Jets Mailbag: What does Connor Hellebuyck’s next contract look like?

Elliotte Friedman talks to Jeff Marek about the Winnipeg Jets' internal turmoil, and how the seeds for their difficult season were laid as early as Dustin Byfuglien's departure in 2020.

WINNIPEG — What happened against the Vegas Golden Knights?

What about the fallout from the exit interviews and the tension that was created between head coach Rick Bowness and his players from the stinging criticism he offered after Game 5?

What does general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff have in store after receiving a vote of confidence to return for his 13th season at the helm?

Where do things stand with the top prospects in the organization?

Perhaps most importantly, where do the Winnipeg Jets go from here?

These and other subjects were on the minds of readers for the monthly mailbag, so let’s get going with providing answers to your questions:

You are general manager for a day. Connor Hellebuyck’s agent, Ray Petkau, is interested in an extension but says you only get one chance to make your best offer. How many years at what AAV do you offer? – Craig Zamzow

Love the phrasing here and the best part about being the GM in this space is that there are no consequences for me if I get the answer wrong. But it’s a good way to look at the situation Cheveldayoff is facing.

That’s not to say he will only get one chance to make an offer to Hellebuyck’s camp, but given the circumstances and how important Hellebuyck’s decision is to the future of the franchise, this won’t be a lengthy back and forth negotiation. Does that mean having to go to a higher AAV than the Jets are comfortable with or tack on an additional year or two that will take Hellebuyck into his late 30s? It’s important to remember that Hellebuyck will be 31 when a possible extension kicks in.

My belief is that it will take at least five years (and more likely seven) to get it done. Even with just a $1 million increase in the salary cap expected next season, how many NHL teams (or players, for that matter) are going to want to look that long into the future without knowing how much the cap is going to go up in 2025 and beyond? That adds an interesting wrinkle and is part of why Hellebuyck made it clear that time was on his side.

The pressure is on the Jets to make a substantial offer. It’s probably going to take north of $9 million to get it done.

My initial offer would be six years and $57 million ($9.5 million AAV), knowing full well there is risk attached to the tail end of the contract. Would the Jets prefer to make it five years at $9 million? Absolutely, but it’s essential for the organization to show Hellebuyck they’re serious about making him the face of the franchise moving forward, if that’s the case. Otherwise, maximizing his trade value becomes the next step.

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Are the Boston Bruins the front runners in landing Pierre-Luc Dubois? And do you think they have enough to offer the Jets in draft picks, considering they don’t have any first-rounders the next few years? – Kerry H

Not sure the Bruins would be considered a front-runner, though the potential departure of Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci means that replenishing the centre position will be a high priority for them. Dubois’ style would certainly be a fit for the Bruins, but that can be said for most — if not all — teams in the NHL.

If Dubois is looking for a contract north of $8 million on his next long-term extension (which he probably is), it’s going to be a tight fit on the salary cap side unless the Bruins are able to shed salary, and the trade terms could be challenging as well. What might they be willing to offer? Only Bruins GM Don Sweeney knows for sure, but after a record-setting regular season and first-round exit, they’ll be looking to remain in the contender category.

A lot of contending teams will be looking at Dubois, even if it’s for one shot at a Stanley Cup run, but his appeal is enhanced if he’s interested in signing with the team that trades for him. The Colorado Avalanche are another team that will be looking for a No. 2 centre behind Nathan MacKinnon, especially with captain Gabriel Landeskog lost for next season after undergoing another knee surgery. The Montreal Canadiens still look like the front-runner for Dubois, but it’s not a Habs-or-bust scenario. An Eastern Conference team in the vicinity of New York is the most likely outcome, though the Los Angeles Kings are my sleeper.

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I love Nikolaj Ehlers as a player. Extremely talented. But he seems to have an injury problem and misses a lot of games. I think he has been injured quite often over the last number of seasons. Would the Jets be better off trading him? Or is that even an option? – Trish Jordan

Nobody is more frustrated with the injuries over the last several seasons than Ehlers himself, and he became emotional during the playoffs expressing that sentiment. But most of these injuries were of the bad-luck variety, so perhaps Ehlers is due for a mostly injury-free season.

Should the Jets choose to move on from Mark Scheifele and another prominent forward (or several), Ehlers should be on the verge of seeing his ice time and responsibilities increased — including a full-time spot on the top power-play unit, which is long overdue.

Provided he stays healthy, his production should be on the rise. Ehlers could blossom into a 40-goal, 75-plus-point guy if he can play in the neighbourhood of 80 games. Ehlers is under contract for two more seasons at $6 million and is an important part of the core moving forward. I don’t see trading him being on the to-do list for the Jets. Ehlers is going to be a guy they build around.

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Do you think Paul Maurice’s success with the Florida Panthers is going to impact Kevin Cheveldayoff’s off-season plans at all? Watching your old long-term coach suddenly have significantly more playoff success built with very different ideals has to teach him a lesson about focusing on youth and scoring instead of veteran grit in depth roles, no? — Cody Magnusson

I’m not sure there is a direct correlation, but Cheveldayoff would certainly be looking at the roster construction of the Panthers for ways to improve the Jets. It’s fair to say the construction of the two rosters is vastly different, but the Panthers are certainly not bereft of experienced grit. In fact, it’s part of what’s made them successful through the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Look no further than their driver, Matthew Tkachuk, and his linemates Sam Bennett and Nick Cousins — someone who has been used more often in a checking role in previous years. Tkachuk is coming off consecutive 100-point seasons and that’s something the Jets haven’t had in their lineup in the 2.0 era of the franchise — the closest being the 93 points Kyle Connor accumulated in 2021-22.

Cole Perfetti (10th overall in 2020) certainly has a higher offensive ceiling than Anton Lundell (chosen 12th in 2020), but because of Perfetti’s injuries the past two seasons, Lundell is having a bigger impact. That’s something to revisit a few years down the road, though, and Perfetti has proven to be a solid top-six forward when healthy.

Guys like Tkachuk are difficult to find — and even tougher to trade for. Carter Verhaeghe was a smart addition as a free agent who was looking to grow into a bigger role, and he continues to get better. Aleksander Barkov is the type of two-way centre every team wants to employ and betting on Anthony Duclair has been another great move, given his speed and finishing ability. The Panthers also benefit from having an excellent player in Sam Reinhart on the “third” line and I’m not sure that Morgan Barron and Eetu Luostarinen are all that dissimilar when it comes to their skill sets — though Luostarinen is a year ahead on the development curve and has been more productive to date.

The Panthers’ fourth line includes a one-time high-end producer in Eric Staal, a reclamation project in 2015 first-rounder Colin White and an AHL journeyman in Zac Dalpe, though the latter has shown skill in the minors. When healthy, Ryan Lomberg is a high-energy player who plays a physical game and specializes in getting under the skin of opponents.

Florida had subpar goaltending for a good chunk of this season, but that’s changed dramatically down the stretch and into the season, so the fall of the Panthers from Presidents’ Trophy winners last season to the final wild-card team in the East is a touch overblown for me.

The Panthers defence corps is led by Brandon Montour and Aaron Ekblad, but includes a pair of waiver pickups in Gustav Forsling and Josh Mahura, and then a couple of veteran free-agent signings in Radko Gudas and Marc Staal who brought plenty of sandpaper to augment the skill on the back end. Montour is to the Panthers what Josh Morrissey is to the Jets in terms of driving offence from the blue line. It’s definitely fair to suggest the Panthers’ team speed and willingness to get on the attack doesn’t prevent them from committing to playing team defence — which is an area the Jets struggled with for long stretches under Maurice outside of the 2017-18 and parts of the 2018-19 seasons (though it wasn’t that he didn’t want the Jets to play the style the Panthers are playing now).

No matter how you slice it, seeing the Panthers’ success in these playoffs should be another indicator that changes to the Jets roster are required, no matter how much belief Cheveldayoff still has in the core group.

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Did the Jets make a strong enough effort to acquire Jakob Chychrun at the trade deadline? Surely they could have given up two first-round picks for him, especially with two more years at $4.6 million. I understand possible cap issues, but they could have possibly given up, say, Nate Schmidt for a second-round pick? Having asked this, it is possible the Jets did make the effort? — Mike Ethier

It’s difficult to know how serious the offer the Jets made, and Cheveldayoff went out of his way to mock members of the media for having the organization linked to all of the primary targets going into the NHL trade deadline. My belief is that the Jets were interested and made calls on Chychrun. Was their best offer better than the one the Ottawa Senators made? That’s unlikely, since one of the first-rounders acquired is at No. 12 — and the Jets weren’t going to be choosing that high without a monumental collapse down the stretch.

As it stands, the Jets will either hold the 18th or 19th pick. Adding a top pairing D-man with term and a manageable AAV is something the Jets certainly investigated, but the Coyotes likely asked for prospect Rutger McGroarty (2022 first-rounder), and that was probably a no-go for the Jets. When healthy, Chychrun is a high-impact player. The issue is that he’s played only 48 and 47 games over the past two seasons, so durability is a concern.

As for moving Schmidt to clear out salary cap space, given that he’s under contract for two more seasons at just under $6 million, the Jets would likely need to include a sweetener in any type of deal. They certainly wouldn’t be getting a second-rounder back for him.

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How will the Jets fit Ville Heinola and Declan Chisholm in the lineup next season? — Robby R.

Alleviating the logjam on defence, especially the left side, is a priority for the Jets this upcoming season, though the organizational depth took a hit this week when right-handed blue-liner Leon Gawanke signed a four-year deal to play in Germany with Adler Mannheim. Gawanke, a fifth-round pick in 2017, had 20 goals and 50 points in 68 games with the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League this season, but has yet to make his NHL debut and didn’t see a path to a promotion on the horizon, so he inked a deal in his home country.

As for Heinola and Chisholm, it’s likely one of them wins a job on the third pairing next season and the other could be moved, perhaps as early as the week of the NHL Draft. Heinola was limited to 10 NHL games this season, while a late-season ankle injury likely prevented Chisholm from getting his opportunity to play his third NHL game. Heinola has played 35 NHL games since being chosen 20th overall in the 2019 NHL Draft and it’s starting to feel like the player could benefit from a change of scenery — unless the Jets choose to move out multiple veterans on the blue line or are hit heavily by injuries during training camp. That’s likely the only way both Chisholm and Heinola are part of the Jets D corps next season, at least as regulars.

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Do you think any of Chaz Lucius, Rutger McGroarty, Nikita Chibrikov, Fabian Wagner or Brad Lambert will be able to make the jump to either the NHL or the AHL next season? — Dan Sudfeld

It’s an important summer of training ahead for each of the forward prospects you mentioned. Lambert is flourishing since being assigned to the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League and his team is about to face the Winnipeg Ice in the WHL championship series, which opens Friday night in Winnipeg. He’s going to be oozing with confidence as he heads to his second NHL training camp this fall. It’s likely he will need a bit more seasoning at the AHL level, though I expect him to make his NHL debut at some point next season.

Lucius is coming off an injury but was dominant with the Portland Winterhawks, so he’s ready to take on a role in the top six with the Moose next season. McGroarty is committed to heading back for his sophomore season with the University of Michigan Wolverines, though it’s possible he opts to turn pro at the end of the college campaign.

Chibrikov signed his entry-level deal and the expectation is that he will play in North America next season. He will need time with the Moose before he’s ready to challenge for a roster spot with the Jets. Wagner is under contract with Linköping HC in Sweden, so he’s likely going to spend at least one more season and possibly two before he’s ready to come over.

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If the main three Jets whose future we all have questions about force the hands of the organization to move them, do you get the sense the organization will embrace a rebuild out of necessity or will they try to walk a tightrope trying to push for another wild-card spot despite such drastic movement? — Nik Lynam

Should none of Hellebuyck, Scheifele or Dubois be open to an extension — which is a legitimate possibility — it puts Cheveldayoff and the Jets in a precarious spot when it comes to navigating the short-term future. Making trades and extracting equal value for players on expiring contracts is part of the job, though, so it’s up to Cheveldayoff to seek assets that can help the Jets in both the short and longer term.

I have been staunch believer that the organization would like to avoid a rebuild and prefers the retooling on the fly approach. Some of the direction will be determined by the level of player that is being offered in return for these prospective deals. But the expectation is that with several moves, the Jets can remain competitive and challenge for a playoff spot next season.

Beginning a rebuilding process now seems to be a step too late, when you consider the Chicago Blackhawks and Arizona Coyotes are already a few seasons down this road, the St. Louis Blues and Nashville Predators in transition and the Minnesota Wild are about to have $14.7 million in dead money in each of the next two seasons related to the buyouts of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.

The Blackhawks rebuild got a major boost this week by getting the first overall pick in the 2023 NHL Draft and the opportunity to select Connor Bedard of the Regina Pats. Even still, the Blackhawks are at least a year or two from being a playoff team again. The same thing likely applies to the Coyotes. So, no, I don’t think a bottoming out or scorched-earth approach is something the Jets are considering. Will they have to pivot at some point this summer? That’s possible, but unlikely.

Was the demotion of Jansen Harkins to the Moose to get him more playing time? Seems the Jets could have used his speed and scoring down the stretch. — Dan Koshowski

Additional playing time was a benefit for Harkins, but it wouldn’t have been the primary reason for his demotion in early January. Bowness mentioned Harkins needed work on the defensive side of his game when he was reassigned. Harkins deserves credit for handling his demotion the way that he did and his production in the AHL (29 goals, 57 points in 49 games, including the playoffs) could mean that he’s going to attract attention from another NHL team in a potential trade this summer.

Harkins was available on waivers, but as a second-round pick (47th overall in 2015) who regained his scoring touch in the minors, he is a candidate to be on the move. Harkins, who turns 26 later this month, is on a one-way contract next season with an AAV of $850,000 before he’s eligible to be an unrestricted free agent.

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