Jets Free Agency Preview: Making upgrades to forward group is priority

Winnipeg Jets' Paul Stastny (25) celebrates his 800th career point with an assist on Blake Wheeler’s (26) goal against the Seattle Kraken during the third period of NHL action in Winnipeg on Sunday May 1, 2022. (Fred Greenslade/CP)

WINNIPEG — There’s money to spend, but holes to fill, so don’t let the numbers send you into a false sense of security that Kevin Cheveldayoff will be making a bunch of big-ticket offers when the free agent frenzy opens on Wednesday morning.

Sure, the Jets project to have more than $18,000,000 available under the ceiling, but that only includes 13 members of the 23-player roster, so there will be some juggling required — and that’s likely to include trading one (or more) of the experienced D-men to make room for the likes of Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg.

Historically, Cheveldayoff and the Jets have spent more time searching for value than getting into a bidding war for the marquee names that are available and this year isn’t expected to be any different — though there could be a few swings taken during the coming days.

The uncertainty surrounding whether or not the Jets and longtime captain Blake Wheeler can find a trade fit could play a massive role in how things transpire, though the Jets are going to need to bring in some upgrades no matter how this situation plays out.

Although there’s been plenty of speculation surrounding the future of centre Pierre-Luc Dubois, the most likely scenario — at least in the short term — is a one-year deal, with the Jets hoping another strong season could eventually convince the third overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft that he should stick around rather than test the market as an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2024.

The Jets kept veteran Paul Stastny beyond the trade deadline rather than trade him to a team heading for the playoffs because they value his versatility and leadership.

But if Stastny wants to test the market and sign with a team that’s more firmly established in the contender category — perhaps like the Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche or a potential reunion with former Jets head coach Paul Maurice with the Florida Panthers — you can expect the Jets to look to upgrade the centre position in particular and the forward group in general through free agency and/or trades.

It’s more likely the Jets will be subtracting from the defence corps, but that doesn’t rule out an acquisition either.

Although nothing is set in stone, the buzz around the 2022 NHL Draft was that Brenden Dillon was the most likely candidate to be on the move and given his contract status (two more seasons at an AAV of $3.9 million) make him appealing on a number of fronts for those looking to add a guy who plays with edge and can be used on the second pairing.

And with Eric Comrie expected to at least wait until free agency opens to listen to what other offers might be out there, the backup goalie position is also going to be under the microscope.

A power play for Evgeni Malkin, who appears headed for a divorce from the Pittsburgh Penguins, is not expected but perhaps there is an unexpected move or two on the horizon for Cheveldayoff and the Jets.

Nazem Kadri is another player who would be an ideal candidate for the Jets to pursue, given his combination of skill, engagement and character, but he blocked a pair of potential trades to the Jets and Calgary Flames a few years ago before landing with the Avalanche.

That doesn’t preclude Kadri, who had 28 goals and 87 points in 71 games before adding seven goals and 15 points in 16 playoff games, from considering an offer from either team, but likely means that neither one of those teams will be a front-runner for his services.

Salary cap space: $18,046,310

Roster size 13/23

Salary committed to forwards: 6 — $31,517,857

Salary committed to defence: 6 — $25,875,000

Salary committed to goalies: 1 — $6,166,666

(* all numbers courtesy of CapFriendly)

Unrestricted free agents

F Paul Stastny

LW Zach Sanford

F Adam Brooks

RW Austin Poganski

F CJ Suess

F Luke Johnson

G Eric Comrie

RW Evegni Svechnikov

D Markus Phillips

G Philippe Desrosiers

Restricted free agents

C Pierre-Luc Dubois

RW Mason Appleton

LW Jansen Harkins

C David Gustafsson

LW Kristian Vesalainen

LW Jeff Malott

D Johnny Kovacevic

D Leon Gawanke

Potential UFA targets

LW Ondrej Palat, Tampa Bay Lightning

The belief is that the Lightning are going to make every effort to keep the two-time Stanley Cup champion in the fold, but if that’s not possible you can expect Palat to be at or near the top of most teams’ shopping lists. This responsible two-way player makes his linemates better and is highly productive, especially when the temperature gets cranked up, with 12 of his 48 career playoff goals being game-winners. At 31, the seventh round pick will be looking for term along with a raise from the $5.3 million he made last season. It could cost north of $7 million for the Jets to get an opportunity to make their pitch. But if Wheeler is moved, Palat could eat up a big chunk of that available salary and could be a perfect complement to either Kyle Connor or Nikolaj Ehlers. File this under the unlikely column, though that doesn’t mean he’s not on the wish list.

C Vincent Trocheck, Carolina Hurricanes

This is a player who caught the attention of the Jets dating back to his time with the Florida Panthers. He’s coming off a strong offensive season (21 goals, 51 points, 81 games played) and he’s another guy who contributes in all three zones and would provide a boost to both special teams units. He plays with some bite as well and is certainly looking for a long-range contract that is north of $5 million.

LW/RW Andre Burakovsky, Colorado Avalanche

When engaged and healthy, the speedy winger has the potential to be a game-breaker and he’ll be looking to be paid accordingly after capturing a Stanley Cup with the Avalanche. Burakovsky was limited to two games in the final, but he managed to score the OT winner in Game 1 and had a goal and an assist in Game 2 in just under eight minutes of ice time. Talent has never been the issue with the two-time champion, but there’s still another step to be taken on the consistency front, though progress has certainly been made. Burakovsky, who had an AAV of $4.9 million for the past two seasons, scored 22 goals and had 61 points in 80 games and it’s reasonable to expect him to continue to be a productive player.

C/LW Ilya Mikheyev, Toronto Maple Leafs

After trading Andrew Copp to the New York Rangers at the NHL trade deadline, the Jets would benefit from adding a versatile forward that can score and check. The reported asking price of $5-plus million could scare several teams off, including the Jets, but if the AAV starts with a four, this is a high-end penalty killer who delivered a career-best 21 goals and 32 points in 53 games last season while averaging roughly 15 minutes per game. The Maple Leafs love the player, but he’s likely going to end up being a salary-cap casualty.

C Dylan Strome, Chicago Blackhawks

The Jets would also be in the market for older brother Ryan, who seems to be a good bet to move on from the Rangers, but it’s unlikely the Jets can meet the asking price for a No. 2 centre who does a lot of the little things well. The younger Strome could be an interesting gamble on a two or three-year deal after becoming a UFA when the Chicago Blackhawks decided not to tender a qualifying offer. Dylan Strome doesn’t play with much speed or play much of a physical game, but he’s a heady player with good vision and he’s been able to put up points at the NHL level, including 22 goals and 48 points in 69 games last season (with 16 of those coming on the power play).

C/RW Evan Rodrigues, Pittsburgh Penguins

Coming off a career year, Rodrigues was able to excel in a top-6 role during the first half of the season, but endured a lengthy dry spell down the stretch (two goals in his final 23 regular-season games), which put a bit of a damper on an otherwise impressive campaign that finished with 19 goals and 43 points in 82 games. If he can chip in on the secondary scoring front and aid the penalty kill, he’s an intriguing target for the Jets and many other teams looking for a more affordable option at second-line centre.

RW/LW Frank Vatrano, New York Rangers

For a team looking to add some secondary scoring, Vatrano would be a smart bet as he’s a high-end finisher. He combined for 18 goals with the Rangers and Panthers last season, with just one of those goals coming on the power play, so he could provide a boost in even-strength production while being used in a middle-six role. A product of the US National Development Program, the 28 year old averaged just over 19 goals during the three previous seasons and recorded a career-high 24 back in 2018-19. So he’s been able to dent the twine with regularity at every level — including 36 goals in 36 games with the Providence Bruins in 2015-16 — and has also delivered strong underlying numbers.

Potential trade targets

D MacKenzie Weegar, Florida Panthers

When the Jets were looking to find a trade partner in the Patrik Laine deal, you can be sure that Cheveldayoff took the temperature on what it would take to acquire the right-handed shooting blue-liner who can play either side effectively. Given the history with UFA D-man Ben Chiarot and Maurice, it would not be a surprise if GM Bill Zito tried to keep the former Jets blue-liner in the fold (especially when you consider the price tag to obtain his services). But with more than $21 million already invested in the defence corps, Weegar could bring back a significant haul and could make for a perfect partner for Josh Morrissey. Weegar is one year away from UFA status, so the deal would come with some risk but he’s the type of guy who could stabilize the D corps if they could find common ground on an extension.

RW Jesse Puljujarvi, Edmonton Oilers

The Jets had given Puljujarvi serious consideration back in 2015 when Laine went second overall and his fellow Finn slipped to fourth overall, so it’s natural to wonder if Winnipeg is one of the teams considering a low-risk, high-reward bet here. The underlying numbers suggest Puljujarvi could be a candidate for a breakout season, but his actual raw numbers haven’t come close to the projection models when you consider the offence he actually generates. Would a change of scenery make it more likely Puljujarvi becomes the next Nichushkin? There’s no guarantee, but it’s a question several teams would be asking themselves leading into what is expected to be a busy time. The asking price will determine the Jets level of interest, but you have to wonder if someone like pending RFA winger Kristian Vesalainen (who was tendered a qualifying offer despite signing to play in Sweden next season) would be part of the package. Vesalainen is also a first-rounder that hasn’t reached his potential to this stage of his career, but the Oilers had some success with Puljujarvi after he returned from playing back home in Finland.

LW Lawson Crouse, Arizona Coyotes

Although he doesn’t play an overly physical game, he doesn’t shy away from contact and would add a size component (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) that is lacking among the Jets' forward group. Crouse is a restricted free agent and coming off a campaign that included 20 goals and 34 points in 65 games. Those aren’t eye-popping totals, but he established himself as a middle-six forward and would provide a boost to a Jets group looking to upgrade its personnel up front, provided the price tag is reasonable.

LW Miles Wood, New Jersey Devils

The feisty winger is coming off an injury-plagued season that limited Wood to only three games last season, so there is a buyer beware element here, but he’s just one season removed from a 17-goal campaign. When healthy, Wood is the type of player you notice on the ice. He’s involved physically and could make for a perfect addition to the checking line centred by Adam Lowry.

C/LW Jason Dickinson, Vancouver Canucks

The transition from the Stars to Canucks has not gone the way Dickinson envisioned, but Bowness knows the player well and used him in a variety of roles after taking over as an interim coach. He’s not a natural goal scorer (his career high is nine), but he’s able to generate opportunities because of his hockey intelligence and he would be another welcome addition to the checking line given his skill set. He’s got two more seasons left on a contract that carries an AAV of $2.65 million, but is the type of player that would make the Jets tougher to play against, which was one of the things Bowness discussed at his introductory press conference.

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