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EDMONTON — It may not be the equivalent of Christopher Columbus discovering America or Thomas Edison's bright idea about the lightbulb, but while covering bubble hockey in Edmonton I do believe I've come across the solution to some of what plagues the Winnipeg Jets.
Eureka! I found it — the second-line centre they've long been searching for.
Meet Anthony Cirelli, the 23-year-old from Ontario who is currently filling that role for the Tampa Bay Lightning, sandwiched between Alex Killorn and Tyler Johnson. If you're a well-rounded hockey fan, he likely needs no introduction.
Cirelli finished fourth in voting for the Selke Trophy, awarded annually to the best defensive forward in the NHL, with only Sean Couturier, Patrice Bergeron and Ryan O'Reilly appearing on more ballots. He also played a starring role in getting his team to the Stanley Cup final, scoring the overtime goal in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final that eliminated the New York Islanders.
The 6-0, 193-pounder is finishing off his second full season in the big leagues and had 16 goals and 28 assists in 68 regular-season games — good for sixth in scoring on a deep Lightning club — and was a team-leading +28. His underlying numbers are even better, with analytics suggesting he's the type of player who drives possession, can shut down the other team's best and makes everyone around him better.
At this point, you're probably wondering why I'm floating Cirelli's name out there when it comes to the Jets and their well-documented needs up the middle. Isn't he just the type of player Tampa Bay should be holding on to to ensure their winning ways continue?
Simple. The Lightning can't afford to keep him. As much as it's going to hurt, they're very likely going to have to let him go.
Tampa Bay already has a whopping US$76 million committed to just 15 players for the 2020-21 season, with another five players on their roster pending restricted free agents and five more unrestricted free agents. Considering the NHL salary cap is, at best, going to remain flat at US$81.5 million for the foreseeable future owing to the economic toll of COVID-19 and playing without fans, that's a massive problem for Bolts general manager Julien BriseBois.
For a player such as Cirelli, who is coming out of his entry-level deal and deserves a hefty raise, the Lightning will have no way to cough up the cash, not unless they purge some of their highest-paid core such as Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh or Andrei Vasilevskiy, who are all making in excess of US$6.75 to US$9.5 million per season. Spoiler alert: that isn't happening.
There's also a secondary tier of talent such as Ondrej Palat, Yanni Gourde, Johnson and Killorn pulling in between US$4.5 to US$5.3 million per year. Such is the price of sustained success.
We've seen this movie play out before many times, including in Winnipeg, where the cash-strapped Jets had to let players such as Tyler Myers, Ben Chiarot and Brandon Tanev go in free agency so they could afford to pay other core pieces such as Kyle Connor, Patrik Laine and Josh Morrissey.
The Chicago Blackhawks know this song and dance all too well, having let numerous bright young stars go in the wake of a trio of Stanley Cup victories that proved to be costly when it came to the cap.
BriseBois has a problem. Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has a need. Gentlemen, start your phone calls.
For all the talk of potentially trading Laine to land a skilled centre — a notion I find risky at best, foolish at worst — this is a much more sensible way to bring one in who might actually be able to play with Laine.
Of course, it's not going to be easy, as numerous other NHL clubs will no doubt be lining up for Cirelli's services assuming he hits the open market in the off-season. But that's where the Jets might be able to stand out in a crowded pack.
For one, I doubt Tampa Bay wants to move him within its own division, or even the Eastern Conference, if it can be avoided. Secondly, the Jets will have something a lot of other teams won't — ample cap space.
From Dustin Byfuglien (US$7.6 million) coming off the books, Dmitry Kulikov (US$4.333) hitting free agency and Bryan Little (US$5.291) potentially going on long-term injured reserve, Winnipeg suddenly has some money to play with, unlike the financial pickle they were in last year.
As an RFA, Cirelli might be seeking a so-called bridge deal, to buy himself a couple more seasons to see what his true value becomes, and perhaps hope the financial picture across the league improves and the cap eventually goes up. In that sense, the Jets might not even have to break the bank, at least not right away.
One thing Tampa Bay can't afford to take back in any trade is additional salary. In that sense, picks and/or prospects are most likely. You'll recall the deal Cheveldayoff swung with his old team, the Blackhawks, in 2013 to bring Michael Frolik to town in exchange for third- and fifth-round picks. GM Stan Bowman needed to clean out cap space, and that was the end result. It worked out well for both teams.
The price for Cirelli would be higher than Frolik, but it's one Cheveldayoff should be willing to pay. He could be a fixture up the middle for years, part of a group that already includes Mark Scheifele, Andrew Copp and Adam Lowry. And for a team such as Winnipeg, which can use all the help it can get when it comes to defensive awareness from its forwards, Cirelli would be a great fit.
If there's not an immediate trade to be made, there's always the nuclear option — an offer sheet. Although they are rare these days in the NHL, it's a weapon GMs have at their disposal. And a team could make it impossible for Tampa Bay to match without having to mortgage its own future.
For example, an offer between US$4.2 and US$6.3 million would require a first- and third-round draft pick to go the other way, and almost certainly couldn't be matched.
This certainly isn't Cheveldayoff's style, and I'd be surprised to see him go that route. A diplomatic approach is more likely. Regardless, landing Cirelli is the type of move the Jets should be doing everything possible to make happen.
Find a way and we might just have another discovery on our hands — Winnipeg's path back to being a Stanley Cup contender.
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