WINNIPEG — The roster projections for the Winnipeg Jets look significantly different than they did 10 days ago and a good chunk of the off-season to-do list has already been taken care of.
While Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff didn’t dive into the deep end of the free agent frenzy, he retained forward Paul Stastny and Dominic Toninato, added veteran forward Riley Nash and brought in several depth pieces to help the Manitoba Moose and increase the competition for spots around the edges of the roster.
The biggest moves came via trade as the blue-line overhaul included moves to acquire Nate Schmidt from the Vancouver Canucks and Brenden Dillon from the Washington Capitals.
Of course, there were some subtractions from the roster, with right-winger Mason Appleton claimed by the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft and a number of free agency departures: goalie Laurent Brossoit joining the Vegas Golden Knights (two years, $2.35 million AAV), defencemen Tucker Poolman (four-years, $2.5 million AAV) and Derek Forbort (three years, $3 million AAV) getting some security on the open market from the Vancouver Canucks and Boston Bruins, respectively, and left-winger Mathieu Perreault joining the Montreal Canadiens (one year, $950,000 AAV), centre Nate Thompson joining the Philadelphia Flyers (one year, $800,000 AAV) and right-winger Trevor Lewis reuniting with Darryl Sutter with the Calgary Flames (one year, $800,000).
Most of these departures were expected and how those holes get filled is certainly coming into focus.
Perreault was the longest-serving member of the aforementioned bunch and his initial three-year, $9 million ($3 million AAV) signing was one of the best value moves Cheveldayoff made in his early stages in the GM chair.
Over the years, Perreault built a reputation as a highly competitive player with skill who could move seamlessly up and down the lineup. If a line or a player needed to get going, Perreault played the role of the human jumper cables, providing a necessary spark to whoever needed one.
He was a tenacious forechecker who could routinely create chaos and he played an important net-front role on the power play last season. In seven seasons, Perreault produced 88 goals and 230 points in 455 games and added seven points in 29 playoff games.
Perreault might have been able to fit on a value contract to remain with the Jets, but there are some players in the system that are ready for an expanded role and ultimately the lure to play for the fabled Canadiens in his home province allow this to be a happy ending for both parties.
On to your questions, let’s empty this off-season mailbag (and don’t worry, there’s plenty of time to debate what the line combinations and D pairings might ultimately be):
@Oaktree65472824: What are the odds Andrew Copp plays for the Jets this season?
@ckulchyc: With the crazy contracts given out for defencemen this off-season, what do you think Neal Pionk’s agent is looking for and what do you expect he signs for?
Randy Villaverde: The word has been between the two of them it'd be around 10M what do you think the split would be? And do you think we'll be able to re-sign them?
There’s a lot to work through when it comes to Copp and Pionk, so let’s tackle their respective situations together.
Both players chose to elect salary arbitration, which is merely procedural and was also expected. It doesn’t mean new contracts can’t be reached before things reach arbitration and the likelihood is that neither case will be heard.
The difference between the two is that Copp is one season away from pending unrestricted free agency, so his situation is a bit more complicated or at least has a bit more urgency attached to it.
Both players are an important part of the Jets expanding core group and are candidates to sign long term. However, the Jets only have a finite amount of salary cap space available to get those players signed (and secure a bridge deal for RFA D-man Logan Stanley).
Following the opening day of free agency, Cheveldayoff reiterated the optimal outcome would be to secure long-term deals with both players but the challenge is finding a number that fits. Depending on the term, it stands to reason that the cost to secure both players is likely going to be north of $9 million.
For Copp, I suspect his deal ends up being close to the four-year, $4.4 million AAV pact Sam Bennett signed with the Florida Panthers.
As for Pionk, given the flat cap world the NHL is working under, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a one-year deal in the $4.75-to-5 million range. Of course, there are risks attached as another strong season for Pionk will only bolster his long-range earning power. If the Jets end up buying multiple UFA years on Pionk, the AAV could reach $5.5-to-$6.25 million.
As for the odds Copp plays for the Jets this season, I’d be willing to go as high as 70 per cent right now. Copp is due a significant raise from the $2.28 million he earned the past two seasons (after going to arbitration). He’s coming off a career season (15 goals, 39 points in 55 games) and continues to push for an expanded role.
He’s become an important part of the leadership group and knows he’s valued by the organization as a middle-six forward who can contribute on both the power play and penalty kill. He’s also invested a lot of sweat equity with this group and after seeing the improvements to the roster, one would imagine he would like to try and see just how far they can go during the coming seasons. He’s willing to put down roots and make a commitment, as long as the price is right.
Nik Lynam: With the previous weakness (D) now a strength, and locked in with term, could you see the Jets flipping Andrew Copp (depending on those negotiations) and one of the young left-handed defencemen for a top 6 scoring forward?
Darren Cameron: Now that the Jets are loaded up on defence and especially on the left side, are they willing to trade Ville Heinola or Dylan Samberg to help obtain a top 9 forward?
Of course, things get more challenging if Copp’s case goes to arbitration and he receives a one-year award or if negotiations go sideways. If that’s the case, the chances of Copp being traded rather than playing out that final year of his contract would rise exponentially.
Because of Copp’s versatility and ability to play centre or wing, there are plenty of teams around the NHL that could use a player with his skill set. The Kraken are looking to upgrade at the centre position and the Bruins are still looking for a David Krejci replacement, so they’re among the teams that could eventually show interest.
As for the young blue-liners, it’s an open competition with Logan Stanley for the sixth spot and Nathan Beaulieu is likely the seventh D-man right now. If neither Heinola nor Samberg can supplant Stanley in training camp, starting in the American Hockey League with the Manitoba Moose is a real possibility.
It doesn’t mean one of those players is moved going into the season, but they would be valuable potential trade chips leading up to the NHL deadline in 2022. However, it’s important to remember that most teams that go on a run often need between eight-to-10 healthy D-men, so the Jets are in no rush to move on from either player.
Both Heinola and Samberg are held in high regard by the organization and the only way either one of them would be moved would be for an impact player (and likely one with term). The Jets top-six forward group already looks like a strength going into the new season, so a trade to improve it isn’t a top priority right now.
Speaking of trades, don’t be surprised to see defenceman Sami Niku involved in one at some point. Under contract for $725,000 next season, Niku is ready for a fresh start and is expected to get one.
Brent Bernas: Where do you see Cole Perfetti and Ville Heinola ending up this upcoming year?
The most likely landing spot for Heinola out of camp (and barring injury) is with the Moose, but he’s knocking on the door for full-time duty and I would expect him to suit up in games with the Jets. How many is too tough to predict right now, but it could easily surpass double digits.
Things change quickly and there’s no better recent example than Stanley going from likely needing at least part of another AHL season to spending a good chunk of last season as an NHL regular.
As for Perfetti, he’s been suiting up for Team Canada at the summer showcase and he can’t wait to attend his first NHL training camp in September. While many of his peers saw limited or largely reduced workloads, Perfetti enjoyed an outstanding season of development and capped that off with a trip to the IIHF men’s world championship, helping Canada win a gold medal.
Provided he has a strong summer of training, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Perfetti got an opportunity to show whether or not he’s ready to secure an NHL roster spot. Perfetti won’t be rushed, but it says here that he’s a strong candidate to make the opening-day roster and where things go from there will be up to him.
Perfetti is one of the players who could benefit from a proposed CHL rule change that would allow junior eligible players who played in more than 20 AHL games last season to return to the minors. Previously, the only options available for Perfetti would have been the NHL or heading back to the Ontario Hockey League. The option to have Perfetti continue his development in the AHL but be available for recall to the Jets would be an obvious bonus if that’s how things progress.
Craig Zamzow: If you were Paul Maurice, what would your exit meeting with Pierre-Luc Dubois have looked like? What can the Jets do to put him in the best position to succeed in 2021-22? Play him at centre or left wing?
This exit meeting would have been pretty straightforward for both Maurice and Dubois — and both individuals shared those sentiments when meeting with the media after that meeting.
Last season was an emotional and physical grind for Dubois and he was the first to admit that he has more to give and that he needs to contribute more. Whether it was the contract dispute, the trade itself, the injury he sustained two games into his Jets career after a two-week quarantine or the revolving door of linemates and position changes he endured, things never fully clicked for Dubois.
Maurice probably told Dubois to unplug for a bit and then have an outstanding summer of training and to come back in the fall ready to get back to enjoying the game and doing what he does best.
Dubois has spent the bulk of his NHL time at centre and that’s where he’s expected to start next season. Maurice made that clear last season, even when he was moving him around the lineup to the wing as a way to try and simplify the game for Dubois.
Dubois has a solid NHL track record of being an important contributor as a member of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Knowing where he’s going to be playing this season and knowing what role he’s going to be expected to play should help him return to the high standard Dubois has set for himself.
@Phil20951153: Does Winnipeg actually go with Eric Comrie as a backup? Do they really think he is NHL backup worthy or do they have a plan B? Personally, I don’t think he's NHL ready. He has career numbers in the AHL, but his time in the NHL hasn't been all that great
Dom Zappia: What do you think of our backup goalie situation? I’m concerned ... it’s his time ... but ...
It’s fair to question whether or not a goalie with nine NHL appearances is ready to handle the job, but this decision goes well beyond the numbers (3-5 record, 4.07 GAA, .898 save %) for the Jets.
The Jets couldn’t afford to retain Brossoit and he wanted to go to a place where he had the potential to get more starts. Speaking of Brossoit, when he was signed by the Jets in the summer of 2018 to a one-year, one-way contract, these were his NHL numbers: 28 games played (20 starts), a 7-13 record with a 2.98 GAAA and .897 save percentage.
That’s not to suggest it’s a guarantee Comrie is going to blossom into what Brossoit has become, but he’s done enough at the AHL level to be given the chance.
Connor Hellebuyck is a workhorse, but the Jets backup is still going to need to play in the 20-to-22 game range next season. It’s up to Comrie to show whether or not he’s up for the challenge.
One thing is certain, he’s going to be prepared to try and take advantage of this golden opportunity.
Cody Magnusson: At the end of season meetings Paul Maurice had mentioned not wanting to run too many rookies at once, especially on D. I guess he won't have to on the backend with the sixth spot likely being a Stanley/Heinola rotation, but up front do you think cap constraints will end up with us seeing a big youth movement with Harkins/Vesalainen/Gustafsson all breaking in?
Tony Landry: Will Paul Maurice actually play a young player regularly this year? If so, who will it be? (Jansen Haskins, David Gustafsson, Kristian Vesalainen) and what would their level of contribution be?
With the entire fourth line moving on in free agency and Appleton lost to Seattle, the Jets bottom-six will have a different look this season for sure.
As it stands, Kristian Vesalainen appears to have the inside track to replace Appleton but that means shifting to right wing — something he’s done a bit but not regularly. Vesalainen worked his way into the playoff rotation and has shown progress, but there’s another step for him to take when it comes to his offensive game. He’s got a heavy shot but needs to get comfortable enough to look for it more at the NHL level and that’s something to look for moving forward.
Harkins is an interesting study since last season was a challenging one for him and he went from a player seemingly on the rise to one sort of stuck in neutral. A lower-body injury early in training camp derailed his momentum and he ended up being limited to 26 games, most of which was spent on the fourth line. Harkins could be in the mix for a third line role as well, but the initial roster projection has him battling for time on the fourth line with Toninato.
Gustafsson was the most valuable player for the Moose and he’s ready for NHL duty.
Some folks wondered if the addition of Nash in free agency could impact his ability to graduate to the NHL this fall, but I don’t see it that way. Nash is an effective centre but he’s also been used on the wing during his career. He’s known for his defensive acumen and would be a consideration to replace Appleton, though he wouldn’t be able to replace the offensive contributions there.
Gustafsson is physically mature and can kill penalties, so it’s not hard to envision him playing a role that would allow him to reach double digits in minutes routinely.
The interesting thing to keep an eye on is that Gustafsson and Vesalainen had some chemistry together in the AHL with the Moose, so it’s possible they could be used on a line together as well.
Jakub Hromada: The Jets picked up three very talented forwards in Cole Perfetti, Chaz Lucius and Nikita Chibrikov in two latest drafts. When and where do you see them in the lineup? Do you expect Perfetti and Lucius to move to the wings in the NHL?
The Jets definitely upgraded the organizational depth up front during the past two drafts, despite making only eight total selections in 2020 and 2021. Timetables are tough to predict, especially when you consider the two truncated seasons related to the pandemic.
First and foremost, it’s easier for many young players to break into the NHL on the wing and that would appear to apply in this case as well.
Chibrikov is under contract for two more seasons in the KHL, so the expectation would be that he comes to training camp in the fall of 2023 and competes for an NHL job at that time.
As for Perfetti, he projects as a top-six forward, given the high volume of guys currently ahead of him on the depth at centre, his best shot will initially come on the wing.
When it comes to Lucius, it’s too early to tell but at least one season with the University of Minnesota Gophers and quite possibly two (or more) would be the expectation for me. He’s a talented player but again, it’s too early to predict whether he will fit best at centre or on the wing with the Jets.