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Kevin Cheveldayoff doesn’t need me to tell him how to do his job. The Winnipeg Jets general manager has his own knowledge and experience to rely on, along with a team of talented hockey minds around him.
That doesn’t mean I’m not going to give it the ol’ college try.
I recently wrote that pressure should be mounting on Cheveldayoff as he enters a critical off-season for the organization. The Jets have gone backwards in consecutive seasons, from a trip to the Western Conference final in 2018 to a first-round playoff elimination in 2019 to falling short in a post-season qualifying round series in 2020.
Throw in the fact Cheveldayoff is entering his 10th season at the helm, which is rare air for NHL executives, and his seat should be getting awfully warm these days. Get this club quickly pointed back in the right direction — or make room for someone else to come in with a fresh approach.
Business is about to start picking up around here, especially once the Stanley Cup is awarded about a month from now. And Cheveldayoff’s to-do list has no shortage of items on it.
No, the Jets didn’t get lucky at the draft lottery and land the No. 1 pick. That honour went to the New York Rangers, who will surely select phenom Alexis Lafrenière when the two-day event begins in virtual form Oct. 9.
However, that doesn’t mean all hope for the future is lost. The Jets will pick 10th, which should still net them a solid prospect in what is believed to be a deep draft.
Since Jets 2.0 took off in 2011, the following players have been taken in that spot: Jonas Brodin (2011), Slater Koekkoek (2012), Valeri Nichushkin (2013), Nick Ritchie (2014), Mikko Rantanen (2015), Tyson Jost (2016), Owen Tippett (2017), Evan Bouchard (2018) and Vasily Podkolzin (2019).
Among the names who could be available based on amateur scouting lists are Canadian forwards Cole Perfetti and Jack Quinn, American defenceman Jake Sanderson, Swedish winger Alexander Holtz, Finnish centre Anton Lundell and Russian goaltender Iaroslav Askarov.
Unlike Lafrenière, none are expected to be able to step in immediately and contribute. But Winnipeg’s prospect pool isn’t nearly as deep as a few seasons ago, mainly due to the fact so many bright young players have graduated to the big club. They need a home run here.
The Jets have only four picks this year, barring any trades. They’ll also pick 41st (second round), 133rd (fifth) and 164th (sixth). Picks in the third, fourth and seventh rounds were previously dealt away.
There are 13 players in this category. Eight were in the lineup for Winnipeg's Game 4 defeat to Calgary that ended their season – defencemen Dylan DeMelo, Dmitry Kulikov and Nathan Beaulieu, forwards Cody Eakin, Nick Shore, Gabriel Bourque and Logan Shaw, and backup goaltender Laurent Brossoit.
The others are depth blue-liners Luca Sbisa, Anthony Bitetto and Cam Schilling and depth forwards Mark Letestu and Seth Griffith.
DeMelo should be priority No. 1 for Cheveldayoff. He acquitted himself well on a top pairing since coming over in a February trade with the Ottawa Senators, and his return would help settle a blue-line that only has regulars Josh Morrissey, Neal Pionk and Tucker Poolman under contract. DeMelo is coming off making just US$900,000 and will be looking for a big raise and term, but the Jets should do everything possible to retain him.
Beaulieu, who made US$1 million this season, should also be brought back if possible. He adds much-needed physicality and works well in a third-pairing role. The rest of the defencemen can walk, with Kulikov providing the biggest cost savings as his US$4.333-million deal comes off the books.
Up front, the big question will be whether Cheveldayoff takes a run at re-signing Eakin, who seemed miscast in a second-line centre role. I believe it’s best to move on, unless he’s willing to take a big hometown discount (The 29-year-old made US$3.85 million this season). None of the other UFA forwards are anything more than replacement-level depth.
Brossoit will be an interesting case. After a stellar 2018-19 campaign, he regressed in 2019-20. There’s no question he works well with No. 1 goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, but there will be plenty of goalies available on the open market. I’d find a way to bring him back, unless you think there’s a significant improvement available at a cost you can live with. Bottom line is this is Hellebuyck’s crease, and he’s going to play at least 60 games.
There are six players in this category, and none of the Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor variety which occupied so much effort (and money) last off-season. Forwards Jack Roslovic, Mason Appleton and Jansen Harkins and defenceman Sami Niku are the only four who would be considered NHLers at this point, with forwards C.J. Suess and defenceman Nelson Nogier the others.
Cheveldayoff at least has some comfort knowing none of them will break the bank coming out of their expiring entry-level deals, but some cap space will have to be allocated. Roslovic stands to see the biggest bump from the US$894,166 he made this season, but even that won’t be substantial.
Todd Woodcroft left to become a bench boss at the University of Vermont. He was a real X’s and O’s guy who worked especially well with young players and will need to be replaced, no doubt with input from head coach Paul Maurice.
The veteran centre is an integral part of the team, as beloved and respected as you’ll find. But his devastating head and ear injuries suffered in November may be career-threatening.
If Little can’t resume playing, he would likely be moved to long-term injured reserve, which would also free up his $5.291-million contract (he would still be paid, but it wouldn’t count against the cap). Obviously that money could go a long way to helping fill some holes.
The 32-year-old forward is entering the final year of a deal that pays him US$4.125 million. That’s a lot of money for a player who has slowed down considerably, is injury-prone and often skates on the fourth line. A buyout would save the Jets US$2.6 million towards the cap (they would still have a cap hit of nearly US$1.5 million next season, and US$1.3 million the following season). Is it worth it?
Although you’d be opening up a spot, you’d still have to replace him on the roster. The key is what you do with the money saved on Perreault. Ideally, you could find a trade partner willing to take Perreault, perhaps a team with plenty of cap space. But they’d want something in return, not unlike how Cheveldayoff had to send Joel Armia to the Montreal Canadiens to rid himself of goalie Steve Mason’s deal. All options should be considered.
Let’s assume Cheveldayoff doesn’t re-sign any of his UFAs. That leaves him with just 14 players who were on the year-end roster under contract for next season. Nine forwards (Mark Scheifele, Laine, Blake Wheeler, Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers, Little, Andrew Copp, Adam, Lowry, Perreault), four defencemen (Josh Morrissey, Neal Pionk, Poolman, Carl Dahlstrom) and one goaltender (Hellebuyck).
Those 14 players are set to make just under US$66 million next season. Once new deals for Roslovic, Appleton, Harkins and Niku are completed, that brings you to 18 players, but also somewhere in the range of US$70 million.
The salary cap is expected to remain flat next season at US$81.5. That allows for some room — but not a lot — to fill out a 23-man roster, which will need a backup goaltender, a couple defencemen and a couple forwards at minimum, along with additional depth pieces for the farm.
Young prospects such as defencemen Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg and forwards David Gustafsson and Kristian Vesalainen could all force their way into the equation as well, and at team-friendly entry-level deals paying them under US$1 million per season.
Flames defenceman Travis Hamonic, a product of St. Malo, is one notable UFA would look great on Winnipeg’s blue-line. The biggest free-agent fish is St. Louis Blues stud Alex Pietrangelo, but he’s likely to command a ransom the Jets may not be able to afford.
There’s not a ton of appealing options out there, which is why Cheveldayoff may have to...
It’s time to get aggressive. You’ve got a Vezina Trophy finalist in net, several elite scoring forwards and a couple big pieces on the blue-line to build around. This team should be in win-now mode.
Roslovic is a name often mentioned in trades, and he would likely bring a decent haul. If you’re thinking even bigger, perhaps one of the young wingers in Connor, Laine or Ehlers will have to be dangled. Focusing on a second-line centre and top-four defenceman should be the priorities here.
We saw the Pittsburgh Penguins and Toronto Maple Leafs do a deal this week to shake up their rosters. I hope Cheveldayoff was paying attention.
Outside of Hellebuyck, Scheifele and Morrissey, everything else should be in play — and that includes the 10th overall pick. Cheveldayoff hasn’t traditionally been very active in this department, but he may not have any other choice if he wants to stick around.
The next few months will be critical.
Updated on Friday, August 28, 2020 at 8:46 PM CDT: Adds photos
10:13 PM: Fixes spelling of Patrik Laine.
10:36 PM: Removes players that have signed overseas.
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