This wasn’t how it was supposed to end. In the aftermath of a three-round run to the Western Conference final, one that captured the imagination of an entire city and saw the Whiteout return in full force, the Winnipeg Jets were supposed to take a step forward, not a step back. But following Saturday evening’s Game 6 defeat at the hands of the St. Louis Blues, Winnipeg – the team The Hockey News predicted would win the 2019 Stanley Cup – exited the post-season with a whimper, not a bang.
For 40 minutes, the Jets most expected to see, the ones playing for their playoff lives and attacking the Blues with every last ounce of energy, weren’t present. Full marks, of course, to St. Louis for limiting Winnipeg’s offense, but even the most staunch Jets supporter would admit six shots through the first two frames of an elimination game wasn’t enough. Winnipeg clawed back late, making a game of it with two goals in the late stages of the third period, but it was far too little, far too late. And with the first-round series complete and the season over, now come the questions, of which there will be plenty in what is sure to be among the most fascinating off-seasons of any NHL club.
The biggest hurdle, as one might expect, comes in terms of free agency and the salary cap. All told, 15 players who were on the big-league roster post-deadline – seven unrestricted free agents, eight restricted free agents and six with arbitration rights – have completed their contracts. And that’s not all low-level players or late-season additions. The number of those who played integral parts in Winnipeg’s regular season success stretches into the double digits, and the reality of the salary cap era is that keeping this group together will be impossible.
The Jets enter the summer with $23.9 million in available cap space, according to CapFriendly, which could climb to roughly $26 million given projections for next season’s spending limit. Almost immediately, though, the cap space with which Winnipeg GM Kevin Cheveldayoff can work will be halved as Winnipeg seeks to lock up RFAs Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor.
At a time when young players coming out of their entry-level deals are earning more than ever, Laine, 21, is an especially interesting case. He’s one of two players in the post-lockout era with at least 100 goals and 180 points across their first three campaigns, and the other, Auston Matthews, inked a five-year, $58-million extension with the Toronto Maple Leafs in February that carries an annual cap hit of $11.634 million. The difference between Matthews and Laine, however, is that the Maple Leafs pivot was in the middle of a career year when he signed his pact in February. Laine, on the other hand, took a considerable step back statistically, failing to score 35 goals for the first time and posting a career-low 50 points. That’s 14 fewer than his rookie season and 20 fewer than he scored as a sophomore.
The decision for the Jets is whether to extend Laine long-term or bridge him and risk paying more later. Don’t go thinking Winnipeg won’t consider the latter, either, as they’ve gone that route a few times before, most recently with standout blueliner Josh Morrissey, who inked a two-year deal in mid-September. Either way, and even if Matthews is used as a loose comparable, inking Laine won't come cheap.
And whatever Laine gets, you can rest assured Connor will be looking for something similar. After finishing fourth in Calder Trophy voting last season, his 34-goal, 66-point output represented an offensive uptick. The sample is smaller – two seasons to Laine’s three – but Connor has scored 65 goals and 123 points over the past two seasons to Laine's 74 goals and 120 points, and the 22-year-old was as much of an offensive catalyst and inarguably the more versatile of the two skaters this season, averaging more even-strength ice time, near-identical power play ice time and 41 seconds of shorthanded ice time per game. Laine, by comparison, skated 1:11 on the penalty kill all season.
An incredibly conservative estimate would see Laine and Connor will eat half of the cap space, so, for the sake of this exercise, let’s say locking up the two key RFAs costs Winnipeg $14 million. That leaves the Jets with $12 million if the cap rises to its projected levels ahead of next season. But that's barely enough money to get Winnipeg out of the woods. Once Laine and Connor are locked up, the Jets still have a number of high-priced free agents – and free agents in need of a raise – to consider.
The most pressing matter after the contracts for Laine and Connor is that of Jacob Trouba. The 25-year-old defenseman had the best offensive season of his career, posting eight goals and 50 points while logging nearly 23 minutes per outing, but Trouba's situation comes down to price and willingness to ink long-term in Winnipeg. Twice – ahead of the 2016-17 season and prior to this season – Trouba and the Jets have had somewhat contentious negotiations, and with arbitration a possibility once again, some have speculated Trouba’s time is up in Winnipeg. Based on his current $5.5-million cap hit and his play this season, chances are Trouba is in line for a deal that pays upwards of $6 million or even $7 million per season. Given what will be left over after Laine and Connor are inked, such a contract isn’t going to fit the Jets’ salary structure, which could make Trouba one of the biggest trade chips any team will possess this off-season.
Even in moving Trouba, though, the Jets still face a cap crunch on the blueline. We know for certain Dustin Byfuglien and Josh Morrissey are in Winnipeg to stay, but Tyler Myers is set to become a UFA and the 29-year-old could fetch a significant payday in a thin free agent market. After Erik Karlsson and veteran Alex Edler, Myers’ nine goals and 30 points made him the highest scoring UFA defenseman. Where or how does a new contract for Myers, who carried a $5.5-million cap hit this season, fit? Does it at all? If Trouba moves on, maybe that leaves enough money for Myers to remain at a higher cap hit.
However, anything north of $6 million limits the Jets' spending room even further, a concern given forwards Brandon Tanev, Andrew Copp and Kevin Hayes will also be seeking new deals. Hayes, 26, and Tanev, 27, will both be able to test the open market should they so choose, and both will no doubt be seeking raises from their respective $5.175-million and $1.15-million salaries. Andrew Copp, 24, will need a new deal, too. He was good down the stretch, posted a career-high 11 goals and possesses arbitration rights. Others in need of pacts include Ben Chiarot (UFA), Nathan Beaulieu (RFA), Joe Morrow (RFA) and goaltender Laurent Brossoit (RFA), who is likely to seek a raise after playing well on a one-year, league-minimum deal this season.
The upshot is that there is no way Cheveldayoff can return the same group to the ice next season, not even if he so desired. Fitting everyone under the cap – not to mention tweaking, fine-tuning and adding to a roster that fell short of its goal and expectations – won’t work in the salary cap era. For some, that means next season will represent an increased opportunity. Jack Roslovic, Mason Appleton, Kristian Vesalainen and Sami Niku are among those whose roles could expand. But it also means others – Trouba? Mathieu Perreault? Dmitry Kulikov? – may have played their final games as Jets.
No matter what the changes are, they are coming, for better or worse. The Jets that take the ice next season are going to look different from the ones who fell to the Blues in six games in the opening round. And unlike the Stanley Cup pick, that’s one prediction that won’t fall flat.
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