Photo Credit: Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY Sports
It’s opening night the NHL. The long summer is over.
On Thursday night the Winnipeg Jets will open the 2015-16 campaign on Thursday night in Boston, against the once-mighty Bruins. The Bruins, a team that spends to the salary cap every year, are in something of a transitional phase (to put it kindly). The Jets meanwhile, well, despite making their first playoff appearance since the great relocation, appear content to keep on, keeping on. And that means building patiently, slowly and from within.
“We don’t worry about keeping up with the Joneses,” said Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, in a recent conversation with Ken Wiebe of the Winnipeg Sun. “That’s not what this game is all about. Obviously, every team has different opportunities or things that are presented to them, but again, it always seems like people from the outside want to look at what other people are doing.
“For us, we know the group of players that we have and now we’re going to continue to let them grow. As you grow as an organization and the more things you have internally, the more stable things become. It was an exciting year last year. We put that to bed and now we have to start right from scratch again, like every other team in this league and earn the opportunity to get back into the playoffs.”
Stability. Internal growth. These are the hallmarks of Jets hockey.
As we enter another hockey season the Jets will have well over $10 million in available cap space ($13 million, according to NHLNumbers.com). They have more salary cap space available to them than any other team in hockey, again according to NHLNumbers.com.
While Winnipeg’s True North ownership group has insisted that when the time is right, when the team is ready to contend credibly, there will be money to spend, little was spent this summer. Internal growth was prioritized as the Jets were content to allow the New Jersey Devils to staff their top-six with jettisoned Jets forwards like Lee Stempniak and Jiri Tlusty, opening up an opportunity for Nic Petan and Nikolaj Ehlers to make the opening day roster.
Meanwhile, and perhaps most importantly, the Jets have seemed reluctant to commit big dollars and big term to a pair of aging core players in Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd. Though the club was believed to be close to an extension for Ladd at the draft, there’s been little news from either camp in the intervening four months. Well except for Winnipeg’s captain openly considering the possibility of shelving negotiations in-season, which has become a staple ploy of pending unrestricted free agents.
“It’s certainly something I have to consider,” Ladd told TSN Gary Lawless (then of the Winnipeg Free Press) in early October. “My contract and the business part of things can’t become a distraction to me or to my teammates. So setting it aside once the season starts is something we’ll (Ladd and his agents) have to discuss.”
The status of Byfuglien and Ladd is the elephant in the room for the Jets heading into a season that could be extremely interesting. While Winnipeg is flush with quality two-way pieces, their current core of Ladd, Byfuglien, Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler are all likely past their primes (statistically speaking anyway). It wasn’t long ago that Cheveldayoff was being criticized for locking up a core that hadn’t ever really achieved anything, but it’s now clear that he didn’t really…
In the meantime we’re left to wonder what the Jets’ summer tells us about True North’s appraisal of the current, aging core group. If this ownership groups oft-stated claim that they’ll spend when the time is right is to be believed, then doesn’t their most recent display of parsimony this summer imply that they don’t regard this core as being good enough to contend?
It’s a ruthless sort of logic, but that’s a good sign for a small market team operating in the salary cap era.
As for what it tells us about Ladd and Byfuglien’s future in Winnipeg, well that’s where this gets interesting. We’ll learn more as the season goes along, but it sure seems likely that this organization is willing to turn the page.
That might compromise Cheveldayoff’s goal of building stability, but if the Jets are willing to part with either piece ahead of the trade deadline, it might advance his goal of internal growth.
In a Central Division that’s shaping up to be the toughest in hockey, this is a phenomenally interesting cloud to be hanging over Winnipeg. This upcoming season their current core of players isn’t just playing to make the postseason for a second straight year, the opportunity to stay together may also be on the line.