0Anthony Cirelli

Could the Jets land RFA Anthony Cirelli this offseason?

With the offseason officially underway, the Winnipeg Jets will certainly have their hands full over the next few months, as they attempt to strengthen their roster for the 2020-21 campaign. While retooling their blueline is expected to be the team’s first priority, it’ll also be critical to locate a second-line center as well.

Considering the 2020 NHL Entry Draft is scheduled to begin next week (Oct. 6-7), teams across the league will likely be attempting to conduct their pre-draft business very shortly, which could translate into a flurry of transactions during that timeframe. With that in mind, there’s a very good chance general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff could pull the trigger on a significant trade before the first overall pick is announced, but it’s probably not the move the fanbase is expecting them to make.

While teammates Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers have been floating around as trade bait, it’s possible Cheveldayoff and his staff might have their attention set on landing a top-six forward rather than trading one away. Looking to take advantage of one of the several teams in “cap hell,” it’d make a ton of sense for Winnipeg to explore the idea of acquiring center Anthony Cirelli from the 2020 Stanley Cup champions.

Though the Tampa Bay Lightning are currently celebrating their championship victory, and rightly so, they’re expected to face plenty of tough decisions with their roster this fall, especially since they own the fourth-lowest cap space ($5.33 million) in the league, according to Sportrac.com. Even with defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk becoming an unrestricted free agent, they’ll still only have that small amount to provide new deals to key restricted free agents Mikhail Sergachev, Erik Cernak, and Cirelli.

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Since most experts believe Cirelli will likely command $7 or $8 million per season on the open market, the emerging star could prove to be the most difficult player to re-sign among that trio. Unless the Lightning cut their payroll significantly this offseason, it seems like they won’t be able to keep all three of those players, which could open the door for the Jets to steal the 23-year old away from them.

With center Bryan Little still debating his future as he recovers from his punctured eardrum and concussion, Cheveldayoff must search for a new forward who could quarterback his club’s second line and the former third-round pick appears to be a perfect fit for that role. Despite participating in just his second full season in the NHL, the left-hander was positioned on Tampa Bay’s second line and he certainly played up to his high expectations.

Through 68 regular season games this season, Cirelli averaged a career-high 18:28 minutes of ice time, producing 16 goals, 44 points, 113 shots on net, 89 hits, 53 takeaways, 47 blocks, along with a 47.5 percent faceoff win percentage. In addition, the youngster also averaged 0.24 goals per game, 0.65 points per game (career-high), and also created 0.24 goals per game.

Making a strong impact during the Lightning’s championship run, the 6-foot center averaged the fourth-most minutes of ice time (20:08 minutes) and hits (99), the sixth-most goals (three), and the seventh-most points (nine) and shots on net (38) among all forwards on his team.

Based on this production, there’s a solid chance Cirelli would be able to make a seamless transition, as his style of play fits the Jets’ scheme perfectly. With that said, acquiring the talented young center definitely wouldn’t come cheap, as he appears to be potentially on the verge of an All-Star performance in the near future.

Considering Tampa Bay’s prospect system doesn’t feature many top defensemen, Winnipeg would likely need to include a promising blueliner along with a package of draft picks to pry the Ontario native out of Florida. While Sami Niku would probably be the first player they’d ask for, Sheveldayoff isn’t planning to move him anytime soon. Still, including prospect Leon Gawanke, the team’s 2021 second-rounder, and a 2022 sixth-round pick would be a solid package to send the other way.

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Entering his age-21 campaign, Gawanke isn’t too far away from making his NHL debut, as he played 48 games in the AHL this past season, scoring four goals and 26 points. Unlike some of the other Jets’ young defensemen, the right-hander is already signed to a three-year entry-level contract, which includes a cap hit of $796K.

Even though Winnipeg could just target Cirelli once free agency opens next week, there’s a chance another team might outbid them for the young center’s services. If they want to have sole possession of the two-way forward’s rights, then they’ll need to act quickly before the rest of the league has a chance to send him an offer sheet if and when he becomes a restricted free agent on Oct. 9.