The Winnipeg Jets have an interesting off season ahead of them, as several of their key players are pending Restricted Free Agents. A Jets team with a 2012-13 cap payroll of a little over $58.8 million is about to get a lot more expensive.
Blake Wheeler, Bryan Little, Alexander Burmistrov, Zach Bogosian and Paul Postma are all set to become RFAs this summer; a group at currently combines for a total cap hit of just $9,483,333. It’s safe to say that the Jets won’t get all these players back for such a friendly number, which means some important decisions are coming. Each player will get a raise, but how much?
In order to try to project possible earnings for this group (and the resulting cap crunch for the Jets), we have to look at some comparable players in age, contract situation, point production, importance to their teams, and experience.
Wheeler is trying to build on a 2011-12 season that was the best of his career. The former fifth overall pick collected 17-47-64 in 80 games last season, leading the Jets in scoring, and he’s currently scoring at a point-per-game pace. Before this season he had played 326 games and scored 191 points (0.59 points per game). He carries a $2.55 million cap hit and $2.65 million salary for the 2012-13 season. Below are some comparable players:
Teddy Purcell (TBL): Signed a 3 year extension with Tampa Bay in July of 2012 worth $4.5 million per season after scoring 24-41-65 in 81 games for the Bolts. Only one year older than Wheeler, Purcell is in the last year of a contract that has a $2,362,500 cap hit. Before this season he had played 272 games and amassed 150 points (0.55 per game).
Valtteri Filppula (DET): Similar production to Wheeler with 23-43-66 in 81 games last year, and is a career 0.53 p/g player prior to this season. He too is in the last year of a deal that was set to pay him a $3.5 million salary in 2012-13.
Jamie Benn (DAL): Wait, don’t stop reading! This comparison isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Jamie Benn may be a more high-profile player around the league than Wheeler, but his 2011-12 production wasn’t far off of the Jets forward. With 26-37-63 in 71 games for the Stars last year, Benn scored 0.89 points-per-game to Wheeler’s 0.79. That landed Benn a shiny new five year contract with a $5.25 million cap hit. So what happens if Wheeler continues to score at a high level for the Jets in 2013?
The Atlanta Thrashers drafted Little 12th overall in 2006 and the organization has been rewarded with a player who had appeared in 326 games for the Thrashers and Jets before this season, and who had collected 195 points (0.60 per game). He has a $2,383,333 cap hit and $3 million salary this season. Comparables:
David Perron (STL): Perron is six months younger than Little, and is a career 0.59 p/g player over 292 games prior to this season. He scored 21-21-42 over 57 games in 2011-12, compared to Little’s 24-22-46 in 74 games for the Jets. Perron is in the first year of a deal that saw his cap hit rise from $2.15 million to $3,812,500 over four seasons.
Jakub Voracek (PHI): Scored 183 points in 319 games before this season (0.57 per game), and 18-31-49 in 78 games last year (0.63 per game). Signed a four year extension with a $4.25 million cap hit.
Drew Stafford (BUF): 246 points in 397 games before this season (0.62 per game), and had 20-30-50 in 80 games for the Sabres last year (0.63 per game). Like Little, Stafford is a former 30 goal scorer. He’s in the second year of a four year contract with a $4 million cap hit.
A wrist injury has kept him out of the lineup so far this season, but last year he was third among all Jets players with an average of 23:18 of ice time per game, including significant time in all three game states. He has played 264 career games and scored 89 points (0.34 per game). Bogosian is in the second year of a bridge contract (the one between Entry Level and the Big Kahuna) with a $2.5 million cap hit. Comparables:
Mark Giordano (CGY): Before this season Giordano had scored 0.40 p/g over his 238 game career. His ice time breakdown from last season is very similar to Bogosian, and the two each averaged a little over 23 total minutes per game. Giordano is in the second year of a five year deal with a $4.02 million cap hit.
Andrej Meszaros (PHI): 0.38 career points per game over 524 games before this season, and carries a $4 million cap hit.
GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has shown an ability to sign players to bridge contracts, as he did with Bogosian, which is likely to be the situation with Burmistrov and Postma as the Jets determine what they’ve got.
But he has also been unafraid to back up the dump truck of cash onto a player’s lawn, as he did with former-RFA forward Evander Kane. Kane’s second contract is a six year pact with a $5.25 millon cap hit, as he is clearly the player that the Jets are forming their offense around.
WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT?
Don’t be surprised if Wheeler and Little swing for the fences with their new contracts. Each guy could be in line for a fairly significant pay bump. The Jets will potentially be buying UFA years from both players, which comes at a premium in the NHL.
The NHL salary cap is set to drop to $64.3 million next season. The Jets have 11 players signed and a little over $29.5 million to spend. Bringing back Wheeler and Little alone could eat up anywhere from $7-9 million of that space, and there will still be a number of holes on the roster left to fill. There could be some interesting financial maneuvering ahead, especially if the Jets don’t want to operate pressed right against the cap ceiling in 2013-14.
Combined with increasing expectations for the Jets going forward, this is the first off season where we’ll really see what Cheveldayoff is made of.