Winnipeg Jets Off-Season Report: A salary cap crunch is coming

Tim and Sid talk about the Winnipeg Jets being eliminated from the NHL Playoffs and what the team needs to do this summer.

Prior to 2017, the Winnipeg Jets had never been big players on either the trade or free agent markets, but that changed in the past 365 days or so.

With a need to add to the blue line and get some security in net, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff signed Dmitry Kulikov and Steve Mason as UFAs last July. Then at the trade deadline, Cheveldayoff swung big for Paul Stastny, which ended up being a very successful acquisition, even if he walks as a UFA this summer.

So now that they have a trip to the conference final under their belt, will this kind of activity be the new norm in Winnipeg? Don’t count on it.

For as open as their Stanley Cup window appears, anything the Jets do this summer must have next summer in mind. That’s when Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor become RFAs and Blake Wheeler and Tyler Myers become UFAs — Laine’s new cap hit could especially warp the team’s wiggle room. All four of them could sign their new deals as soon as this July 1.

There are some big, expiring RFA deals to figure out this summer, too. Although the Jets have more than $20 million in cap space, most of that will go towards players who are already on the team. The Jets have three big RFAs who will be up for large raises and at least one expensive UFA in Stastny who they’d explore keeping — although it just may not be tenable in the end.

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Two of their top four blueliners will see a big boost — Josh Morrissey will get his first post-ELC contract and Jacob Trouba is coming off a short-term, two-year bridge deal. If the former gets a bridge deal of his own it could come in higher than the $6 million total Trouba got, given the rising cap. Trouba, meantime, has more intrigue not just because of how much money he’s bound to get, but also because he had asked for a trade once upon a time. That was reportedly rescinded shortly after he re-signed, but remains a point of note.

What will Trouba come in at? Currently the second-most-used blueliner on the Jets, he’ll be the guy to take over No. 1 duties from Dustin Byfuglien possibly over the duration of this next contract. Jaccob Slavin, another 24-year-old blueliner who averaged a team-high 22:35 of ice for the Carolina Hurricanes, signed a seven-year extension last July with a $5.3 million AAV. Colton Parayko (22:37) was 24 when he signed for a $5.5 million cap hit with the Blues last summer. Are these fair comparables Trouba could come in just above because of the changing upper limit?

Just 24 NHL defencemen have a cap hit higher than $5.5 million and only two of them (Aaron Ekblad and Dougie Hamilton) are age 24 or younger. The Jets should expect Trouba’s contract to at least double.

The biggest increase, however, could come in net. Connor Hellebuyck started the season as the goalie of the future, but not as the No. 1 — by the end of it he was a Vezina Trophy finalist. Coming off a one-year “show me” contract with a $2.25 million cap hit, the 25-year-old Hellebuyck will command a hefty raise that could also double.

Because of these contracts and the ones due next year, there may not be enough room for Stastny, who will be the second- or third-most coveted centre on the free agent market. If he does stay, however, Mathieu Perreault can play anywhere and $5.291-million man Bryan Little is a natural centre, so either could become a trade option if Stastny returns. Something would have to give.

Salary Cap Space: $20.5 million

UFAs

Shawn Matthias, $2.125 million
Matt Hendricks, $700,000
Paul Stastny, $7 million
Tobias Enstrom, $5.75 million
Michael Hutchinson, $1.15 million

RFAs

Brandon Tanev, $700,000
Joel Armia, $925,000
Marko Dano, $850,000
Adam Lowry, $1.125 million
Jacob Trouba, $2.812 million
Tucker Poolman, $925,000
Joe Morrow, $650,000
Josh Morrissey, $863,333
Connor Hellebuyck, $2.25 million

2018 draft picks: 2nd, 3rd, 5th (own), 5th (BOS), 6th, 7th

Biggest off-season need

There is no glaring area that must be improved this summer, but Winnipeg’s strong track record of drafting and developing is now starting to turn into tough cap decisions. As much as the Jets can keep their eye on a Stanley Cup window that’s opening, they have to be mindful of what’s to come a year from now.

If Stastny leaves, centre could become an area of need, although Jack Roslovic seems destined to become a full-time NHLer in 2018-19 and can play the position — or Perreault could end up there. Tobias Enstrom will not be back with the only NHL organization he’s known, and that opens up the need for a left-shot defenceman. But even that could be filled from within if the team determines 21-year-old Sami Niku is ready. The Finn, and a seventh-round pick in 2015, was the highest-scoring rookie blueliner in the AHL this season and scored a goal in his one NHL game against Montreal in April.

All this considered, the Jets now face the same task so many high-end teams have been challenged with in the cap era: finding cheap, productive, under-the-radar talent to complement the highly paid core guys. The Jets won’t be big players in free agency and given Cheveldayoff’s track record and the season the team just had, a roster-changing blockbuster trade is unlikely as well. Winnipeg just needs to tinker, and there are options out there to achieve it.

With the organization so loaded with forward prospects (AHL Outstanding Rookie of the Year Mason Appleton could even get a look), our off-season targets focus more on the blue line and left-shooting defenders.

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Possible Off-Season targets

Ian Cole: If a veteran is willing to take a two- or three-year deal that isn’t too costly he might be a better fit for this team right away than Niku. Cole would be a nice addition as a third-line guy behind left shots Morrissey and Kulikov, who would fit right in to PK duties that could rise if/when injuries hit.

Kevin Connauton: Given what Vegas just accomplished and the way it played the game, the Jets could look for something much different and target Connauton, a low-risk third-pair guy who moves the puck well and has surprisingly good offensive totals in limited exposure. He scored 11 goals in 2017-18 averaging just 15:11 of ice time and almost no PP time. The Jets use just one defenceman on the PP, so he wouldn’t usurp time from other blueliners there. Now that they’re chasing Cups, though, it’s imperative for Winnipeg to find cheap depth and Connauton is an interesting target in that mindset.

Michal Kempny: A healthy scratch in Chicago before being shipped to Washington at the deadline and thriving with 17:42 minutes per game in the playoffs, Kempny would be worth a look if the price doesn’t climb too high in a bidding war. The problem here is that he’ll be 28 at the start of next season and has just 103 games played. He wasn’t even on the radar before these playoffs. But if the price is right, Kempny would fit as a shutdown third-pair option and he has Stanley Cup experience now.

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