Getting bounced out of the qualifying round showed that the Winnipeg Jets need some upgrades in the depth chart.
The forward combination of Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers is very solid, but after the roster starts looking a little thin. Especially on defence.
The Jets are going to have just over $15 million in cap space this offseason. Considering there are 15 RFAs and UFAs needing new contracts, including Dylan Demelo, Jack Roslovic and Laurent Brossoit, that $15 million starts getting real small real quick. Paul Maurice has said that he expects the roster to be similar should GM Kevin Cheveldayoff stay the course and resign most of his free agents.
We’re still not sure what Bryan Little will decide, but indications are pointing towards him hanging his blades up. If that happens, that could clear about $5.3 million in cap space, but again, tough to rely on this. Considering he’s still owed about $20 million, the more likely scenario is that he’s placed on the LTIR.
Taking into account this lack of cap room, the Jets are going to need to find players who are likely to exceed expectations to fill holes in the roster. With the salary cap ready to stagnate for the next couple seasons, there isn’t a lot of room for error when it comes to handing out contracts.
With how good Connor Hellebuyck was this season — he should have been nominated for MVP, and that’s a hill I’ll die on — the Jets need to do more to help him out.
So here are 5 UFAs that Kevin Cheveldayoff should try to sign.
1. Vladislav Namestnikov
The Jets bottom six need a cheaper option than Mathieu Perreault and Cody Eakin, whose contracts add up to just under $8 million combined. Considering the scoring proficiency of the top line, having that depth scoring will go a long way in taking the pressure off the top guys.
Vladislav Namestnikov had a really good year with an abysmal Ottawa Senators team before being traded to the Colorado Avalanche, finishing the season with 31 points in 65 games.
Considering the Avalanche brought Namestnikov in as a rental, he’ll likely be searching for a new landing spot after his playoff run with Colorado. The Jets need someone who can play that third-line, fringe second-line centre role. Namestnikov is a more offensive player than Adam Lowry and could be a player to add a more dynamic punch to the second line.
2. Mark Pysyk
The Jets need a top defenceman, and they need one badly. But considering their cap crunch, Cheveldayoff may have more luck trading for one rather than overpaying for one of this summer’s top available defenders. No offense to Alex Pietrangelo or Torey Krug, but those contracts are about to be too big for the Jets long-term goals.
Enter Mark Pysyk.
Yes, the same Pysyk who jumped up to play winger for the Florida Panthers throughout this season.
Pysyk showed that he can offer an offensive touch this season, and considering his cap hit probably won’t be too high, he could be a solid choice. In 58 games this season, the 28-year-old scored 18 points, a career-high. Can he put up more points next season? Tough to say, but Pysyk is the type of experienced defender that can fit in well on almost any second pairing.
With Demelo, Dimitry Kulikov and Nathan Beaulieu all up for new contracts this offseason. The Jets defence was very not good this season, so maybe inserting some fresh blood in the form of Pysyk to shore up the defence could do some good.
3. Josh Leivo
The more I double-down on my appreciation for Josh Leivo, the more I realize I may be on an island with this take.
This season, Leivo scored 19 points in 34 games with the Vancouver Canucks, and his 2.09 points-per-60 at even-strength is a tantalizing look for a Jets team looking to get better down the depth chart. That total is better than players like Anthony Beauvillier, Mikael Backlund and Kaspari Kapanen.
At 27, Leivo’s next contract could squeeze into the Jets’ plan, and even a three-year deal with a low cap hit could reap rewards for Cheveldayoff.
I really like Leivo’s game. I think he can be a strong middle-six player who’s shown he’s capable of putting points on the board despite limited to 15 minutes a night this season. He could be another cheap option for Chevaldayoff when it comes to upgrading from the current players on the roster.
4. Jon Merrill
The Vegas Golden Knights defender is probably the least-known name on this list, but his play could be a great fit with the Jets.
Coming off a seven-point season where he averaged over 18 minutes a night, Merrill is known for his simple, solid play. He had a 55.57 expected goals for this season, which is pretty good. He won’t ever be the best option for first pairing minutes, but his ability to suppress chances could fit in well as a third, fringe second-pairing defender. Merrill’s current cap hit of $1.375 million is likely to go up, but a shrewd move by Cheveldayoff here would go a long way.
If the Jets are replacing one of Beaulieu, Sami Niku or Kulikov with Merrill, that’s an upgrade.
5. Jimmy Vesey
The Vesey-Buffalo connection never seemed to work out. The former highly-touted prospect has failed to live up to expectations, and maybe a change in scenery could ignite a little bit of scoring.
The 27-year-old left-winger put up 20 points in 64 games on a remarkably bad Sabres team. On the Jets, and with a little bit of powerplay time, Vesey could be a good fit.
The best part? His lack of production means that his contract won’t be expensive. On the open market, it would be shocking to see him fetch more than his current $2.275 million cap hit. Cheveldayoff could snag a high-risk-high-reward player with Vesey.
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