend close to the US$82.5 million salary cap.

“We’re still working on a few things on the free agent side of things,” Cheveldayoff said, adding the Jets have reached out to unrestricted free-agent Paul Stastny. “Hopefully some of those things come to fruition.”

Ben Jackson/NHLI via Getty Images The Jets signed Kevin Stenlund, most recently of the Columbus Blue Jackets, as a depth forward Wednesday.

Then there’s the possibility for trades, which would bring the potential of clearing out some valuable salary-cap space.

Dubois is reported to have told the Jets he plans to test free agency in two years, making him a potential target to be moved. More likely, Winnipeg finds a new home for captain Blake Wheeler, who has been said to be working with the Jets to facilitate a trade, and his US$8.25 million cap hit.

Dillon (US$3.9 million) has also been rumoured as trade bait, which would create some space on a crowded blue line. As it stands, the Jets still don’t have room to give significant time to all their promising young prospects, notably 21-year-old Ville Heinola, with Dylan Samberg ahead of him on the depth chart.

“The bigger issue is when you don’t have enough defencemen and when you don’t have the opportunity for competition that’s the bigger challenge,” Cheveldayoff said. “As an organization here, there’s going to be obviously lots of competition. What you see on paper now, a month into the season you just don’t know.”

A few former Jets found new homes.

Andrew Copp signed a five-year, US$28-million deal with his hometown Detroit Red Wings. Former defenceman Ben Chiarot also signed with Detroit, at four years for a combined US$19 million. And centre Adam Brooks, a Winnipeg native, reached a two-year, two-way pact with the Philadelphia Flyers totalling US$1.75 million.

“Purposely, I stay off of any type of television or anything like that on days like this. Guys fill you in as it kind of goes on, but it’s a fast-moving day in a sense that you’re making calls, you’re making offers and then you sit and wait,” Cheveldayoff said. “You circle back and maybe that player is there and maybe he’s not. That’s the timing of things sometimes on a day like this.”

Jeff.Hamilton@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

Jeff Hamilton
Multimedia producer

After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.

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