Though it might have been a holiday in Canada and the first day after the Winnipeg Jets were eliminated from the 2017-18 Stanley Cup Playoffs, rest assured that Kevin Cheveldayoff and company meandered back down from the Press Box to their personal offices, and began dialing the agents of their players soon heading to Free Agency.
For a GM that finally received accolades from moves made (and more importantly, not made) once the Jets made it into the playoffs as the 2nd seed, easily handled an injury-riddled Minnesota Wild squad, spent all their energy defeated the previous Stanley Cup contenders and 1st seed Nashville Predators, and fell short against the odds-defying Vegas Golden Knights (and one certain French Canadian goalie), it should be reminded that Chevy found himself at the opposite end of the spectrum just under a year ago, where he remained patient with his hockey club, making little-to-no changes, and was lambasted across Hockey Media and Twitter alike. Now, fans and team alike are probably repeating a mantra of one of their favourite players on the team, as the Hockey Operations team of the Winnipeg Jets are faced with managing cap hits and assets for the 2018-19 season and onward.
As Murat Ates of The Athletic pointed out not long ago, the 2017-18 Winnipeg Jets are likely the best incarnation of the team we will see in a while, with many young RFAs to be paid significantly (such as one Patrik Laine who will command a large percentage of the cap hit going forward), and many skilled veterans going to unrestricted free agency that will likely be thanked for their service to the team, and be paid exorbitant amounts of money elsewhere. Granted, it is not hard to put together a Stanley Cup calibre team that are not players drafted and developed internally, as evidenced by the Vegas Golden Knights taking everyone else’s misfits and making the league look like fools. In such a club like the Winnipeg Jets, however, where the internal culture and leadership is family-like and building from within for a largely an unattractive destination to most players (which is now hopefully changed thanks to immensely successful season), managing current and future assets will remain as important today as it was for the past seven seasons. As such, we will keep the focus on players of the Winnipeg Jets heading to or soon moving towards RFA and UFA.
To help us guesstimate as best as possible for what these assets might cost, we will be using Matt Cane’s 2018 Free Agent Predictions, which were released May 21st 2018. Matt has previously worked on predictions for both the 2017 and 2016 seasons, in which his model came close to many low-to-mid AAVs last Summer 2017. With some more changes to this year’s model hopefully improving the predictions for high-tier forwards and goaltenders, we can have a hopefully accurate take on what the Jets might look like next season, in the future, along with some interjections of my hopes (and dreams, maybe) of how Chevy and company will embrace the challenges ahead.
Over the next few days, we will be taking a brief look at every player going into free agency, primarily those for Summer 2018 but also for Summer 2019 by the following groups: forwards, defence and goalies, and then other prospects. On the final day, I will recap what I believe an ideal and realistic roster with signings might look like. With all that being said, let’s begin our foray into the group of forwards.
Perhaps the most wanted of the bunch, Lowry showed his dominance this (half-)season in both the offensive and defensive zone, limiting shots against in the slot and controlling every bit of the puck along the boards (though not much taking shots himself). While unfortunately missing half the 2017-18 season due to injury and likely going right back into recovery mode with rumoured broken ribs from the playoffs, Lowry will undoubtedly continue to be leaned upon immensely in the future by Paul Maurice.
With the ability to be signed for one year and still be a RFA, however, Jets management may opt to bridge Lowry in hopes of signing other players first and getting Lowry what remains depending on the future cap. Nonetheless, while a 2-year prediction shows a possibility of around $1.75m, I do not expect Lowry to sign any less than $2m at minimum. If the Jets hope to lock up Lowry long-term now, which could be ideal unless you have future injury concerns, that price is predicted to a minimum of $3.25m. While fan and management alike would hope and love to have a player like Lowry long term, he and his agent are likely preferring to look at maximizing his earnings through shorter term contracts as a player that is often physical and therefore may deteriorate faster.
Expect Lowry to be looking at a 3- or 4-year contract at a minimum of $2.5m or $3m depending on the length.
Based on his numbers in the 2016-17 season, most had written off Brandon Tanev as a Thorburn-lite; a speedy and gritty forward whose only use is to hit opposing players while unfortunately giving up lots of shots in the defensive zone. His 2017-18 season could not have been anymore different, as he played with the likes of Lowry, Copp, and Armia for the majority of the season and proved to suppress more shots, and used his speed impressively for possession exits and even goal scoring off of rushes.
That being said, he remains a slightly above average replacement level player who is likely more somewhere between these two radically different seasons – and along with only one season remaining before he becomes a UFA, will likely see a contract of two or three years.
Depending on the length, Tanev will likely see an AAV around the likes of $775k – $1.15m, a decently-priced 4th (sometimes 3rd) liner.
Almost a bit of an enigma, Joel Armia showed his scoring prowess early this season, though slowed down at a much inopportune time and fluctuated much too greatly between someone who had the puck on his string and seemingly always chasing it. While still only 24, there is much to learn and figure out about which version of these two Armia’s will be playing for the Jets long-term. As well, with the influx of Finnish players and dominance on the team, it would be somewhat wise to keep the kinfolk together.
Contract wise, Armia is somewhere in between Tanev and Lowry, not too much more than $2m, but no where near $1m. Depending on the length and how long the Jets wish to see Armia attempt to be a productive member of the lineup, Armia will likely be offered another “prove it” contract, or he and his agent will elect to go to arbitration.
With many arbitration hearings being settled prior to a decision, Armia will likely get a 1- or 2-year contract either just above or just below $1.5m as he tries to prove himself worthy of higher earnings over a longer term.
It is hard to evaluate where exactly Marko Dano is in his development as a player, not garnering much ice time and would be much suited towards getting more at the AHL level, only to likely be held hostage in some other team’s press box (though that might change come next season’s roster trimming). Still, like Nic Petan (but with arbitration rights), a RFA asset with good underlying numbers may be of use to the team, either for the NHL to help with injury, or getting top ice time in the AHL.
Should the Jets like to have Dano remain in the press box, they will have to give him his qualifying offer of $892,500 – which is, according to Matt Cane’s model, nearly $200k more than he deserves based on the results he has produced. Swallowing up nearly $1m in cap space to continue being in the press box without trust from the head coach is something management will have to look at more in depth, as I would imagine Dano would accept that (unless it is perhaps constructed as a two-way deal).
If you could pay Matt Hendricks to be a player’s coach and be good in the room and keep morale up, you probably should. Paying the league minimum, however, for a barely replacement level player who saw a slight uptick in production as a NHL player year 10 at age 36 is not exactly money well spent for a team like the Winnipeg Jets now trying to go from a near-contender to champion.
Given that many other teams are frothing at the mouth for the likes of Hendricks to be in their room, don’t expect everyone’s favourite gritty vet to be returning to the team, barring a surprise.
He likely will see one last 1-year, league minimum contract for a team lacking “leadership”, however.
Most would call the Nic Petan experiment over since being sent down to the Manitoba Moose, though he quietly continued at a point per game pace through 52 games, 3rd amongst forwards for total points. In a league likely moving towards having a better lineup depth versus star players (see: copycat league mimicking Vegas Golden Knights), being able to insert an AHL point-per-game player into your lineup should injuries happen is of great value to many clubs.
Many, including myself, and I hope also the Winnipeg Jets Hockey Club, may still view Petan as a potential breakout player that may still excelling in a future Jets lineup – or, at the very least, continue helping the Manitoba Moose be a top team in the AHL. And, it is not likely he will have an option for anything else, as a RFA without arbitration rights. Unless another team offers Chevy a decently sweet deal in exchange for Petan’s rights, he will likely remain a Jet/Moose.
Like Dano, Petan must be offered $875k as a qualifying offer in order for the Jets to retain rights, though they make get away with constructing the contract to be two-way, of which I would imagine (unlike Dano), Petan would not accept. Expect Petan to fight tooth and nail for a 1-year, 1-way deal of some sort, so he can gain his arbitration rights as soon as possible, and try to get away from a club he is frustrated being with.
**In another incredibly unlikely scenario, given that NHL GMs harbour vengeances until the end of time, Petan is a perfect offer sheet candidate should another team wish to make Jets’ management lives even harder trying to manage being under the cap and paying future players. If a team can envision having Petan in their bottom six for the next 2-3 years, giving an offer sheet at a minimum of $1.5m per could force the Jets to let Petan go while only getting a third round pick in return. Perhaps there’s an article I can write on this in the future…
In probably the most surprising and most successful trade deadline deal, both parties will look longingly at each other as they hope to get a deal done – but alas, likely will not. Cue the Shakespearean music. While Stastny will not likely command a $6.6m or $7m deal like he did for his previous two, his 28 points in 36 games with the likes of Ehlers and Laine on his wings and a generally superb “Hockey IQ” will likely guarantee him one last loaded deal.
Expect a team dying for veteran leadership and a mid-centre to offer Paul Stastny somewhere in the realm of 3-4+ years at $5.5m+, which has the risk of looking bad after the first year as the game gets quicker and his legs gets slower.
Acquired to help replace any players if injured, Shawn Matthias did nothing but get injured himself and was looked largely out-of-place amongst the talent and quickness of the rest of the team, and quickly found himself in no longer in any of Maurice’s gameplans.
While his career likely is not totally over, do not expect him to be resigning with the Jets, nor with any other team for anything more than $1m.
In Summer 2019: Laine, Wheeler, Connor, and Copp
On July 1st, four extremely important players of the Jets will be eligible for contract extensions, and most definitely all (except maybe Copp) of their agents will be speaking extensively with Jets’ management. What makes things especially interesting is the CBA expiry, in which the NHL can opt out for the 2020-21 season (and likely going to happen for all intents and purposes, as seen by many recent contracts being built around that expiry date). Unlike the above players expiring this Summer 2018, the major three of Laine, Wheeler, and Connor will likely unfortunately be too much to keep together, barring some miraculous increase of the cap by then.
For Laine, part of the fear may be that you want to sign the now-no-longer-teenager now before his results on the rink explodes to more than just goals. On the other hand, you would want to see more than #goals to provide him the superstar contract he will likely expect (and receive) right out of his ELC. Or, you perhaps take the risk to sign Laine to a shorter length contract now to sign him long-term after to get more of his prime years – but, you carefully look eastward and wonder what the Leafs and Matthews are up to, after seeing McDavid and Eichel take home $10m+ contracts not that long ago. Nonetheless, Laine will not be any bit cheaper in a short-term contract and management would be banking on a lot of things to come together and go their way (in terms of the NHL and NHLPA decisions).
Laine will likely command upwards of $8m for anything long-term.
Depending on how the Jets wish to handle Laine absolutely and totally affects how they handle Wheeler. Blake Wheeler also looks towards the sweetheart deals that other Atlanta veterans have received (Little and Byfuglien) as their potentially last or second-last contracts, while also continuing to “quietly” be tops in the NHL in terms of assists and points, and being the captain – it’s hard to envision how the Jets handle and keep one of their best assets, as the Jets prime talent peaks together at the same time. Unless Blake Wheeler agrees that he should be paid just a little bit more than Scheifele and Ehlers and definitely less than Laine, it’s hard to see how the Captain remains north of the border for the foreseeable future.
Wheeler’s next contract will not be any less than $6m, which puts the Winnipeg Jets in a very tight spot. Unfortunately, this may lead to the Jets to make a business decision and letting Wheeler go (but not before one last run at the Stanley Cup).
(Note: Little’s contract with a NMC the first two years has definitely hampered and tied the Jets’ hands in keeping their prime talent together. Nothing against Brian Little, as he has definitely earned the respect and praise of before, but other than just being consistently decent with the likes of Wheeler and Ladd before, Little is now struggling to find his place on a team where the younger talent is already outperforming him in year 1 of his new contract.)
With all these other contracts compounding at the same time, the most likely player who will be strung around and be asked to prove it over and over again is Kyle Connor. Albeit dynamite in the offensive zone, putting up the most goals as a rookie in the 2017-18 season, Connor has struggled in the other two-thirds of the ice and will likely be pushed (perhaps unfairly) to be better there. Until then, Connor likely should not expect to be paid a price he and his agent may feel he is deserving of, with his exceptional talent in scoring or helping to score goals.
Look for Connor to “quietly” be one of the top point-producing players in the future but consistently attacked and dragged down for his other abilities (as evidenced by his early push to the Moose this season and quiet post-season), which is great for contract negotiations but terrible in terms of actually keeping the player for long-term.
Lastly, the steady and speedy centre/winger Andrew Copp will be looking for a slight increase from $1m in the near future. Perhaps the most quiet but steady performer of all, Copp has been given more ice time, little by little, and has garnered a little more production while continuing to be a stalwart in front of his own net. Chevy has hardly given out any contracts longer than 2 years for the bottom half of his roster, but signing Copp to 3-4 years for cheap would be in the best interest of the Jets trying to manage the salary cap going forward.
For reference, Perreault’s first contract with the Jets was 3yrs x $3m (July 1 2014), while Thorburn received 3yrs x $1.2m (Jun 30 2014) and Slater got 3yrs x $1.6m (June 13 2012). Signing Copp to a similar type of deal is extremely favourable: optimistically, 4yrs x $1.8m. But, looking at trends and history of Chevy’s signings, Copp is more likely to get shorter term for closer to or a little bit more than $2m.
In terms of forwards, the Jets have been the envy of the league this past 2017-18 season, with impressive talent from top-to-bottom in terms of offensive upside (defensively, a lot more can be argued), only falling short to the team that is said to have even greater depth presence and ability (and some would say coaching, but eh) after giving it their all to the Stanley Cup favourites. Trying to keep this iteration together, however, is likely only a pipedream – such is the life of managing a team in the NHL. That being said, keeping most of this iteration together while supplanting others with new talent, through the draft or the cheaper end of free agency, will ensure that the Jets forward depth will be feared for years to come.
Tomorrow, we will take a look at the two biggest reasons why the Jets took a massive step forward this season in defence and goaltending, and what they should do to ensure they stay there.
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