Jets get temporary clarity on Dubois but next steps will decide team's direction

Winnipeg Jets centre Pierre-Luc Dubois reacts after scoring a goal. (Kyusung Gong/AP)

WINNIPEG - No, this is not the long-term deal - or the long-term solution - that the Winnipeg Jets crave.

But Friday's news that restricted free agent centre Pierre-Luc Dubois had accepted his qualifying offer (a one-year deal with an AAV of $6 million) does bring some clarity to the situation, at least temporarily.

How?

Well, barring a trade, this all but guarantees the Dubois will report to training camp in September.

While that was always the expected outcome, without coming to terms on a short-term deal, there was always the threat that the Jets could be without this top-six player for a stretch of time that was likely measured in weeks and not days.

For a team looking to rebound after a disappointing season, not having Dubois at their disposal was going to be a problem that required solving.

In case you’ve forgotten, not having defenceman Jacob Trouba for the first month or so of the 2016-17 season was a major concern - even with the Jets having ample depth on the blue line.

Trouba signed a two-year deal in early November that year, but didn’t play his first game until Nov. 11.

The Jets missed the playoffs by seven points that season and there’s little doubt that not having Trouba in the lineup - and the uncertainty of not knowing when - or if - he would be back after formally making his trade request public in September during the World Cup of Hockey was a factor in what became a 7-7-1 start.

This is not revisionist history, nor is it an attempt at the blame game.

Trouba made a business decision, stood up for what he believed in, stayed ready to play and ended up having a productive season, recording eight goals and 33 points in the 60 games he got into.

The point is that the Jets had a much better chance of making the playoffs if there had been a resolution earlier.

Which brings us back to Dubois, who got a bump in his AAV (from $5 million) but is taking a slight pay cut from the $6.65 million he made in salary last season.

Does Friday’s contract agreement ensure that Dubois will be in the lineup for the season opener on Oct. 14 against the New York Rangers?

Absolutely not.

Many would argue the AAV would make it easier for the Jets to move Dubois, should they eventually get to that point.

But more importantly, it also eliminates one of the roads that the Jets - and Dubois - had zero interest in going down because of the potential consequences.

For a player who is still looking to boost his value and secure a long-term contract - even if he has to wait until hitting unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2024 - sitting out without a contract hurts both the player and the organization that still has team control for two seasons as of today.

This outcome also brings cost certainty, which is important for a Jets team that artificially had a bunch of cap space that was mostly spoken for - but a club that is still looking to make some upgrades to the forward group.

As Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said recently, the organization had a pretty good idea of where most of the numbers for the restricted free agents were going to come in, but it’s always better to be able to put those totals in pen instead of pencil.

By putting the $6 million on the books for next season, the Jets are down to $8.4 million in projected cap space for 18 players on a 23-man roster (according to CapFriendly) and that number drops when you add in the expected contracts for remaining restricted free agent forwards Mason Appleton, and David Gustafsson.

While none of those deals will break the bank, it means that between $5.5 to $ 6 million is going to be available for any free agent signings - and there are several intriguing players (like Danton Heinen, Evan Rodgrigues and Sonny Milano) who could provide value in a middle-six role right now.

Of course, the Jets still have a logjam on defence that needs to be taken care of and there’s still a strong possibility that longtime captain Blake Wheeler could still find a new home, which would free up some additional money.

However, the Dubois situation has been front of mind for weeks and it’s finally coming into clearer focus.

Dubois is going to speak to members of the media on Monday for the first time since his agent, Pat Brisson, floated the idea of his client being interested in playing for the Monreal Canadiens at some point.

Dubois is a guy who has shown accountability since his arrival in the blockbuster trade for Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic, whether he was battling through injury and struggling to find his game - or when he was putting together the type of campaign that saw him set a career-high for goals (28) while racking up 60 points.

It’s impossible to know what Dubois is going to say, but you can bet that part of the discussion is going to focus on him being happy to have a new deal done and that he’s looking to take the next step in his career.

He remains driven to improve and it would not come as a surprise if he’s able to build on last season and take another step in his development as someone who just turned 24 and is getting set for his sixth NHL season.

It’s been an emotional time for several Canadian teams, especially the Calgary Flames, who lost Johnny Gaudreau in free agency to the Columbus Blue Jackets, and then traded Matthew Tkachuk to the Florida Panthers after letting the organization know that he’s not interested in signing a long-term deal.

After watching what has transpired and could be on the horizon a few provinces over, many Manitobans have been feeling territorial and defensive, with several folks viewing Brisson’s comments as a personal attack.

You don’t have to like the method his agent used to float the idea - and perhaps to try and put some heat on the Jets to speed up the process of helping his client become a member of the Canadiens - but let’s see how this plays out before making too many snap judgements.

Dubois hasn’t quit on the Jets, nor would he be the first player who might want to play for the team he grew up cheering for.

While the public relations element of this zoom call gathering is important for Dubois, who has grown into a fan favourite, what really matters is how hard he’s going to play and there’s no recent evidence to suggest that he’s not going to provide anything less than his best effort.

There’s too much at stake for Dubois not to.

Which brings us back to the Jets.

While there’s no denying the importance of getting to this point, one can’t help but notice the timing.

Dubois accepted his qualifying offer on the same day the Blue Jackets announced a four-year contract extension for Laine, a deal that totals $34.8 million and an AAV of $8.7 million.

Unfair or not, the trade involving the second and third overall picks in the 2016 NHL Draft means that the two players are going to be tied together and continue to be measured against one another, especially after their respective departures.

In the immediate aftermath of the trade, it appeared as though Laine would be the guy who would be tougher to get signed to a longer-term deal and that Dubois was going to make Winnipeg his long-term home and become a foundational piece.

At least for the time being, the tables have turned.

The Blue Jackets provided Laine with a raise and bought three years of unrestricted free agency, while the future of Dubois remains up in the air and the end of his current contract brings him to a year away from being able to test the open market for the first time of his career as a UFA.

Roslovic has also signed a pair of two-year contracts, though he has the ability to become a UFA at the end of the 2024 season as well.

The corresponding move made by Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen on Friday involved sending right-winger Oliver Bjorkstrand to the Seattle Kraken for a third and fourth-round pick in 2023, a move necessary to get the team under the salary cap (otherwise known as the cost of doing business in the high-rent district).

Bjorkstrand set career highs for goals (28) and points (57) last season and signed a five-year contract last season that carries an AAV of $5.4 million (and has four seasons remaining).

Cheveldayoff can’t worry about what is going on with the Blue Jackets, his focus must remain on working to improve his own team.

At this stage of the proceedings, it’s impossible to argue the Jets have done enough to the roster to escape the mushy middle.

Getting new contracts for defenceman Johnny Kovacevic (three years, including a one-way contract in the final season) and forward Jeff Malott (two years, two-way deal) are important for depth building, but there is still plenty of room for improvement.

And while getting Dubois’ name on a contract was an essential step in the building process, the moves that follow are the ones that could ultimately define the direction this upcoming Jets season is going to take.

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