Winnipeg Jets 2017 free agency preview

Watch as the Winnipeg Jets select Kristian Vesalainen with the 24th pick in the 2017 NHL Draft.

The Jets have done a good job building through the NHL Draft and keeping/managing the assets they have rather than looking for big-splash additions on July 1. Winnipeg has made very few unrestricted free agent acquisitions under GM Kevin Cheveldayoff, and the ones they have made were for specialized depth players.

This summer is the first where the Jets have a clear need to add to a headline position, as they’d prefer to go into next season with a more sturdy situation in goal. In the weeks leading to this point they had been suggested as potential landing spots for Marc-Andre Fleury or Petr Mrazek via trade, but given Cheveldayoff’s track record, we should instead expect a more subtle approach.

Connor Hellebuyck, 24, is still the goalie of the future in Winnipeg and 21-year-old Eric Comrie is also coming up, so the Jets don’t need a long-term fix yet. Don’t expect the team to add anyone who needs a 50-game workload or has sights set on a No. 1 job. Scott Darling was traded from Chicago to Carolina for a third-rounder and, while on the surface he’d have been a nice add for the Jets, the financial commitment that followed (four years, $4.15 million cap hit) didn’t align with Winnipeg’s needs.

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Aside from that, the Jets probably won’t be busy on the free agent market since they have a number of youngsters in the pipeline who will make pushes for roster spots. There will be some key RFAs coming up for them in the next year or two (Nikolaj Ehlers, Patrik Laine, Josh Morrissey, Jacob Trouba), so Cheveldayoff needs to use the cap space he has wisely.

SALARY CAP BREAKDOWN
Forwards: $28,152,500
Defence: $27,175,833
Goaltenders: $1,150,000

Total: $56,478,333 ($18,521,667 cap space)

AREA OF NEED
Goalie: Whether it’s a veteran backup with a successful track record, or someone who can split duty with Hellebuyck, the Jets can’t afford to head into 2017-18 with the Hellebuyck-Michael Hutchinson duo again. Each of the four division teams that finished ahead of them are set in goal and Dallas, who finished behind them, upgraded with Ben Bishop. It’s the most obvious area that needs improvement.

POTENTIAL TARGETS
Brian Elliott: Over the past four years Elliott has played anywhere between 31 and 49 games and is used to working in a tandem — with Jake Allen in St. Louis and Chad Johnson in Calgary. He’s been mostly reliable in that time, although when Calgary tasked him with being a No. 1 this past season he had a turbulent year, finishing with a .910 save percentage. Coming to Winnipeg in a no-doubt 1A/1B situation may be a comfortable and familiar spot for Elliott.

Ryan Miller: The 36-year-old has been a No. 1 his whole career and would need to be open to a somewhat smaller role in Winnipeg, but top jobs are drying up around the league. While Vancouver might yet bring Miller back to anchor its workload, the Jets provide a better opportunity to get into the playoffs. With a .916 and .914 save percentage the past two seasons, Miller would be a nice influence on the young Hellebuyck. He may be the most expensive and least likely to sign here, though.

Jonathan Bernier: Hasn’t been a No. 1 in a couple years so he wouldn’t have to settle for a smaller role. Bernier posted a .915 save percentage in 38 games with a strong Ducks team this past season, but was at .908 the season before in Toronto.

Jaroslav Halak: This one would be a trade instead of free agent signing, but if the Isles are still looking at moving the 32-year-old, who they buried in the AHL last season, Winnipeg would be a nice landing spot. Halak has one year left on his contract at $4.5 million against the cap, so he could come in for a season of split duty and the Jets would be open to go back to Hellebuyck for the No. 1 job in 2018-19 if he shows well next season.

RECENT FREE AGENT ACQUISITIONS
Mathieu Perreault, $9 million, three years signed in 2014: Originally signed as a UFA, Perreault re-upped with Winnipeg last summer and will start that four-year contract ($4.125 million cap hit) in 2017-18. One of the most versatile forwards on the team, the 29-year-old has been a consistent producer for the Jets in his three seasons, finishing with 41, 41 and 45 points.

Michael Frolik, $3.3 million, one year signed in 2014: Winnipeg acquired the third-liner in a trade ahead of the 2013-14 season and then signed him for a year on July 29, 2014. Frolik was a terrific add, finishing with a couple of 42-point seasons and was used in all situations. Some younger and cheaper options from the pipeline made Frolik expendable following 2014-15, but he’s continued being a productive contributor in Calgary.

Shawn Matthias, $4.25 million, two years signed in 2016: The big-bodied depth winger pulled in an average of 1:29 of shorthanded ice time this past season and would have played a bigger part on the unit had he not missed nearly half the season due to injury. Not much for offence, Matthias was left exposed to Vegas and will be used as deadline trade bait if the Jets are on the outside of the playoff picture again.

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