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Opinion

Leafs, Oilers push all-in, Jets can't call

Winnipeg will need to make a run at it soon, otherwise their young stars will take up too much cap space

DAVID LIPNOWSKI / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES</p><p>Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff opted to make a couple of small free-agent signings rather than being more aggressive. </p>

DAVID LIPNOWSKI / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff opted to make a couple of small free-agent signings rather than being more aggressive.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 6/7/2017 (1057 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

They’re three of the youngest teams in the NHL, all are from Canada and all missed the playoffs in the 2015-16 season.

There was a time, not so long ago, when there were more similarities than differences between the Winnipeg Jets, Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers.

They were three teams stocked to the brim with young talent but still looking for that big breakthrough.

Well, what a difference a year makes.

Because the evidence from the past week suggests two of those teams — the Oilers and Leafs — not only believe they can win right now, they believe they must win right now.

The third? Well, as usual, Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has opted for a different approach, making much more modest moves that would seem to suggest Jets management continues to believe Winnipeg’s future is still, well, in the future.

To use a baseball analogy, the Oilers and Leafs have decided to swing for the fences in 2017-18, while Cheveldayoff is squaring up to bunt.

It will come as a surprise to no one familiar with Cheveldayoff’s work that he has opted for small ball even as the Oilers and Leafs have boldly gone all-in to win during the past week with, respectively, a historic US$100-million contract for 20-year-old phenom Connor McDavid and a high-risk, high-reward three-year, US$18.75-million deal for 37-year-old sniper Patrick Marleau.

Those are exactly the kinds of moves you make if you believe your team’s future is now. Those are also the kinds of moves you make if you believe the realities of the salary cap era make it harder — not easier — for teams such as the Oilers and Leafs to win the older and more expensive their young teams get.

But those are distinctly not the moves — or calculations — Chevy made in the past week.

With the free-agent signings of journeyman goaltender Steve Mason and frustratingly enigmatic defenceman Dmitry Kulikov, Cheveldayoff seems to be trying to buy his young team some more time to grow into their big-boy skates.

They were modest moves by a GM who is never anything other than that — to a fault. Indeed, it says something about Cheveldayoff’s painfully incremental approach to his job that the Mason and Kulikov signings represented Chevy’s biggest plunge into free-agent waters since he took over the Jets when they relocated here in 2011.

Nowhere other than Winnipeg would the signings of a goalie with a .908 save percentage last season and a defenceman who notched all of five points and missed 35 games with a back injury be regarded as historically bold.

Hope always springs eternal in the relief of a Winnipeg summer, but you would have to be an incurable optimist to think Mason and Kulikov are the long-awaited missing pieces that will turn a Jets team that has missed the playoffs in five seasons of its six-year existence into the team Hockey News infamously predicted will win the Stanley Cup in 2019.

All of which is not to say there is anything inherently wrong with Chevy’s approach this summer. Unlike the Leafs — who took the Washington Capitals to six exceptionally hard-fought games in the opening round of this year’s playoffs — and the Oilers — who took the Anaheim Ducks to seven games in round two of the playoffs — the Jets are still looking for their big playoff breakthrough.

While these three young teams were arguably at the same point in their development a year ago at this time, they no longer are today, and you could make the case that steadying the goaltending and defence should give the Jets a chance to play catch-up this coming season.

You’ve got to learn to crawl before you can walk and until this Jets team actually wins a playoff game, they are still splayed on the carpet with a face full of shag.

Plus, there are also monumental risks associated with the bold approach the Oilers and Leafs have taken here.

Signing McDavid to a record deal that will pay him US$12.5 million per season beginning in 2018 is going to cause the Oilers salary cap problems for years to come, problems that will only be exacerbated if the Oilers, as expected, also hand McDavid’s teammate Leon Draisaitl a monster payday in the weeks to come.

It’s conceivable that by the time the numbers are added up, the Oilers could be locked into paying two players close to 30 per cent of their salary cap, which of course doesn’t leave much money to sign a quality supporting cast.

While everyone points to Chicago as the model for making this approach work — Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane both earn US$10.5 million a season — what’s lost is the three Stanley Cups the Blackhawks won in recent years came before those rich deals kicked in.

Chicago has won nothing since Toews and Kane began earning the big bucks two seasons ago and the Hawks were victims of a shocking first-round sweep by the Nashville Predators this year.

The highest percentage in terms of the cap that a team has ever paid its top-two players and still gone on to win the Cup is 25.4 per cent: the 2015-16 Pittsburgh Penguins.

So yeah, the Oilers have the game’s best player locked down for almost a decade, but with McDavid still making just US$925,000 next season on the last year of his entry-level deal, this might actually be the Oilers’ last best chance to win Edmonton another Cup.

Then there’s the Marleau contract, a crazy deal by any measure for an aging forward, unless you happen to believe — as Leafs management obviously does — a veteran goal scorer with Stanley Cup final experience is the piece that could put them over the top.

If they’re right, Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello is proved a genius — again.

But if they’re wrong, all Toronto has accomplished with the Marleau deal is to make it even harder for them to fit new contracts under the cap in the next two years for the likes of Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner.

So why would Lamoriello take a gamble like that? Because he must think that with the realities of the salary cap, the Leafs may never have a better chance to win it all than right now while all that young talent is still affordable.

So yeah, high risk, high reward.

Now, while Chevy took a different and decidedly more modest approach this summer, it also doesn’t come without risk.

Indeed, there’s a compelling case to be made — and I’m hardly the first one to make it — that the Jets should have gone all-in right now because, like the Leafs, they may never have a better chance to win the Stanley Cup than in this moment.

If that sounds alarmist for a young team this talented, just look at the big, new contracts Winnipeg is going to have to soon hand out:

• Winger Nikolaj Ehlers, whose entry-level deal at $895,000 expires after this season, is going to be due a massive raise that could push him to US$5 million a season or more, depending on how he follows up last year’s breakout 25-goal, 64-point season.

• Josh Morrissey’s entry-level deal also expires after this season and, as a top-pairing defenceman, he’s also going to be getting a massive raise on the US$865,000 he’s currently making.

• Forward Adam Lowry also becomes a restricted free agent after this season, and if he performs anything like his breakout 15-goal season last year, he will be getting a big raise on his current US$1.1-million deal.

• The two-year deal the Jets signed with blue-liner Jacob Trouba after his holdout expires after this season and Trouba is eligible for arbitration if the Jets don’t offer him multiples of the US$2.8 million a season he’s making now. The comparables his agent would bring to the table in arbitration must give Chevy nightmares.

• Then there’s 19-year-old phenom Patrik Laine, whose contract expires in 2019 and who the Jets will be trying to lock down to a multi-year extension long before that.

Throw in centre Bryan Little, who becomes an unrestricted free agent after this season, and deals for the likes of Joel Armia, Nic Petan, Marko Dano and Shawn Matthias, also expiring after this season, and your guess is as good as mine how Chevy is going to fit all that under the cap.

So yeah, Chevy bought his team some time to further develop with those Mason and Kulikov deals, but time is also running out on this current iteration of the Jets — and quicker than you might think.

Toronto and Edmonton are pushing all-in right now, while the Jets have chosen to wait for some better cards.

Make no mistake, it’s a risky gamble either way.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Paul Wiecek

Paul Wiecek
Reporter (retired)

Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press -- 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets -- long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.

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