Brace yourselves, Jets fans. We’re going to do some heavy lifting today.
With both the NHL draft and free agency fast approaching, the clock is ticking for general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff to flex his muscles in an attempt to keep his roster in tip-top shape.
It’s a ton to be carrying around right now. So how about we give him a bit of a hand?
I’ve spent considerable time sweating over the situation and crunching the numbers, and am ready to present to you what the Jets roster would look like for the upcoming season if put in charge of all the weighty decisions.
As you’ll see, it’s both salary-cap compliant — with even a little bit of breathing room to spare — while also strong enough, at least on paper, to still be among hockey’s powerhouses.
But be forewarned: it required a flurry of activity to get there, along with saying farewell to several familiar faces.
Let’s start with what’s etched in stone. According to CapFriendly, the Jets currently have 14 players under contract who will make a combined US$57.6 million next season. That includes seven forwards (Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers, Bryan Little, Mathieu Perreault, Adam Lowry and Jack Roslovic), five defencemen (Dustin Byfuglien, Dmitry Kulikov, Josh Morrissey, Sami Niku and Tucker Poolman) and two goaltenders (Connor Hellebuyck and Laurent Brossoit).
You need 23 players to fill out an NHL roster, meaning there are nine spots left and US$25.4 million to get under the US$83-million salary cap.
There are six restricted free agents who need new deals. Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor, Andrew Copp, Jacob Trouba, Nathan Beaulieu and Joe Morrow.
First move is a big one: Trade Trouba. At the latest, during the upcoming draft on June 21-22 in Vancouver. He’s clearly not interested in signing long-term here, so it’s time to move on. A top priority is getting back not only a defenceman, but one who has some cost certainty.
Getting a capable, two-way blue-liner back who makes in the range of US$4-5 million is critical. Some teams, and names, out there include New Jersey’s Damon Severson (US$4.1 million); Pittsburgh’s Brian Dumoulin (US$4.1 million); Detroit’s Danny DeKeyser (US$5 million, but he would have to waive his no-trade clause); New York’s Brady Skjei (US$5.2 million); and Buffalo’s Rasmus Ristolainen (US$5.4 million).
The Jets should also be aiming to get a draft pick back — if not a first-rounder, then an early second-rounder. All of which is why the Devils might make a lot of sense. Severson, 24, is a right-shot like Trouba, had a career-high 11 goals and 28 assists last season, and is under contract for four more seasons. Plus, New Jersey has a ton of draft picks. No, they’re not giving Winnipeg the first-overall selection, but how about their 34th-overall pick.
For the sake of argument, I’ll include a US$4.1-million cap hit for Trouba’s replacement.
As for the remaining RFAs, they would break down as follows:
Pay Laine US$8 million in a short-term bridge deal that allows both sides a couple more years to see where he’s at. Pay Connor US$7 million on a long-term extension. Give Copp a nice pay raise to US$2.5 million on a shorter deal (two or three years) similar to the one done last with Adam Lowry. And qualify both Beaulieu and Morrow at the same salary they made last season — US$2.4 million for Beaulieu and US$1 million for Morrow, but not a penny more.
Add it all up and we now have 20 players under contract to the tune of US$82.6 million. With three spots to fill, we’re right up against the cap ceiling. And that’s where some more moves are going to need to be made, and quickly.
First, say good-bye to Dmitry Kulikov and his US$4.3-million deal, which has one year left. Similar to last summer and the Steve Mason salary dump, there’s going to have to be a sweetener added for another team to take this one. A young prospect of some kind will have to be included, but it’s going to have to be a necessary evil. A team like Ottawa will struggle to reach the salary-cap floor this season and can easily take on some bad contracts, for a price.
To me, a buyout doesn’t make much sense with just one year remaining, given the cap penalty you pay plus the contract of his replacement. Moving him should be the priority.
Next up is Mathieu Perreault, who is also going to have to be dealt, along with the two years remaining on his deal at US$4.125 million. Unlike Kulikov, I think Perreault would still carry some value for a young team with cap space looking to add a veteran to the mix. Even if you’re getting just a draft pick back, it’s a move worth making for the other flexibility it allows.
We’re back to down to 18 players at US$74.2 million.
There’s no way UFAs Tyler Myers or Brandon Tanev can be brought back, unless they’re willing to take massive hometown discounts. The fact is, there will be teams out there willing to pay them far beyond what the Jets can afford. So they’re gone.
However, there’s room to re-sign pending UFAs Ben Chiarot and Par Lindholm. I think US$2.5 million can get it done with Chiarot, while US$1 million gets you Lindholm back.
So back up to 20 we go, now at US$77.7 million.
Next, pencil both Mason Appleton and Kristian Vesalainen onto the 23-man roster. Both would appear ready to take another step in their development, while also having team-friendly entry-level deals that help their cause. Combined, the two would add US$1.6 million to the payroll.
Now we’re up to 22 players, at US$79.3 million. We’ll up that to US$79.6 million on the assumption Jack Roslovic cashes in his US$212,000 performance bonus and Sami Niku gets his US$60,000 one, the only two players next season with such clauses to worry about.
Which gives us US$3.4 million in cap space left, and one more player to sign. I’d use no more than US$2 million of that to go find another depth forward who can play in your bottom-six, kill penalties, check and hit. (I’d also sign a couple more players with some NHL experience for the Moose, on two-way deals, who could step in if needed. Their salaries wouldn’t count towards the 23-man NHL roster, of course).
However, with roster surgery nearly complete, I’m still left with one nagging issue: perhaps the most important need on the team still hasn’t been addressed. That would be the second-line centre position, which Cheveldayoff has now tried on two straight trade deadlines to fill — first, with Paul Stastny, then with Kevin Hayes. Both were just temporary fixes.
Bryan Little has played there in the past, but is not getting any younger. That ship has sailed, from my perspective, and Little is better in your bottom six. Copp is also an option, as he looked great at centre last season, but I’m not sure he has the offence needed to be in your top six.
I suppose Roslovic could be given another shot, but he seemed to struggle last year while playing up the middle in a more sheltered role.
No, I think it’s time for one more trade. And a big one, at that.
Enter Nikolaj Ehlers, the flashy, 23-year-old winger with six more years left on his deal at US$6 million per season. We know the Jets have plenty of depth on the wings, with players like Roslovic, Appleton and Vesalainen pressing for work. So, why not deal from a position of strength to help fill a weakness?
How good would Ehlers look on the wing with Edmonton’s Connor McDavid? And, wouldn’t you know it, the Oilers have a second-line centre in 26-year-old Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, locked in at the exact same US$6 million per season, for two more years.
Seems like a potential match made in hockey heaven to me, for both teams looking to shake things up a bit. Other possible options out there include Toronto’s Nazem Kadri (US$4.5 million) and Detroit’s Dylan Larkin (US6.1 million). Again, for the sake of argument, I’ll pencil in an equal-salaried replacement for Ehlers.
As a result, my 2019-20 opening night roster would look as follows, with a total cap hit of US$81.6 million — or US$1.4 million under the cap:
Laine-(centre added in Ehlers trade)-Roslovic
Copp-Lowry-(forward signed in free agency)
Chiarot-(defenceman added in Trouba trade)
Beaulieu - Niku
Extras: Morrow, Poolman
Regardless of how accurate this template ends up being, one thing is clear: the Jets are likely going to undergo an extreme makeover, one way or the other.
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.