Jets free agency primer: Upgrading defence the top off-season priority

Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff talks to media during the first day of the Jets NHL training camp in Winnipeg, Friday, Sept. 13, 2019. (John Woods / CP)

WINNIPEG -- Business is about to pick up for Kevin Cheveldayoff and the Winnipeg Jets.

As he enters his 10th season as general manager of the Jets, Cheveldayoff is looking to upgrade his roster after two early exits from the post-season.

Just two years ago, the Jets found themselves in the Western Conference Final against the Vegas Golden Knights after recording the first nine playoff wins -- and two series wins -- in franchise history (for version 2.0).

With much of the core committed to long-term contracts -- and Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine still playing on entry-level deals -- the window for contention seemed wide open for the up-and-coming Jets.

The experience gained from a first real playoff run was one of the last missing pieces required for an even longer run.

Fast forward to present times and the Jets are going back to the drawing board, since the expected playoff success has not followed.

After a heart-breaking first-round exit to the St. Louis Blues in 2019, the Jets suffered a pair of crippling injuries to Mark Scheifele and Laine in August as they were bounced from the qualifying round by the Calgary Flames last month.

Of course, there were some extenuating circumstances this past season, with an overhauled defence corps and the unexpected departure of Dustin Byfuglien.

However, it’s safe to say this has been a disappointing turn of events for the Jets.

With that in mind, what might Cheveldayoff have planned with free agency set to open on Oct. 9?

History has shown that Cheveldayoff has mostly taken a conservative approach when it comes to roster construction.

Sure, there was the blockbuster deal involving Evander Kane and the Buffalo Sabres back in 2015 and, yes, the Jets dipped into their draft currency to move first-rounders in consecutive springs to complete deals for Paul Stastny and Kevin Hayes.

But Cheveldayoff hasn’t been nearly as active as many of his counterparts to date.

At a time when many teams are facing some challenges with a flat salary cap and others are going to have to deal with a reduced internal budget, there appears to be an opportunity for Cheveldayoff to bolster his roster and give his group the chance to return to contender status without mortgaging the future.

Salary cap space: 14,652,145
Roster size: 15/23
Salary committed to forwards (9): $48,881,189
Salary committed to defence (5, including prospect Dylan Samberg): $11,800,000
Salary committed to goalies (1): $6,166,666

Team needs:

The aforementioned defence corps is the top priority for the Jets this off-season, though the second-line centre position is going to garner plenty of attention as well.

As noted above, the bulk of the money committed by the Jets up front -- where captain Blake Wheeler, Nikolaj Ehlers, Scheifele and Connor -- are inked to long-term deals that stretch at least four more years.

While there has been plenty of chatter surrounding Finnish sniper Laine, he’s under team control for three more seasons and carries an AAV of $6.75 million next season before he’s a restricted free agent with arbitration rights for the first time.

Three Jets forwards are pending RFAs, but Jack Roslovic is heading for a modest raise coming out of his entry-level contract, while Mason Appleton and Jansen Harkins should be set for reasonably priced bridge deals.

The Jets believe they have enough firepower to get the job done, but they need to do a better job of defending as a team.

Winnipeg currently has six blue-liners under contract for next season and while it’s possible both top prospects (Samberg and Ville Heinola) are on the NHL roster, it’s not a guarantee -- that’s why Samberg’s salary of $925,000 was used in our calculations).

Josh Morrissey is the cornerstone of the group and Neal Pionk showed he can handle increased responsibility after coming over from the New York Rangers in the deal for Jacob Trouba.

Tucker Poolman spent a good chunk of the season on the top pairing with Morrissey, but is better suited at this stage of his career for third-pairing minutes, and Carl Dahlstrom is more of a depth D-man who slots in the sixth or seventh slots.

The wild card is Sami Niku, who is a pending RFA and is coming off an injury plagued season that limited him to 17 games with the Jets and 18 with the AHL's Manitoba Moose.

Given his age and maturity, Samberg should be ready for NHL duty, but it’s asking a lot to expect him to be ready for top-four minutes right out of the gate.

That means the Jets should be in the market for at least one D-man to play on one of the top two pairings.

Pending UFA Dylan DeMelo seemed to mesh well with Morrissey in somewhat limited time together after he was acquired from the Ottawa Senators and is a candidate to remain with the organization.

DeMelo expressed an interest in sticking around back in July, but he’s also going to be an attractive candidate for many teams, given his age (27), ability and price point (somewhere in the range between $2.5 and $3.5 million depending on the term).

Although it won’t be for an eye-popping amount, winning a bidding war for DeMelo could be required, since he’s the type of player who makes his partner better even if his offensive production doesn’t jump off the page.

It’s not difficult to envision the Vancouver Canucks wanting DeMelo to play alongside Quinn Hughes or the Toronto Maple Leafs securing his services to partner with Morgan Rielly or Jake Muzzin.

There’s also a chance the Jets could be looking for someone with a more dynamic offensive game like St. Louis Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo, though convincing him to sign in Winnipeg is not an easy task since he’s going to be the most coveted free agent in this class.

Another thing the Jets will be looking to add on the back end is size, since the departures of Ben Chiarot and Tyler Myers in free agency, along with the trade of Trouba and the loss of Byfuglien meant the defence corps wasn’t nearly as big or physical as in year’s past.

Travis Hamonic is a guy who has been linked to the Jets in the past and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him on the radar, since he’s a strong penalty killer, a physical presence and a high-character individual and is probably open to playing for the team in his home province.

It’s also possible the Jets turn to someone like Carson Soucy as a complementary piece on the back end.

Soucy, 26, is set to become a UFA after establishing himself as an NHL regular with the Minnesota Wild and chipping in seven goals and 14 points in 55 games.

The Jets are familiar with Soucy from his work within the Central Division and he was also a teammate of Pionk’s for two seasons with the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs.

Soucy would bring some size and physical play, but is better suited for third-pairing minutes -- even after averaging 15:38 of ice time last season.

There aren’t as many big-name centre’s available in free agency, so it’s possible the Jets address the second-line centre job via trade -- unless they bring in a veteran to compete with the internal candidates.

Erik Haula is a player who fits the bill and is someone who is comfortable playing up and down the lineup.

While not prolific offensively and better suited to a checking-plus role, Haula recorded career-bests in goals (29), assists (26) and points (55) with the Vegas Golden Knights during the 2017-18 season.

Haula’s speed would provide a boost, his penalty-killing prowess would also be welcome while his expected salary ($2.75 million AAV during the past three seasons) would also be manageable.

Securing a backup goalie to play behind Vezina winner Connor Hellebuyck is also on the docket, though Eric Comrie is signed to a one-way deal worth $700,000 and could step into the role if pending UFA Laurent Brossoit doesn’t return.

Because Hellebuyck is a workhorse, the Jets won’t be in the market for a 1B like Anton Khudobin, they’ll be looking for a cost-efficient No. 2 in an effort to use the bulk of the available salary cap space on the blue line and for an experienced forward.

Potential UFA targets:

TJ Brodie, D, Calgary Flames

He’s not as flashy or decorated as Pietrangelo, but he’s defensively responsible and has six seasons between 31 and 45 points, so he’s able to chip in offensively as well. While not overly physical, Brodie averages 22:35 of ice time per game during his 10 NHL seasons and can be used in all situations. After spending a lot of time being partnered with Flames captain Mark Giordano, he’s most comfortable on the right side even though he’s a left-handed shot, which means he’d probably pair well with Morrissey.

Brenden Dillon, D, Washington Capitals

The long-time San Jose Sharks D-man was also under consideration for the Jets before they acquired DeMelo at the NHL trade deadline, so it makes sense they would circle back here. A stout defender who is a physical presence, he’d be a natural fit to play alongside Pionk. The soon-to-be 30-year-old would also help a penalty-killing unit that’s looking to rebound after a tough start to last season and a subpar showing in the qualifying round against the Flames.

Vladislav Namestnikov, C, Colorado Avalanche

The soon-to-be 28 year old versatile Russian forward was one of the players the Jets were believed to be interested in before acquiring Cody Eakin prior to the NHL trade deadline last spring. Chosen 27th overall by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2011 NHL Draft, Namestnikov went to the Avalanche instead and fit in well there. A responsible player with offensive upside, Namestnikov is just two seasons removed from posting career highs in goals (20) and points (44) with the Lightning and managed 17 goals (including four while shorthanded) and 31 points last season. He would also bring 41 games of playoff experience and likely find himself in an enhanced role with the Jets.

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