September 24, 2018

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Winnipeg Jets (52 – 20 – 10)

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Jets turn focus to free agency

Busy week looming for team looking to aim higher next season

MARK HUMPHREY / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES</p><p>One of the biggest off-season questions for the Winnipeg Jets is whether the team will be able to re-sign centre and pending unrestricted free agent Paul Stastny.</p>

MARK HUMPHREY / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES

One of the biggest off-season questions for the Winnipeg Jets is whether the team will be able to re-sign centre and pending unrestricted free agent Paul Stastny.

The NHL draft is now in the rear-view mirror, and free agency is just around the corner.

Which means a very important and potentially newsworthy week has arrived for the Winnipeg Jets.

The Jets added to their pool of prospects this past weekend in Dallas, selecting six players on Saturday who would all appear to be several years away from making any kind of ripple at the pro level. Such is the reality when your first pick isn’t until the late part of the second round: you’re not getting an NHL-ready player that deep, you’re getting projects that need plenty of work and patience.

Local puck fans will be able to get a first-hand look at them when summer development kicks off Tuesday at the Bell MTS Iceplex, running through to Friday. They’ll all be on the ice, along with a number of players from recent drafts, including previous first-rounders Kristian Vesalainen and Logan Stanley.

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The NHL draft is now in the rear-view mirror, and free agency is just around the corner.

Which means a very important and potentially newsworthy week has arrived for the Winnipeg Jets.

JOHN LOCHER / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES</p><p>Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck is among a number of players needing new deals with significant raises.</p>

JOHN LOCHER / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES

Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck is among a number of players needing new deals with significant raises.

The Jets added to their pool of prospects this past weekend in Dallas, selecting six players on Saturday who would all appear to be several years away from making any kind of ripple at the pro level. Such is the reality when your first pick isn’t until the late part of the second round: you’re not getting an NHL-ready player that deep, you’re getting projects that need plenty of work and patience.

Local puck fans will be able to get a first-hand look at them when summer development kicks off Tuesday at the Bell MTS Iceplex, running through to Friday. They’ll all be on the ice, along with a number of players from recent drafts, including previous first-rounders Kristian Vesalainen and Logan Stanley.

General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and his staff didn’t make any kind of splash at the draft when it comes to solving a big problem that appears to be staring them in the face.

Namely, when and how are they going to get nine pending restricted free agents all under contract, while also potentially taking a run at re-signing pending unrestricted free agent Paul Stastny, while managing to keep their heads above water and leaving enough room to breathe when it comes to the US$79.5-million salary cap?

And there is some urgency to this situation, especially when it comes to Stastny. He will likely have many suitors bidding for his services, and that process may already have started with the NHL’s UFA "courting" period now underway. That allows teams to speak with the Stastny’s of the hockey world to try and woo them when signings can officially start to happen on July 1.

We know the Jets and Stastny have mutual interest. Cheveldayoff and haed coach Paul Maurice raved about him in Texas again this past weekend while also speaking bluntly of the challenges they face.

"There’s some pieces that have to fall and move for this to happen," Maurice said.

Indeed, in order to keep this relationship going, something’s got to give. Or, more specifically, someone’s got to go. The Jets will have to find a way to shed some salary, and that may already be the case even if they can’t get Stastny signed.

There were thoughts Cheveldayoff might kick-start that process at the draft by swapping a player or two in exchange for draft picks or prospects. But that didn’t happen, with player movement across the league virtually stagnant.

As of this moment, Winnipeg has 14 players under contract for next season totalling more than US$54-million.

Connor Hellebuyck, Jacob Trouba, Josh Morrissey, Adam Lowry, Brandon Tanev, Joel Armia, Marko Dano, Tucker Poolman and Joe Morrow all need new deals, with several of them expected to bring significant raises to their expiring deals.

Getting them all signed, along with potentially Stastny, at less than the US$25.5-million remaining cap space, would appear to be impossible barring some additional roster moves.

And if that’s going to occur, time would appear to be of the essence. Stastny is likely signing somewhere on July 1, so Winnipeg would need to get their affairs in order ASAP.

"If we have to get creative, we’ll try to," Cheveldayoff said during draft weekend. "The reality is, now we have our hard (salary-cap) number to work with, and there’s going to be some cold, hard realities that we may have to face depending on how these other contracts come into place."

Today is the deadline for teams to extend qualifying offers to their pending RFAs. If the player doesn’t accept it, they have until July 5 to elect for salary arbitration. Hearings would be set, and if a deal still couldn’t be worked out by the time the date arrives later in the summer, an independent arbitrator would hear arguments from both sides and eventually issue a ruling that is binding.

Cheveldayoff has already indicated he expects at least a handful of negotiations to at least be set down for arbitration. Whether they actually get to a hearing is another story.

Don’t expect the Jets to be major players come July 1, with their biggest free-agent signings involving their own players.

There may be a depth move or two, but that’s likely it. And for good reason.

This is a team that finished second overall in the NHL last season and made it to the Western Conference final. They believe the window remains open for similar future success provided they can keep their deep core mostly intact.

That remains easier said than done, of course. And the week ahead should begin to provide some additional clarity for the franchise and their fans.

KULIKOV RECOVERING FROM SURGERY: Winnipeg Jets defenceman Dmitry Kulikov is recovering from off-season back surgery, Cheveldayoff confirmed this past weekend. The veteran blue-liner suffered what was thought to be a season-ending injury in March, but managed to work his way back into the lineup for Game 5 of the Western Conference final against Vegas. The Jets lost, and their season was over. Kulikov is on track to be ready for training camp, Cheveldayoff said.

MYERS ON THE MOVE?: Tyler Myers might be a player the Jets look to unload, with a US$5.5-million cap hit and just one season remaining on his contract. However, Maurice revealed in Dallas another type of move might be coming — to the left side of the ice. Myers, a right-hand shot, is stuck behind Trouba and Dustin Byfuglien on the depth chart. Maurice said he’s had discussions with Myers about possibly moving him to the left side, which would appear to be a potential area of top-four weakness for the Jets with Toby Enstrom gone. That could also open up a top-six spot for Poolman, who the Jets are high on.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @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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