Opinion

One major hurdle cleared. One massive obstacle to go.

One major hurdle cleared. One massive obstacle to go.

The Winnipeg Jets burned the midnight oil to get a new deal done with Neal Pionk early Wednesday, avoiding a potentially contentious arbitration hearing with their top offensive defenceman that had been set for Friday. Four years and US$23.5 million — an average salary of US$5.875 million — is a nice piece of work for both the club and the undrafted 26-year-old Minnesota product, who has blossomed after coming over from the New York Rangers in 2019.

Only 12 NHL blue-liners have more points than Pionk's 77 over the past two seasons, and he's proven to be more than just a one-trick pony. Despite a modest 6-foot, 190-pound frame, he's a hard hitter, fearless shot-blocker and capable defender who has also helped quarterback one of the league's most potent power-play units and assumed a leadership role on and off the ice. The contract seems like a win-win for both sides.

Jets defenceman Neal Pionk is on board for another four years after signing a US$23.5-million contract Wednesday. (Tony Gutierrez / The Associated Press files)

Jets defenceman Neal Pionk is on board for another four years after signing a US$23.5-million contract Wednesday. (Tony Gutierrez / The Associated Press files)

Still, there's no time for Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff to put his feet up at the cottage and enjoy the rest of the summer. A busy offseason now boils down to one crucial remaining question: Is forward Andrew Copp willing to take a hometown discount to keep a deep, talented roster intact, one that looks poised to take a legitimate run at a Stanley Cup over the next few years?

Pionk's signing leaves the Jets with somewhere between US$3.1 to US$4.3 million left to play with to get Copp inked to a new deal, remain under the US$81.5 million salary cap ceiling and keep the band together when the puck drops on the 2021-22 campaign in October. Considering the 27-year-old restricted free agent is believed to be asking for north of US$5 million per year, a risky game of chicken is underway.

The clock is ticking to see who blinks first, with Aug. 26 set for arbitration. If a solution can't be found by then, Copp is a goner. The Jets would have no choice but to move him, considering Copp would be an unrestricted free agent next summer and able to sign with any team. Losing him would create an instant hole that wouldn't easily be filled for a team in "win-now" mode.

This is not another Jacob Trouba situation, even if Copp shares the same agent as the former Winnipeg blue-liner in Kurt Overhardt. Copp is the ultimate team guy, a drafted and developed product who loves it here and has embraced multiple roles that have come his way including the chance to grow his offensive game beyond a third-line checking role by moving into the top six at times last year, setting career-highs for goals (15), assists (24) and points (39). All of which is now driving his asking price up, even if the Jets would likely counter by saying those offensive opportunities may not be so prolific going forward.

MORE MONEY, MORE PROBLEMS:

Here's how the projected Winnipeg Jets 23-man roster currently looks, with restricted free agent Andrew Copp still to be signed. The following contracts add up to US$78.366 million, which would give US$3.133 million left under the US$81.5 million salary cap ceiling. (All figures in U.S. dollars)

Here's how the projected Winnipeg Jets 23-man roster currently looks, with restricted free agent Andrew Copp still to be signed. The following contracts add up to US$78.366 million, which would give US$3.133 million left under the US$81.5 million salary cap ceiling. (All figures in U.S. dollars)

FORWARDS (12)

Blake Wheeler: $8.25 million

Kyle Connor: $7.142 million

Mark Scheifele: $6.125 million

Nikolaj Ehlers: $6 million

Pierre-Luc Dubois: $5 million

Paul Stastny: $3.75 million

Adam Lowry: $3.25 million

Kristian Vesalainen: $894,167

David Gustafsson: $817,500

Riley Nash: $750,000

Dominic Toninato: $750,000

Jansen Harkins: $725,000

DEFENCE (8)

Josh Morrissey: $6.25 million

Nate Schmidt: $5.95 million

Neal Pionk: $5.875 million

Brenden Dillon: $3.9 million

Dylan DeMelo: $3 million

Nathan Beaulieu: $1.25 million

Logan Stanley: $900,000

Sami Niku: $725,000

GOALTENDER (2)

Connor Hellebuyck: $6.166 million

Eric Comrie: $750,000

NOTE - If the Jets were to utilize a 22-man roster, they could free up an additional $1.25 million if depth defencemen Nathan Beaulieu was traded, or $1.125 million if he passed through waivers and was assigned to the Manitoba Moose (a $125,000 cap hit would still apply if he's in the AHL). If the Jets wanted to swap out any of the above projected roster players with others in their pipeline, the following cap hits apply to the most likely candidates for promotions to the big club:

D Dylan Samberg: $925,000

F Cole Perfetti: $894,167

D Ville Heinola: $863,333

F Luke Johnson: $750,000

F Austin Poganski: $750,000

F Mikey Eyssimont: $750,000

F Joona Luoto: $741,667

D Nelson Nogier: $725,000

F C.J. Suess: $725,000

If he ultimately must be moved, it's not personal. Just the cold, hard reality of the hockey business, which has been hit hard by the global pandemic. Copp already experienced that two years ago, when he went to arbitration asking for US$2.9 million per season, the Jets countered with just US$1.5 million and the arbitrator split the difference and gave him US$2.28 million per year in what proved to be a real steal for the club. I wouldn't blame Copp, who admits to having a chip on his shoulder from that process, for not wanting to take less than his perceived worth once again.

But what's the alternative? Getting traded to a cellar-dwelling team with plenty of cap space but no chance of winning in the near future? Watching a talented teammate shipped out to shed room for your salary, making you less of a contender in the process? Rock, meet hard place.

Expect the Jets to utilize some financial gymnastics to try and find a fit. That could mean going with a 22-man roster, rather than the maximum 23, to save some space. They may have no choice but to put someone like well-respected depth defenceman Nathan Beaulieu on waivers, hoping he gets claimed or can be sent to the Manitoba Moose to get relief from his US$1.25 million contract (they would still be on the hook for a US$125,000 cap hit if he were in the AHL).

They will also need to keep some players on league-minimum deals around, such as projected backup goalie Eric Comrie, defenceman Sami Niku and forwards such as Dominic Toninato, Jansen Harkins and Riley Nash. Replacing them with anyone else, including top prospects Ville Heinola, Dylan Samberg and Cole Perfetti, would bring higher cap hits.

Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff is in a tough spot when it comes to negotiating a deal with versatile forward Andrew Copp (left) and remaining under the NHL's salary cap. (Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press files)

Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff is in a tough spot when it comes to negotiating a deal with versatile forward Andrew Copp (left) and remaining under the NHL's salary cap. (Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press files)

Every penny is going to count, which is why it's important the Jets likely saved a few of them with the Pionk deal. In a summer where several shiny new contracts have already been handed out to defencemen such as Dougie Hamilton, Darnell Nurse and Zach Werenski for more than US$9 million per year, Pionk likely left some money on the table. We'll hear from him over Zoom on Thursday, but it's clear he believes in what the Jets are doing right now, while recognizing the financial issues they face with a flat salary cap.

Remember all the hue and cry in some quarters about how one-sided that 2019 blockbuster trade necessitated by Trouba wanting a one-way ticket out of town was? I was in Toronto covering Winnipeg early in the 2019-20 season when a scribe from the centre of the hockey universe joined a scrum and got Pionk laughing when he summed up his question about the trade as follows: "Neal Pionk WHO? Neal Pionk WHAT?!"

Turns out a fleecing may have occurred between the Jets and Rangers, but not in the way plenty of local fans feared. Not only did Winnipeg get Pionk, they also re-acquired their 20th-overall draft pick they'd shipped out in the ill-fated Kevin Hayes acquisition, which allowed them to select Heinola. Trouba, meanwhile, has struggled mightily in the Big Apple since signing a huge seven-year, US$56 million contract (US$8 million per season), and isn't even a top-pairing defenceman with the Broadway Blueshirts.

Pionk's point-production might take a dip with Nate Schmidt now in the fold for the next four seasons. There's only so many special teams spots, and we'll see how coach Paul Maurice uses the likes of Pionk, Schmidt and Josh Morrissey on the power play. But it says here the contract should age well, given the overall market value and the term.

In getting this latest deal done, Cheveldayoff continues to silence outside critics who believe Winnipeg ranks somewhere between Siberia and the South Pole in terms of preferred destinations for hockey players. Pionk, and several others before him who have re-upped with long-term extensions including Morrissey, Bryan Little, Dustin Byfuglien, Blake Wheeler, Connor Hellebuyck, Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers, Adam Lowry and Dylan DeMelo, show that's more perception than reality.

There's no question both the Jets and Copp would love to add his name to that list. But with time, and money, both in short supply right now, it's difficult to see a way around what seems to be an enormous roadblock standing in their way.

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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