Most expensive Jets earning their keep

The Winnipeg Jets are getting plenty of bang for their considerable buck this season when it comes to their highest-paid players.

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The Winnipeg Jets are getting plenty of bang for their considerable buck this season when it comes to their highest-paid players.

There’s no need to start a GoFundMe for Blake Wheeler ($8.25 million), Kyle Connor ($7.142 million), Josh Morrissey ($6.25 million), Connor Hellebuyck ($6.166 million), Mark Scheifele ($6.125 million) or Pierre-Luc Dubois ($6 million). They represent the six richest contracts on the hockey club, pulling down a combined $40 million per year, all in American greenbacks.

CapFriendly has Winnipeg’s current salary hit at just under the league maximum of US$81.5 million, which includes the 23 active rostered players and four skaters currently on injured reserve. That means the Jets top six accounts for nearly 50 per cent of the budget, with the other 21 responsible for the rest. A top-heavy equation, for sure.

With great paycheques comes great responsibility. And it says here they’ve all been pulling their weight and earning their keep, which is a major reason Winnipeg is among the NHL’s elite with a stellar 18-9-1 record heading into Thursday’s divisional showdown with the Nashville Predators at Canada Life Centre.

Let’s look at the receipts, shall we:

*Morrissey: The 27-year-old has blossomed into one of the league’s top defencemen, and it’s for good reason many are now referring to him as Norris-sey. He’s certainly in the running for some year-end hardware if he keeps up this pace. Morrissey leads the Jets in scoring with 32 points, and his 27 assists is already a new career-high. He’s on track to obliterate his previous best of 37 points. Erik Karlsson (38 points) and Rasmus Dahlin (33 points) are the only two NHL blue-liners who have produced more offence so far. It’s not just the scoring. Morrissey is on the top pairing with Dylan DeMelo, getting all the toughest matchups, and is a big reason Winnipeg has morphed into one of the stingiest squads in the league.

*Scheifele: His 18 goals lead the team, and he’s ninth overall in the NHL. That’s a 53-goal pace over an 82-game season. Scheifele’s previous high was 38, set in the 2018-19 campaign. Just as impressive is a renewed focus in his own end of the rink. It’s far from perfect, but it’s a marked improvement over what we’ve seen in recent years. Scheifele,29, is clearly buying what new coach Rick Bowness is selling, while also proving good defence can lead to good offence. A guy who sounded like he wanted a one-way ticket out of town following last season is now playing impressive, inspired hockey.

*Hellebuyck: His 2.45 goals-against average and .926 save percentage would be second best and tops, respectively, in his career, which is quite something for a guy who’s already won a Vezina Trophy and was a finalist a second time. Hellebuyck, 29, is among the league-leaders in both categories, and his 14 wins are second-most so far. He’s everything you could want in a starting goalie, and then some.

*Dubois: Notice a trend here? Just like the three guys mentioned above, Dubois is also tracking toward some career bests. With 30 points (14 goals, 16 assists) through 28 games, he should easily surpass previous highs of 28 goals (last season in 81 games) and 61 points (2018-19 over 82 games). The 24-year-old carries himself like a leader on and off the ice, including gutting through an illness Tuesday night that had him receiving a post-game IV treatment. You’d like him to take a few less penalties, sure, but he also draws a ton of power plays for his team with his abrasive style of play.

*Connor: The 26-year-old winger set the bar extremely high with a 47-goal, 93-point campaign last year which included winning the Lady Byng as most sportsmanlike player. And while his numbers are slightly down this year — 11 goals and 19 assists so far, putting him tied with linemate Dubois for second in team scoring behind Morrissey — there’s no reason for concern. He’s actually had 26 points in the last 19 games (10 goals, 16 assists) and might get close to those 2021-22 numbers if he can keep it going following a slow (and quite unlucky) start. Connor has taken just one minor penalty so far — he had two last season — which is valuable for a guy who plays as much has he does.

*Wheeler: Last, but certainly not least, you have to tip your hat to the way Wheeler responded to losing his captaincy in training camp. There’s been no signs of sulking or pouting. In fact, it seems the move has freed him up to play some of his best hockey. Despite being 36, Wheeler continues to show great hands and vision and, yes, leadership qualities. His 26 points (nine goals, 17 assists) has him on a near-identical point-per-game pace as his last three seasons. The lucrative five-year contract extension he signed three years ago is aging a lot better than many feared.

Add it all up and Winnipeg’s six priciest players just happen to be, arguably, NHL’s best goaltender, along with the team’s top five scorers (57 goals, 87 assists, 144 combined points in the 28 games so far). I’m not sure you could ask for anything more from any of them.

Their combined play has helped the Jets withstand the extended loss of Nikolaj Ehlers, who suffered a sports hernia in his second game of the year, plus injuries to depth forwards such as Mason Appleton and Saku Maenalanen. Don’t look now, but Ehlers is getting closer to a return. Although the Jets cancelled practice Wednesday owing to illness sweeping through the team, the 26-year-old Danish winger hit the ice for his first skate since undergoing surgery three weeks ago. The best-case scenario still has him three to four weeks away from a return to the lineup. Appleton and Maenalanen, meanwhile, are in a similar range.

The only potential problem? Four of the six can become unrestricted free agents in 18 months from now. Scheifele, Hellebuyck and Wheeler are signed through to the end of the 2023-24 season, while Dubois will become a restricted free agent when his current pact expires next summer, leaving him one year away from potentially reaching UFA status. This adds to the importance and urgency of the current campaign.

Scheifele, Hellebuyck and Wheeler are signed through to the end of the 2023-24 season, while Dubois will become a restricted free agent when his current pact expires next summer, leaving him one year away from potentially reaching UFA status.

If ever there was a time for general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff to be aggressive, this year would seem to be it, with the Jets off to a tremendous start and comfortably in a playoff spot with the big guns leading the way. Who knows what the future holds, with the potential for a seismic shakeup of the core in store, depending on how contract talks play out.

It will make for a fascinating next couple months leading up to the NHL’s trade deadline on March 3.

Such is the cost of doing business. But for Winnipeg so far this year, the price has definitely been right.

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.


Updated on Wednesday, December 14, 2022 7:35 PM CST: Clarifies Dubois' current pact with the Jets

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