Jets still have time to make some off-season noise

Adding depth an option with quality free agents still available

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Opinion

Kyusung Gong / The Associated Press

Evan Rodrigues had a career year with the Penguins last season. The Jets should be doing everything they can to sign him.

It’s been a shockingly sleepy summer for the Winnipeg Jets.

There have been no significant free-agent signings. No trades, blockbuster or otherwise. Other than filling the coaching staff vacancies and extending the contracts of a handful of their own players, there’s been plenty of time for swimming at the lake, long walks on the beach and nights spent around the campfire roasting marshmallows.

Which is great for anyone looking for some much-needed R&R. Not so much for an organization that was feeling the heat on and off the ice after a most disappointing campaign. Where’s the urgency and desperation to fix a flawed roster that wasn’t even close to good enough a year ago and give fans in this market something to sink their teeth into?

On vacation, apparently.

With a new month now upon us and fall on the horizon, there’s still a chance to salvage an underwhelming off-season. Yes, the talent pool is far more shallow than it was six weeks ago, but there is a handful of intriguing players still searching for new hockey homes with NHL training camps set to open in just three weeks.

Winnipeg’s No. 1 need is clear: Adding some depth up front, with a priority on right-handed shots. All this talk about last year’s team failing to meet lofty expectations and deserving another shot ignores the fact that numerous skaters including Andrew Copp, Paul Stastny, Kristian Vesalainen and Evgeny Svechnikov have all departed. In their place are the likes of Mason Appleton, Morgan Barron and NHL/AHL bubble players including Kevin Stenlund, Alex Limoges and Saku Maenalanen.

Sure, the hope is drafted-and-developed prospects such as Cole Perfetti and David Gustafsson will take on larger roles this year. But some additional quality competition would be a welcome development. The Jets don’t have a wealth of riches to play with, but there is still somewhere in the neighbourhood of US$4 t0 5 million in salary-cap space if they wish to hit the ceiling.

Here are seven options, ranked in order of priority:

1. C/RW Evan Rodrigues: The 29-year-old is coming off a career year, with 43 points (19G, 24A) in 82 games with Pittsburgh. It’s fair to note those numbers were inflated by playing with Sidney Crosby, but the counterpoint is he’s the kind of guy you can pair with a star to balance out a line. He made just US$1 million last season and is obviously due for a raise, but the fact he’s yet to sign with any team tells you his asking price is too high. Rodrigues may have to adjust his demands but he is going to end up somewhere eventually, and the Jets should be doing whatever they can to land him.

(AP Photo/Alex Gallardo) Anaheim Ducks left wing Sonny Milano, right, fights for position with Winnipeg Jets defencemen and goaltender Connor Hellebuyck during a game in Anaheim, in 2021.

2. C/LW/RW Sonny Milano: The 16th-overall draft pick in 2014 is coming off a career-high 34 points (14G, 20A) in 66 games with Anaheim. The 26-year-old has plenty of skill, speed and sizzle, as we saw at times last year when he teamed up with the dazzling Trevor Zegras for some highlight-reel goals. He’s no slouch in his own end based on analytics, which would no doubt bring a smile to the face of new Jets bench boss Rick Bowness. He had a US$1.7 million cap hit last year and wasn’t tendered a qualifying offer by the re-building Ducks, which is certainly a bit of a red flag. But a short-term “prove yourself” kind of deal to a guy who was also previously given up on by Columbus (another bit of a red flag) could make a lot of sense.

3. C/RW Sam Gagner: A veteran of 967 regular-season games whose best years are well behind him, Gagner can still be a useful complementary piece. His 13 goals and 31 points last year with a bad Detroit team were his most since 2016-17, so there’s still some game left in the 33-year-old from Ontario. He could also help replace some of the wisdom lost with the departure of 36-year-old Stastny, who was a mentor to many of Winnipeg’s young players and a much-needed voice of reason when the going got tough last year. He made US$850,000 last year and can probably be had for a similar price this year.

4. LW/RW Daniel Sprong: The 25-year-old from the Netherlands has bounced around so far in his career, with stops in Pittsburgh, Anaheim, Washington and Seattle. Last season, he had a combined 14 goals and six assists in 63 games with the Capitals and Kraken, which tied a career-high set in 2018-19 with the Ducks. He’s fast, has a great shot and should be hungry to prove himself after Seattle opted not to qualify him this summer despite making only US$750,000 last year.

THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES/Fred Greenslade Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck makes a save as he is screened by Arizona Coyotes' Derek Stepan.

5. C/RW Derek Stepan: Similar to Gagner, the 32-year-old would check off a lot of boxes. He’s a proven scorer and playmaker with 817 career games who put up 19 points (9 goals, 10 assists) on a loaded Carolina squad last year. He’s also from Minnesota, which we know the Jets love given the abundance of players under contract from The State of Hockey. Stepan made US$1.35 million last year and, given the current landscape, will have to take less to latch on with his next team. He’s reportedly had talks with the Hurricanes about attending training camp on a professional tryout offer, but that wouldn’t stop Winnipeg from stepping in and signing him.

6. LW/RW Tyler Motte: He’s not going to put up any big numbers, but the 27-year-old Michigan product — who was part of the terrific CCM line in college along with Kyle Connor and JT Compher — could add some depth to the bottom-six. He had 15 points (7 goals, 8 assists) in 58 combined games with Vancouver and the New York Rangers last year, making US$1.45 million. He also had two playoff goals for the Broadway Blueshirts and plays the kind of gritty, defensive style that isn’t flashy but can help win games.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES The Jets could bring back free-agent forward Evgeny Svechnikov.

7. LW/RW Evgeny Svechnikov: Why not? Sure, he was inconsistent at times last year, but he had solid chemistry on a line with Connor and Pierre-Luc Dubois. Although the Jets opted not to qualify him as a restricted free agent, that doesn’t completely rule out a reunion. (They re-signed defenceman Joe Morrow a few years ago following a similar path). Still just 25, Svechnikov became a fan favourite around here for his outgoing personality that was on display during several mic’d-up videos put out by the team. And he still had 19 points (7 goals, 12 assists) in 72 games with strong defensive metrics.

Of course, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff could still address his club’s needs by pulling the trigger on a trade or two, especially with so many veteran defenceman under contract and seemingly no room at the inn for some of the organization’s top young blue-liners such as Ville Heinola, Dylan Samberg, Johnathan Kovacevic, Declan Chisholm and Leon Gawanke. But the clock is ticking on that front.

Could it be a September to remember for the Jets, or will the lazy, hazy days of summer carry over? We’re about to find out.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

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.

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