Currently third in the Central Division, with a 7-2-1 record in their last ten games, Winnipeg are among the favourites to compete for the Stanley Cup this season – and with good reason.
Mark Scheifele has established himself as one of the games top centres, Blake Wheeler and Dustin Byfuglien provide a strong veteran presence while Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor are among the league’s most exciting young goal scorers.
They also have only around $23.9 million in cap space for 2019/20, with just 11 players under contract and several key RFA and UFA decisions to make.
Laine and Connor head-up a Jets free agent class that also includes RFAs Jacob Trouba, Andrew Copp, Nic Petan, Brendan Lemieux, Joe Morrow and goaltender Laurent Brossoit, while Brandon Tanev, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot are all set to become unrestricted free agents.Embed from Getty Images
In the case of Laine and Connor, it seems unlikely Winnipeg would let either of the talented wingers slip through their grasp – Laine is coming off the back of a 40-goal season and already has 8 goals in 16 games this season, while Connor registered 31 goals in 76 games last year and has 7 so far this season.
To put the situation into some kind of perspective, Winnipeg signed Ehlers to a 7-year, $42 million deal during the summer, with the Dane coming off 25 and 29 goal campaigns; it would not be outlandish to suggest Laine and Connor would seek similar deals – albeit perhaps with a little this way-that way on the dollar value.
For the sake or argument, let’s assume that the Jets can tie down the pair to new deals worth in the region of $6 million per year, like Ehlers, leaving $11.9 million in cap space to sign 9 or 10 players, based on a 22 or 23 man roster.
The cap is likely to go up – at least by a small amount – so let’s allow a little extra and say that Winnipeg will have $14 million in cap space to fill out their roster, with Laine and Connor already signed as above.
Among the remaining free agents, Trouba and Myers are arguably the biggest names Winnipeg need to make a decision on.Embed from Getty Images
Winnipeg already kicked the can down the road slightly with Trouba by signing him to a 1-year, $5.5 million contract last summer; but with the 24-year-old putting up some decent numbers so far this season it’s another re-signing likely to put pressure on the Jets limited cap space.
Does this make Myers expendable? Perhaps. The 28-year-old has resurrected his career somewhat in Manitoba, but at a current pay rate of $5.5 million per season he is likely too expensive for a Jets side that has Byfuglien and Trouba on the right side of defence as well.
Assuming the Jets sign Trouba but let Myers walk, we’re at $8.5 million in cap space with at least eight players still to sign.
Brossoit may accept another cap friendly deal to stay in Winnipeg, a city he is happy in following a rough ride in Edmonton; or Winnipeg could use their leverage to tie up another RFA goaltender, Eric Comrie, to a team friendly contract – though depending on where Winnipeg feel Comrie is at in terms of his development they may re-sign both.
Whichever is tasked with backing up Connor Hellebuyck next season, it’s a signing that has to be made at a value of circa $1 million, perhaps a little under.Embed from Getty Images
Seven players to go, $7.5 million to spend (give or take).
Of the remaining six free agents, Petan’s season did not really begin until recently due to the death of this father – with the Jets allowing the forward time off through the preseason and beginning of the regular season.
Without wishing to make light of the tragedy, do the two parties consider a bridge deal to allow Petan the time to get back into his stride again?
What are the Jets hopes for Lemieux?
At 27, is Chiarot a realistic part of Winnipeg’s future? Perhaps in the short term, for the right price.
That may be the crux of it for Petan, Lemieux, Chiarot, Copp, Tanev and Morrow – they aren’t the biggest fish Winnipeg need to fry, and all could be considered replaceable if the sums don’t add up, no matter how much you want to keep a certain group together.
It’s hard to imagine General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff won’t make it work, but much depends on the deals he is able to sign Laine, Connor and most likely Trouba to, as that will – obviously – determine how much cap space the Jets have left to flesh out their roster next year (and beyond).
One thing in the Jets favour is that the majority of their stars are also young, reducing the chances of repeating the Blackhawks’ mistake of being left with too many older players on practically immovable contracts.
After the fever of getting the Jets back in town, Winnipeg fans now also get to enjoy one of the most exciting teams in the NHL – even if it does come with a few headaches for the GM.