Cap considerations: Winnipeg Jets face many challenges this summer

Sean Reynolds tries to dissect where it went downhill for the 2018-19 Winnipeg Jets, who put their soul into it but couldn't escape the first round, but the bigger issue is tackling the future of a club that currently has 14 free agents.

When Auston Matthews signed a five-year contract extension with the Toronto Maple Leafs in early February, it started a shift in thinking around new deals for young star players. Where previously the assumption was eight years for all, Matthews’s contract ran short and ate up just one year of unrestricted free agency to potentially shift the market. William Nylander, too, signed a six-year contract as an RFA, which effectively works out to five full seasons.

While it’s nice to have cost certainty and control over your best young players, it might actually be worth it for the Winnipeg Jets to consider going shorter term with at least one of their RFAs. If eight years was still the expected standard, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff would have had to make that commitment this summer to Patrik Laine following a season where his points dropped by 20 and his goals by 14. Odds are he recovers and continues on as one of the NHL’s best goal scorers from here, but the insane streakiness we saw from him in 2018-19 and the fact he dealt with a back injury is at least a little concerning.

Cheveldayoff would also have had to make the same commitment to Kyle Connor, who has back-to-back 30-goal seasons and saw his points increase in 2018-19. But is he a line-driver on his own, as head coach Paul Maurice labeled him, or does a heavy enough proportion of his production relate to sharing a line with Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler?

Both Connor and Laine will still demand heavy pay days, but signing them to shorter-term deals would kick more permanent decisions down the road a little and control immediate costs a bit better.

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Cheveldayoff faces one of the toughest summers of any NHL general manager. Usually one of the more deliberate, patient men in his position, he’ll have no choice but to be active. He’s already kicked it off by sending Jacob Trouba to the New York Rangers for a losing return of a first-round pick and Neal Pionk, but there’s still more to come. From his RFAs to questions on defence, Cheveldayoff has a long check list to get through this off-season, so here we highlight some of his top priorities:

1. Getting Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor figured out
Winnipeg has $23.8 million in cap space, but that’s not much wiggle room when you consider only seven forwards and five defencemen are signed. The call has to be made on how much they would prefer to ink one or both of these players to a maximum eight-year term, and how palatable it is to the organization to give either a bridge deal. While Matthews signed for five years in Toronto, it’s believed the team was interested in going three years and taking him one year shy of his first UFA eligibility. Would the Jets even consider going that route with Laine?

The risk is obvious. Sign Laine for between three and five years and his next deal would be absolutely massive if he responds with multiple 40- (or even 50-) goal seasons. While his year-end totals were a little disappointing compared to expectation, his shot totals continued to rise and his shooting percentage dropped to a career low. The smart bet is on that percentage coming back to his career average (15.9) and had he converted at that rate this season, it would have translated to 39 goals.

Connor hasn’t had the same inconsistency, but he’s also far less likely to break through to a higher performance level. His shooting percentage has remained rather steady over two years and he already plays with the two best forwards on the roster. If you go eight years on Connor and buy four of his UFA years ,the base line AAV is likely about $7 million — a similar rate to what UFA James van Riemsdyk and pending UFA Evander Kane got last off-season. But if you bridge him, you’d knock a couple million off that projected cap hit and the risk of his following deal being astronomical is far less severe than it is with Laine.

2. Buyout considerations
The first buyout window will remain open until June 30. Since the Jets project to be so tight to the cap after filling out the roster, would they consider any buyouts to free more immediate space?

Dmitry Kulikov‘s name is most often brought up here. Through most of his NHL career he’s averaged around 20 minutes of ice time per game, but that took a major hit this season, where he averaged only 15:40 and filled out a third-pair role in Winnipeg. He only has one year left on his contract, but that comes with a $4.3 million cap hit, which is hefty for where he fit in the lineup.

Buying out Kulikov would save the Jets $2.88 million next season, but penalize them $1.44 million in 2020-21. However, with Trouba already gone and Tyler Myers likely to follow, Kulikov may be needed to take on more minutes again next season.

Another possibility could be Mathieu Perreault, although he’s versatile, productive and would be more attractive to other teams on the trade market. He’s a very useful player but, counting for $4.125 million against the cap, he’s a luxury Winnipeg may no longer be able to afford. Even if the Jets have to retain $1 million in a trade that’d save them more against the cap than a buyout and they’d bring back some kind of asset.

3. Trade considerations
We’ve mentioned Perreault and he might top the list of likely players to move in an effort to open more cap space or upgrade the defence. But Nikolaj Ehlers‘s name has been floating around the rumour mill for a few weeks.

If Ehlers is moved, you can assume it would be to acquire a top four defenceman. But would that be wise? He has six years left on his own long-term extension, but at $6 million that’s a bargain for someone you’d expect to return 60 points minimum. Ehlers’s production dropped considerably this past season, falling from .73 points per game in 2017-18 to .59 in 2018-19 so his trade value is low at the moment.

P.K. Subban was unattainable for the Jets, but he was traded for peanuts in a salary dump. Olli Maatta ($4 million cap hit) was acquired by Chicago for Dominik Kahun, who is one year older and much less productive than Ehlers. Calvin De Haan ($4.5 million) was also acquired by Chicago for a low cost.

All of those blueliners could play in a top four pairing, so it wouldn’t be ideal to sell off a much better talent in Ehlers to fill a similar spot in the depth chart. Unless you’re getting a top-pair defender back, Ehlers should stay put. It’s far more important to be strong up front and fill in the blue line than vice-versa. The more likely outcome could be sending out Perreault to a forward-needy team to get back a top-four blueliner with a similar AAV who may be overpaid inside another team’s salary structure, but would work out as a nice fit with the Jets.

4. Who’s being promoted?
As the cap takes its toll all over the roster, there’s going to be a focus on younger, cheaper players pushing for and earning a spot on next year’s NHL team. This is by far the most important element of Winnipeg’s off-season.

Up front there could be two full-time spots up for grabs if only UFAs Brandon Tanev and Par Lindholm leave. In that case, Mason Appleton could carve out a more permanent space and see more than the 36 NHL games he got last year — over the past two seasons the 23-year-old has 98 points in 116 AHL games.

Kristian Vesalainen is another candidate for promotion after he started the season in North America and then returned to Finland to play for Jokerit of the KHL.

There’s potentially more opportunity on the back end, though. Sami Niku and Tucker Poolman will continue their push and with good camps are fairly good bets to stick with the team — they’ll combine to make just $1.5 million against the cap and already have some NHL experience under their belts and great success in the AHL. Dylan Samberg, 20, could have been in this discussion as well, but he will return to Minnesota-Duluth of the NCAA for another season.

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