WINNIPEG — Kevin Cheveldayoff still has more questions than answers when it comes to a flat salary cap and the impact the pandemic could have on his budget.
But one thing the general manager of the Winnipeg Jets is going to have at his disposal is salary cap space — and you can expect him to show some creativity in how he’ll work to fill some of the holes in his roster during the offseason.
Simply put, all options will be considered as the Jets look to upgrade the defence corps and bolster a talented forward group.
“There’s a strong commitment from this organization group to do the things that need to get done,” said Cheveldayoff, who spoke for nearly 42 minutes. “I’ve never discussed internal budgets or different things like that. But from a perspective of being competitive, this organization is committed to that. I have no concerns there.
“We’re sitting here now understanding where the cap number is and understanding there are going to be challenges in how to work with a flat cap, not only now but the cap moving forward as it’s laid out. There’s not a lot of expected growth because of the pandemic for the foreseeable future. There are going to be some tough decisions, certainly in our organization and some other organizations as well because of the nature of the cap.”
Having some cap flexibility could open up some possibilities that some other teams pressed up against the ceiling won’t have at their disposal.
“All you can do is project internally here by going over and poring over other team’s caps and situations as to what might become available or not. Then, one thing we can provide for those players is an opportunity to play with a real solid core of players,” said Cheveldayoff. “Whether it’s a centre or whether it’s a winger or whether it’s a defenceman, we’re an easy sell to say ‘you can play with Josh Morrissey’ or ‘you can play with Player X up front.’ Those are enticing things to try to get a player to come in and prove themselves.”
The off-season priorities for the Jets are easy to identify — and represent a common theme.
One of the biggest question marks is the health and availability of veteran centre Bryan Little, who has been out since Nov. 4 and carries a cap hit of $5.291 million for the next four seasons.
A day after an emotional Little spoke with reporters for the first time since suffering the head injury, Jets head coach Paul Maurice showed empathy for the situation but also revealed the need to at least consider a Plan B.
“You’ll separate the two things, the person and the player,” said Maurice. “From a player point-of-view, we would absolutely now have to plan going forward that he wouldn’t be a player, because we’ve been doing that since his injury. As a person, you want a perfect life for everybody, you want perfect health and you want to be able to enjoy your life. For Bryan, from the Winnipeg Jets and from me personally, I want his life to be great, and if that means he doesn’t step on the ice again then that’s what I want.
“I don’t have the medical answers and clearly, even Bryan doesn’t have those, yet, on whether or not he’ll be given an opportunity to be a skater. So, we’ll just let that happen and hope for the best. But in terms of planning going forward, we have to look at this as Bryan wasn’t a player for us this year for good reason, and that wouldn’t change and we have to prepare that he won’t be a player for us again.”
If that turns out to be the case, Andrew Copp is the top internal candidate, especially after filling in admirably after Mark Scheifele left Game 1 of the qualifying round against the Flames with a suspected ankle injury.
“I don’t want to assume or have to tell the coaches I want it. I think I want my play to dictate that (Maurice) can’t have me anywhere else but that spot,” said Copp. “Just try to let my play do the talking. It’s not going to be assumed, for sure. I just feel like I’m working hard for it and that’s where I see my game going.”
Should the Jets be looking to make a deal for an external option, Max Domi of the Montreal Canadiens or Nolan Patrick of the Philadelphia Flyers could be two players that may be looking for a change of scenery once the offseason arrives.
Given the fact the Jets expressed an interest in acquiring Nazem Kadri from the Toronto Maple Leafs last summer, Domi makes a lot of sense — especially since the emergence of Nick Suzuki has essentially pushed him out of a top-six role.
As for Patrick, bringing the former Brandon Wheat Kings captain into the fold would provide a boost in the skill department but given his health during the past two seasons, there would be some inherent risk involved in a potential trade.
But both players would be highly motivated to flourish in a new situation and could fill a void the Jets have attempted to fill with trades during each of the past three deadlines (Paul Stastny, Kevin Hayes, Cody Eakin).
With 11 pending unrestricted free agents from the current roster, there is bound to be some significant turnover, which is what one would expect from a Jets team that should be proud of the way they battled adversity but are also coming off a second straight early exit.
Cheveldayoff says he hasn’t opened contract discussions with defenceman Dylan DeMelo, though he reiterated the contribution he made since his acquisition makes him a good fit to stick around.
“He really fit in well,” said Cheveldayoff. “We’ll definitely take a look at it. We haven’t had any negotiations with his representatives. But there has been a constant communication with respect to the understanding that we think he has been a good fit.
“Being an unrestricted free agent or potential unrestricted free agent, there’s obviously different things that I’m sure you know they’re considering. The positive side of things there for us right (now) is generally you’re sitting here waiting for that salary cap to get set. We do know that number, now it’s just a matter of trying to understand our own internal circumstances with respect to filling all the holes that we have, to what parameters we can assign to every situation. But we really appreciated what he brought to the table for us.”
It’s also possible the Jets opt to go big-game hunting, perhaps making a pitch to St. Louis Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo.
Pietrangelo, who became the franchise leader for points by a defenceman earlier this season, would prefer to remain in St. Louis but a flat cap likely means he’ll have to take less than market value to stay in the fold.
Might that leave the Jets with an opportunity to lure him over to a Central Division rival by offering a deal with a larger average annual value?
It would be a bold stroke by Cheveldayoff, one that would bring in a No. 1 blue-liner and provide an even bigger shooting threat for the Jets’ power play.
One position the Jets don’t really need to worry much about is between the pipes, where Connor Hellebuyck just completed a Vezina-calibre season.
Hellebuyck is a workhorse, but there is a question surrounding who the backup goalie is going to be.
With Laurent Brossoit set for unrestricted free agency, it remains to be seen if he’s going to sign another one-year deal where he knows what he’s in for — or if he prefers to join another organization where more starts could be available for him.
While Maurice’s assessment is ongoing, he conceded the Jets need to improve metrics on both the offensive and defensive sides of the game.
Before the roster reconstruction picks up, the Jets focus will shift to the 2020 NHL Draft.
Maurice confesses that in the days leading into the NHL Draft Lottery, he allowed himself to dream about the prospect of bringing Alexis Lafreniere into the fold — though he’s now likely heading to the New York Rangers.
“We all used to get the Canadian Tire Christmas catalogue, right? So, how I grew up is you knew you weren’t getting anything out of it but, man, you went through every page and circled all the stuff you’d love to have,” said Maurice. “I also knew I wasn’t getting any of it, so it wasn’t upsetting on Christmas morning. It was just a fun part. So, the answer to your question is, ‘sure.’ You had some line combinations and played with some things. But we weren’t expecting it.”
As of right now, the Jets have only four picks in the 2020 NHL Draft, but one of them is coming at 10th overall.
While the Jets are likely to add an impact forward or blue-liner, the chances are good that the player won’t be ready to compete for a roster spot in December and likely will require some additional seasoning.
As is customary, Cheveldayoff made it clear that it will be up to the chosen player to show whether he’s ready for NHL duty or not.
“There’s some really good, talented players there that are going to be there for us,” said Cheveldayoff. “We’re going to get a good player. I don’t know that any of us when we drafted Ville Heinola felt he was going to come into training camp and do the things that he did.
“Sitting here right now and understanding you’re drafting an 18-year-old person, forcing a young player just because you might have a hole in your organization is not the best way in all cases to build your organization. Now, if that player forces himself onto the team, then you take a good hard look at it.”
Cheveldayoff, who is entering his 10th offseason since taking the job, will be taking a hard look at a lot of things during the coming weeks and months.
The moves that he makes will go a long way to determining whether the Jets are going to be a bubble team once again or can get back to challenging for the Stanley Cup like they did in 2018.
“Again, it doesn’t necessarily change what year you’re in, what the situation truly was in the past here. It’s about looking forward, about trying to make assessments of where you’re at within an organization, what you have with assets in front of you and what the challenges are that you have to meet,” said Cheveldayoff. “It’s interesting, last summer sitting here to a person at the podium last year everyone was talking that this summer was going to be the hardest summer that I had with respect to getting contracts done and finding a way. Everyone was talking about offer sheets.
“Obviously we got dusted back from the plate by a couple of curve balls that we didn’t anticipate, but I thought we came off the mat and found a way to be competitive and to be in a situation probably sitting here where no one anticipated. This is where the busy time kind of starts for us. We have obviously preparation for the draft coming up, preparation for some internal contract signings, preparation for free agency and preparation for the unknown. So there’s lots of work to be done and we’re ready for the task.”