While we wait on a contract for RFA Josh Morrissey and wonder what kind of raises Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor and Jacob Trouba — all high-profile RFAs next summer — will get, the Jets locked in their captain to a five-year extension on Tuesday that comes with an $8.25-million cap hit.
Wheeler will be 37 years old at the end of the deal, but no matter whether or not you believe he’ll provide value against his AAV towards the end, this was a signing the Jets needed to make. After all, Wheeler is coming off a career-best 91-point season and the Jets’ Stanley Cup window is wide open — the value comes in keeping the core together and doubling down on their contender status.
As of right now, Wheeler is slated to be the Jets’ highest-paid player when the 2019-20 season gets started, although Laine could still come over the top. But even with top centre Mark Scheifele locked in at a tremendous $6.125-million bargain for the next six years, perhaps the best contract league-wide from a team perspective, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has to work to keep his Jets in formation.
Winnipeg has a projected $27 million in cap space for next season with a few key, and likely expensive, pieces to sign.
If Cheveldayoff wants to re-sign all of the big-ticket players, here’s a ballpark of what kind of AAV we could expect from each:
Jacob Trouba: $6.5 million
After an arbitration award, Trouba’s cap hit nearly doubled and while it won’t go up by that same percentage again, his next deal will either buy up UFA years or place him one year away from 2020 UFA eligibility. Though there is a rocky history here that has made Trouba’s long-term desires unclear, he did say recently he wouldn’t rule out a big extension. Today he is the No. 2 defenceman in Winnipeg as far as usage goes and if he stays on a multi-year pact, will likely become the No. 1 over the life of that deal. Trouba asked for $7 million in arbitration this season and that might be the upper-limit of what he’d get on a re-sign. More likely might be a deal in line with Cam Fowler ($6.5 million) or Ryan Ellis ($6.25 million), two players whose deals kick in this season and next, respectively.
Josh Morrissey: $5.5 million
The only player left unsigned for the 2018-19 season, Morrissey’s extension could be impacted by Noah Hanifin’s $4.95 million AAV on a six-year contract signed last week. But where Hanifin was protected and given less than 24 per cent of his zone starts in the defensive end, Morrissey is more of a defender and started in his own zone more than any other Jets blueliner. Morrissey is also a couple years older and any deal extending more than four years would buy UFA time so his final AAV should come in a bit higher than Hanifin.
Tyler Myers: $5.5-6 million
This one is a little difficult to gauge — Myers currently makes $5.5 million against the cap and although he signed that deal under a smaller ceiling, he also hadn’t matched the kind of point production he accumulated in his first three seasons until 2017-18.
Myers’ role comes with a focus on special teams and he ranked fourth on the team in even-strength time on ice. If he approaches or crosses 40 points and stays healthy this season his expected AAV could come up. Who is a good comparable for Myers? Niklas Hjalmarsson has less offensive upside, but signed a two-year, $10-million extension with the Coyotes. Ellis came in over $6 million, but has been more consistent and healthy. It might just make sense to walk away from the player.
Kyle Connor: $6-7 million
Before this season starts, Toronto’s William Nylander needs a new contract and could be an interesting comparable for Connor. Both players burned the first year of their ELCs with 20-ish games played, then followed it with similar point totals in Year 2 — the difference is that Connor is a sniper and Nylander is more of a possession playmaker. For now, Dylan Larkin’s $6.1 million AAV with the Red Wings is a good place to find a comparison. Connor has a chance to join a small list of elite players to post multiple 30-goal seasons before their ELC expired.
Patrik Laine: $9-10 million
We may have to wait to see what Auston Matthews gets before the first player picked after him in the 2016 draft signs, but there’s a chance Laine passes Wheeler as the Jets’ highest-paid player next season. He’s not going to win any Selke Trophies or be a PK contributor, but he could have multiple “Rocket” Richard Trophies in his future. Jack Eichel is Buffalo’s franchise player and had better points-per-game averages over the past two seasons so Laine likely won’t go beyond the $10 million Eichel earned.
All of this together comes in at around $33 million, which would put the Jets $6 million over the cap and leave them with holes in the bottom-six and backup goalie spots. There are avenues to take down at least part of this cost: perhaps Connor or even Morrissey come in with AAV’s a little lower on bridge contracts. But decreasing this total amount by more than $6 million is a tall task. The easiest way to get there would be to let Myers become a UFA, or to trade Trouba.
Cheveldayoff has never been a big trader as GM of the Jets, but that option has to be on the table in the next 12 months. Trouba will be in the rumour mill until he signs a long-term extension and although 30-year-old Mathieu Perreault’s versatility makes him a valued asset, $4.125 million for essentially a third-liner could prove too rich.
Then there are younger players who could push others out and be on the books at a bargain. For instance, if Jack Roslovic works his way into a full-time centre role this season, he could play next season there on the last year of his ELC. Kristian Vesalainen may be NHL-ready a season from now and will start on his ELC. Tucker Poolman and Sami Niku showed they could fill depth roles last season and both come in under $1 million.
For these players to get into the lineup full-time, someone would have to be on the way out.
Wheeler’s signing keeps a central piece in place for the future, but the contract will kick in at a time when the salary cap will be more of a factor for the Jets than at any other time in their history.
Chelevdayoff has shown the likes of Wheeler, Scheifele and Hellebuyck are a part of his team’s core — the next step may be to identify the players who are not.