June 22, 2018

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Stastny open to return next season

Jets centre important player, but cap decisions need to be made

DAVID BECKER / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES</p><p>Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, left, and defenseman Deryk Engelland, middle, defend against Winnipeg Jets center Paul Stastny during the second period of Game 3 of the NHL hockey playoffs Western Conference finals Wednesday, May 16, 2018, in Las Vegas. "I have no regrets," said Stastny. "Probably the best decision I ever made was (to play for the Jets). It made the game that much more fun again.”</p>

DAVID BECKER / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES

Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, left, and defenseman Deryk Engelland, middle, defend against Winnipeg Jets center Paul Stastny during the second period of Game 3 of the NHL hockey playoffs Western Conference finals Wednesday, May 16, 2018, in Las Vegas. "I have no regrets," said Stastny. "Probably the best decision I ever made was (to play for the Jets). It made the game that much more fun again.”

Paul Stastny as a Winnipeg Jets centre is still a thing, at least for another six weeks.

The question now is whether or not the NHL team can figure out a way to keep the 12-year veteran — who hinted Sunday he’s open to returning to the Jets — past July 1 when he becomes an unrestricted free agent.

Winnipeg general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff gave up a first-round pick in this summer’s NHL draft and prospect Erik Foley to the St. Louis Blues to get his hands on Stastny.

As fits go, Stastny was like the last puzzle piece, finishing off a fine likeness of a Stanley Cup contender. The 32-year-old was inserted between burgeoning stars Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers as soon as he arrived, and the trio had immediate chemistry.

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Paul Stastny as a Winnipeg Jets centre is still a thing, at least for another six weeks.

The question now is whether or not the NHL team can figure out a way to keep the 12-year veteran — who hinted Sunday he’s open to returning to the Jets — past July 1 when he becomes an unrestricted free agent.

Winnipeg general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff gave up a first-round pick in this summer’s NHL draft and prospect Erik Foley to the St. Louis Blues to get his hands on Stastny.

As fits go, Stastny was like the last puzzle piece, finishing off a fine likeness of a Stanley Cup contender. The 32-year-old was inserted between burgeoning stars Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers as soon as he arrived, and the trio had immediate chemistry.

Stastny had four goals and nine assists in the final 19 games of the regular season. In the post-season, he was crucial to Winnipeg’s success in series victories over the Minnesota Wild and Nashville Predators, scoring six goals and adding eight assists through rounds 1 and 2.

He had one assist in Winnipeg’s 4-2 triumph over Vegas but then went pointless in four straight defeats as the entirety of the Jets’ offensive machine conked out.

Still, the skilled, savvy Stastny would look terrific as the Central Division squad’s second-line centre next season. The job of No. 2 centreman between two of the NHL’s dynamic young stars for the 2018-19 season would be his by acclamation — that should be an enticing prospect.

He’s got a relationship with Jets captain Blake Wheeler, and has spoken openly about his respect and admiration for head coach Paul Maurice.

Beyond the bucks involved, it likely wouldn’t take much convincing to get him to stay with a team most agree has many bright seasons ahead.

"There is always a possibility. I have no regrets," Stastny, surrounded by reporters in the Jets dressing room, said following Winnipeg’s 2-1 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights. Vegas needed just five games to eliminate Winnipeg in the Western Conference best-of-seven final series.

"Probably the best decision I ever made was this one. It made the game that much more fun again," he said.

But it’s really about dollars and what makes sense.

Stastny is at the end of a four-year, US$28-million contract he signed prior to the 2014-15 season. While he’s likely headed for a pay cut, he’ll still command north of US$5 million annually.

With so many key players in need of new contracts this summer — some, understandably, expecting and deserving big bumps in salary — even the shrewdest of business moves by Cheveldayoff will make it difficult to create an environment where Stastny’s acquisition goes beyond a spring rental.

The former Colorado Avalanche and St. Louis Blues forward maintains he has yet to formulate a plan for the future, though he’s acutely aware of the organization’s predicament.

"Every door is open. I never look that far down the road because in the past I’ve done that, you think something is going to happen (and) it doesn’t," Stastny said.

"We all know there are a lot of players who need to be signed here. There’s not just one person. When you have success like this, a lot of guys need to get rewarded. And you’ve got to take care of those young guys first. Those guys really earned it. We’ll talk with Chevy down the road."

Right now, Winnipeg has about US$55 million in salary committed to 14 players for the 2018-19 season. That includes the first year of Bryan Little’s new six-year, US$31.75-million deal, which carries an annual average value of just under US$5.3 million, and the first US$6 million owed to Ehlers from the seven-year deal he signed last October. It also includes a US$4.1-million hit for oft-injured backup goalie Steve Mason.

The contracts of defencemen Toby Enstrom and forwards Shawn Matthias and Matt Hendricks, meanwhile, come off the books next year, should the Jets elect not to re-sign them.

Projections are the NHL salary cap will likely rise from the current US$75 million to about US$80 million. That leaves the Jets with about US$25 million for nine players it’s assumed the organization wants back.

Cheveldayoff is already challenged with hammering out new deals with a pair of restricted free agents on the Jets top defensive pairing. Jacob Trouba’s two-year bridge deal is nearly over, while Josh Morrissey’s entry-level contract is over.

Even if Trouba’s committed to sticking with the Jets, it will take US$5 million a year to keep him. Morrissey, meanwhile, is likely to fetch US$4 million annually on his next deal.

Then there’s goalie Connor Hellebuyck, a restricted free agent. What’s the going rate for an all-star puckstopper and Vezina Trophy candidate who led the league with 44 victories?

Hellebuyck made US$2.25 million this season on a one-year deal. Expect an ask of about US$5 million to $US6 million a year from the Jets starter.

Winnipeg has three regular, bottom-six forwards, centre Adam Lowry and wingers Joel Armia and Brandon Tanev, in line for new deals. Pencil in a combined US$5 million a year for the trio, with Lowry receiving about US$2 million of that total.

There’s also forward Marko Dano and defencemen Tucker Poolman and Joe Morrow, the latter of whom was acquired as a depth guy at the trade deadline but showed some solid offensive skills when pressed into duty.

It could cost Winnipeg over US$21 million to keep its RFAs and preserve the bulk of the group that finished second overall in the NHL (52-20-10) and won a pair of playoff rounds.

That leaves very little wiggle room with which to woo Stastny, particularly on a deal with any significant term. Wheeler becomes an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2019, the same time Winnipeg’s goal-scorers Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor graduate from their entry-level status.

The Jets management group will need to carve out short-term (bridge) deals for some players and contracts with longer terms for others. Perhaps, a trade of one of the squad’s high-priced performers will be required.

But nothing short of a supernatural occurrence, perhaps, will keep Stastny in a No. 25 Jets jersey this fall. And history may show he was here for a good time, though, ultimately, not a long time.

"I don’t have any regrets coming here," he said. "No one in here didn’t sacrifice, lay it all on the line through these whole playoffs. We’re all proud of that."

jason.bell@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @WFPJasonBell

 

Jason Bell

Jason Bell
Assistant sports editor

Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).

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Updated on Tuesday, May 22, 2018 at 7:37 AM CDT: updates

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