Analyzing Winnipeg Jets’ off-season outlook if salary cap stays flat

11-year old Winnipeg native and aspiring goalie Kylan Jackson enjoyed a dream day with the Winnipeg Jets and a local charitable organization, the Dream Factory.

Not long ago the Jets were a team that, more than anything, needed cap room.

Winnipeg came into the 2019-20 season right up against it. That all changed when Dustin Byfuglien walked away, eventually freeing up his $7.6 million cap hit in the process. Although Byfuglien remains under contract to the Winnipeg Jets it’s clear the team intends to move him if he decides to return to the ice, clearing plenty of cap space.

Given the likely departure of Dmitri Kulikov, or at the very least his $4.3 million cap hit, and the Jets will have plenty of space to address other needs.

Those other needs are far more peripheral than most NHL teams. The Jets’ core is bought and paid for with Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, Nik Ehlers, Bryan Little, Josh Morrissey and Connor Hellebuyck all locked up until the end of the 2023-24 season.

So while there will be much to do this off-season, the Jets should have plenty of space to solve each of the problems listed below.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

RFAs

The Jets do have a list of roster players hitting restricted free agency. The list includes Jack Roslovic, Mason Appleton, Jansen Harkins and Sami Niku. All those players spend the bulk of their ice time in bottom roles and the latter three are still fighting to establish themselves at the NHL level. Their compensation going forward will reflect that. I would expect short-term bridge deals for all of them with the Jets spending roughly $2-3 million above their total current compensation to address all four players.

UFAs

The Jets also have a long list of UFAs at season’s end, although many earned near or below the $1 million mark. The likes of Nathan Beaulieu, Anthony Bitetto, Luca Sbisa, Nick Shore, Logan Shaw, Mark Letestu and Gabriel Bourque can be re-signed or replaced at a similar cost meaning little to no extra expenditure.

There is reason to be concerned with depth scoring on this team. The Jets are the only team with four players in the top 30 in NHL scoring, yet sit 16th in scoring as a team. Should Cheveldayoff decide to add scoring punch on the back end, he has the room to do so, although that money would likely be better spent finding scoring up front.

The back up situation

Timing is everything and unfortunately it hasn’t worked out for the Jets back up goaltender Laurent Brossoit.

His breakout season in 2018-19 had him looking like a starter-in-waiting as he went 13-6-2 in relief of Hellebuyck. Had Brossoit been a UFA a big payday may have been waiting for him. Instead he was handcuffed as an RFA, re-upped with the Jets, and was set to prove to the league he’s worth starter’s money. It hasn’t worked out that way, though. Brossoit has struggled this season, posting a losing 6-7-1 record. The contrast between his play and the Vezina-calibre season produced by Hellebuyck strikes home the difference between an elite-level goalie and one still trying to make his mark in an NHL crease.

Still, the Jets like Brossoit and he and Hellebuyck have a great working relationship. Should both sides be interested in continuing to move forward together, the Jets have the money to do so and it shouldn’t take much of a raise above his current $1.225 million to keep him.

Dylan DeMelo and Cody Eakin

Jets trade deadline deals of the past have been made knowing incoming players were often rentals. Cheveldayoff has made it clear that’s not the case with the two newest Jets. He says there’s an intent to keep them in the fold should both sides find it a fit. While their time together has been cut short, both looked to have hit the ground running with the team.

Eakin is a Winnipeg native, which may give the Jets an inside track on re-signing him. With a current contract of $3.85 million the Jets probably wouldn’t need to spend much more, and maybe even less to keep him.

DeMelo is a different story. Of all the current Jets, he is likely due the biggest raise. By the time the NHL shut down, he was playing in the top pairing alongside Morrissey and earned his share of credit for the strong defensive play the team had achieved.

The Jets want to keep DeMelo and trading for him was a way of showing that interest while giving DeMelo a sneak peak at a future in Winnipeg. While playing to sentiment is never a bad strategy I still think the Jets will have to put forth near the best, if not the best, financial offer to keep him. DeMelo will be 27 next year and he’s never had a million dollar contract or higher in his career. This will be the best and maybe only chance to set himself up financially through hockey.

Yes, Cheveldayoff has a knack for getting his players to sign bargain contracts, but my guess is this one will be dictated by the market and not so much the GM’s magic.

Defensive help

As has been the case since the mass exodus on the Winnipeg blue line last summer, the Jets’ biggest hole remains on the back end. The team desperately needs a right shooting defenceman capable of quarterbacking a power play that went from one of the league’s most dangerous to stale and predictable this season. Currently the Jets lack a true shooter from the back end, allowing defenders to abandon the point and collapse on the Jets’ dangerous front four.

Should Winnipeg be able to land a player with the ability to log big minutes and defend, Winnipeg’s fortunes could swing sharply on such an acquisition. Of course, players like that tend to chew up a lot of cap space. If Byfuglien retires, the Jets will have it.

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