November 16, 2018

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Draft, develop... distress

Jets uncomfortably close to NHL salary cap now and things are going to get downright ugly next summer

Urgency, thy name is next season.

The final numbers are almost in — and it appears Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and his staff will be able to keep the band mostly together as they gear up for what they hope is another run at the Stanley Cup.

But just as quickly as the window of opportunity seemed to open last year for this young and talented group, there is growing evidence to suggest it could also slam shut in a hurry without some shrewd manoeuvring and maybe some luck sprinkled in.

It's no secret the small-market Jets are on the verge of a salary-cap crisis that is likely going to force Cheveldayoff to make some cold, hard decisions that could change the look of the team in the very near future. That's the price to pay for drafting well and then trying to keep the homegrown core intact.

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Urgency, thy name is next season.

The final numbers are almost in — and it appears Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and his staff will be able to keep the band mostly together as they gear up for what they hope is another run at the Stanley Cup.

But just as quickly as the window of opportunity seemed to open last year for this young and talented group, there is growing evidence to suggest it could also slam shut in a hurry without some shrewd manoeuvring and maybe some luck sprinkled in.

It's no secret the small-market Jets are on the verge of a salary-cap crisis that is likely going to force Cheveldayoff to make some cold, hard decisions that could change the look of the team in the very near future. That's the price to pay for drafting well and then trying to keep the homegrown core intact.

Sniper Patrik Laine will be in line for a big raise next season. (John Locher / The Associated Press)</p></p>

Sniper Patrik Laine will be in line for a big raise next season. (John Locher / The Associated Press)

But how things have played out this summer reveal just how dire the situation really is.

Winnipeg currently has 19 NHL players under contract for the coming season, with a combined salary cap hit of just under $67.7 million. That includes long-term contracts handed out in recent days to goalie Connor Hellebuyck and centre Adam Lowry, a one-year arbitration award to defenceman Jacob Trouba and a one-year extension to energy forward Brandon Tanev.

Three of those signed players — Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor and Jack Roslovic — are on cheap entry-level deals that include performance bonuses that could carry an additional hit of up to $3.7 million. That means Winnipeg must operate as if it's carrying approximately $71.4 million in salaries right now.

Teams need a 23-man roster. And the current salary cap is $79.5 million. That gives the Jets a total of approximately $8.1 million to play with for the remaining four spots.

One of those is going to restricted free agent Josh Morrissey. The top-pairing defenceman is due for a big raise and will likely eat up a big chunk of what's left of the financial pie.

Restricted free agent Josh Morrissey is due for a big raise and will likely eat up a big chunk of what's left of the financial pie. (Trevor Hagan / The Canadian Press Files)</p>

Restricted free agent Josh Morrissey is due for a big raise and will likely eat up a big chunk of what's left of the financial pie. (Trevor Hagan / The Canadian Press Files)

You can also likely pencil in RFA's Tucker Poolman and Marko Dano (who has an arbitration hearing set for July 30). The other spot could go to RFA forward Nic Petan. None will command big tickets, but it all adds up, of course.

Once those players are inked, the Jets will likely be close to the ceiling. And you can bet Cheveldayoff would like to keep some breathing room available for a mid-season, pro-rated addition, as he did with Paul Stastny at last year's trade deadline.

Which brings us to another key point. There was plenty of angst around these parts when the Jets traded backup goalie Steve Mason and promising young forward Joel Armia last month, only to whiff on their attempts to get Stastny re-signed. The veteran centre opted to take his talents to Sin City to the tune of $6.5 million a year for three seasons.

But here's the thing: it's become crystal clear moving out Mason and Armia was necessary simply to keep the rest of the squad together, regardless of what happened with Stastny. And had Cheveldayoff been able to bring Stastny back, a significant purge of other roster pieces would have been necessary.

Trading Bryan Little? Moving out Mathieu Perreault? Finding a taker for Tyler Myers? Buying out Dmitry Kulikov? Some, if not all, would likely have been considered.

Marko Dano has an arbitration hearing set for July 30. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

Marko Dano has an arbitration hearing set for July 30. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

And if that's not enough, here's another thing to worry about: as constricting as this year's cap situation is, it's only going to get worse.

Laine, Connor, Trouba, Andrew Copp, Joe Morrow and backup goalie Laurent Brossoit will all be RFAs next summer needing new contracts. In Laine and Connor's case, there will be massive pay raises from the paltry $925,000 the team's No. 1 and No. 2 goal scorers from last season are each making. That's going to leave a mark.

Roslovic, who looks to take on a more prominent role with the Jets this year with Stastny no longer in the picture, will need a new deal the following season that will also likely mean a hefty raise.

Four players are set to become unrestricted free agents next summer — captain Blake Wheeler, Tanev, Myers and defenceman Ben Chiarot. Combined, they currently make just over $13.5 million, which may translate into desperately needed cap relief.

And this is where we circle back to the earlier point, about the coming season being a case of "win now." As much as the Jets may want to keep the above players in the fold — Wheeler, no doubt, at the top of the list — you have to wonder how Chevy can possibly find a way to make some magic with the math and bring them back.

Captain Blake Wheeler will become an unrestricted free agent next summer. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)</p></p>

Captain Blake Wheeler will become an unrestricted free agent next summer. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press)

It would likely, to coin a phrase Cheveldayoff used earlier in the off-season when discussing how the club would fit Stastny in financially, require "major surgery" to other parts of the roster.

Yes, the salary cap will probably keep going up each year, but not nearly enough to find a way to keep this current group intact beyond the coming season. Changes will have to be made. Talented players will likely have to be shipped out or let go in favour of cheaper, entry-level alternatives on the farm.

Could that mean eventually being forced to part ways with a young star like Nikolaj Ehlers, Connor or Roslovic, as painful as that would no doubt be to the team and fan base?

Or what about the oft-discussed Trouba situation? Maybe a trade would not only be best for both sides, but a necessity from Winnipeg's perspective.

Chicago has done it, time and time again, as they've faced down many of the same issues now on the horizon for the Jets. And they've done a remarkable job of retooling around their core, the same way Cheveldayoff will likely try to keep that window open as long as possible with cornerstone players such as Hellebuyck, Morrissey, Laine and Mark Scheifele.

And that's why the Manitoba Moose take on such a vital role here. Young prospects such as Sami Niku, Mason Appleton, Brendan Lemieux and Eric Comrie — presuming they don't crack the roster out of training camp — will need to blossom in the AHL so that they're ready to step in without missing a beat when their number gets called by the Jets. The same goes for new additions such as forward Kristian Vesalainen and defenceman Logan Stanley, among others.

It's the circle of life in the salary cap era of the NHL. And it's yet another reason why this coming season for the Jets takes on even greater importance as they look to pick up where they left off, while keeping a wary eye on what might be lurking around the corner.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Reporter

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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Updated on Tuesday, July 24, 2018 at 11:37 AM CDT: Changes tile headline

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