Faced with the choice of putting long-term money into Jacob Trouba or Dustin Byfuglien, the safer bet is the kid. No offence to Byfuglien and his immense abilities, but Trouba is the long play here and his presence in a Jets uniform for years to come must be the priority.

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Opinion

Faced with the choice of putting long-term money into Jacob Trouba or Dustin Byfuglien, the safer bet is the kid. No offence to Byfuglien and his immense abilities, but Trouba is the long play here and his presence in a Jets uniform for years to come must be the priority.

Keeping both would be great, but if it’s one or the other, Trouba gets the nod and the cash.

Winnipeg Jets' Jacob Trouba (8) during practice at the MTS IcePlex in January.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Winnipeg Jets' Jacob Trouba (8) during practice at the MTS IcePlex in January.

Trouba is 21 and will be entering his third year in the NHL this fall. Sports Illustrated ranked him among the world’s top-10 defenceman under the age of 23 last winter. He’s a top-pairing defenceman on the verge of hitting his peak. He is the kind of player a team can build around and count on for a decade. He’s the present and the future.

Byfuglien is a remarkable player and the next two or three years could see him play at an all-star level. Beyond that, it’s hard to predict if and when regression will set in with Byfuglien. He’ll turn 31 this season and hasn’t completed an entire 82-game schedule since 2009-10.

A large man who has had fitness issues over the years, the miles may or may not be starting to add up. When he’s right, Byfuglien is a player like no other in the NHL. But how long can he be counted on to continue providing such impact? Two years? Five years? It’s a guess.

The preferred route would be to keep both players and own one of the league’s most talented blue-line groups. But good players, especially those with some leverage, are expensive. Maybe Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff can find a way to massage his budget and get Trouba and Byfuglien under contract beyond the end of the coming season, but a lot will have to go the GM’s way to achieve this.

Without a new deal, Byfuglien is slated be an unrestricted free agent next summer. The Jets have to figure out what to do with him. They’ll try to arrange an extension, and if that proves too rich for their liking, they’ll look for a trade.

There are some in the hockey world who say he’ll be an $8-million-per-season player if he goes to market. If that’s the average annual value Byfuglien is looking for, term most likely becomes irrelevant — it’ll be new address time for Big Buff.

Following next season, Trouba will be 22 and four years away from unrestricted free agency. The Jets will have two options: a shorter bridge deal or a long-term contract.

A bridge contract is ideal for the team as it comes with a lower salary. So long as they can subsequently get him signed long-term and not have him leave Winnipeg at the height of his powers and still only 26. If the Jets can turn this trick, it’s a getting the cake and eating it too scenario.

A longer deal, stretching toward a maximum contract length of eight years, will come with a higher average annual value in the $6 million to $7 million range. This is a great route for the player. Sign a contract worth more than $40 million and come out of it still shy of 30 years old. Bingo.

So, Cheveldayoff will be weighing a number of options. Can he get Trouba on a shorter and less-expensive deal while keeping Byfuglien in town for a few more seasons. Or does that scenario, which inches Trouba closer to his UFA date, eventually put him in danger of having his top draft-and-develop player decide he’d like to test the market.

One thing the Jets have in their favour where Trouba is concerned is they are not a cap team and as such will not have to worry about an offer sheet unless someone wants to test the financial resolve of the club’s ownership.

We saw the Boston Bruins get pressed by the cap this summer and rather than risk losing Dougie Hamilton to an offer sheet they couldn’t match, the Bruins traded an offensively gifted and youthful defenceman.

The Jets, as a budget team that to this juncture has regularly spent below the cap, will have plenty of salary room to match an offer sheet.

Jets owners Mark Chipman and David Thomson have the funds to stave off any predatory manoeuvre from a rival franchise and understand it would be open season on their roster if they chose not to match. It simply can’t and won’t be allowed to happen.

On the surface, Byfuglien is the more pressing contract. But whatever Cheveldayoff does with Byfuglien may have ramifications on what he can do with Trouba. Pushing a load of money in Byfuglien’s direction solves the problems of today, but may create an much larger issue down the road.

It may be Byfuglien’s day right now, but Trouba Time has a far more distant horizon. Are the Jets more likely to be a contender in the next two or three years with Buff at his best or will a fully mature Trouba give them an opportunity to win for an extended number of seasons?

It’s the latter and that conclusion must govern the financial decisions of today.

 

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @garylawless