High on the Winnipeg Jets’ list of priorities for the upcoming campaign was working out an extension with captain Blake Wheeler before the veteran winger found his way to unrestricted free agency. And with little more than a week to spare before the beginning of training camp, the Jets can officially cross that off of their in-season to-do list.
Tuesday morning, the Jets announced that they have come to terms on a five-year, $41.25-million extension with Wheeler that will see the 32-year-old receive a sizeable raise when his new pact kicks in. Currently set to play out the final season of a six-year deal that pays him an average of $5.6 million annually, Wheeler’s extension carries an $8.25-million cap hit, putting him in line to be the highest paid Jets player come the 2019-20 campaign. According to Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston, the contract carries a modified no-trade clause.
That Wheeler’s extension has eclipsed the $8-million plateau isn’t altogether surprising given his production over his current deal, particularly the past five seasons. Since the beginning of the 2013-14 campaign, Wheeler isn’t just the highest scoring Jet — he’s nearly 90 points clear of second place Mark Scheifele — but the eighth-highest scoring player in the entire NHL. In what many would consider the twilight of his prime, Wheeler has continued to excel offensively, setting and breaking career-best marks on what has been a biennial basis. His 2013-14 season saw him score a career-high 69 points, eclipsed in 2015-16 with a 78-point campaign and stretched further this past season when he notched 91 points en route to an eighth-place finish in Hart Trophy voting.
Wheeler’s production is what gave way to the $8 million-plus pay day, too. Much like the $6 million-range was the going rate for top offensive stars a few years back, the $8-million mark is a figure that has been somewhat consistently met when it comes to paying high-scoring talents. Over the past three seasons, more than a dozen players, including Jakub Voracek, Steven Stamkos, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Ryan Johansen and Logan Couture have signed contracts that carry cap hits in the $8-million range. Wheeler has outproduced all of those players over the same span and has a higher scoring rate than all but Stamkos, with whom Wheeler is tied at .99 points per game.
But Wheeler’s worth to the Jets goes beyond his base offensive numbers. There’s a completeness to his game that brings added value. Last season, he ranked eighth in shorthanded ice time, topped the team in power play ice time and was fourth among all players and first among forwards in even strength ice time. He’s the consummate all-situations player in Winnipeg, and heavily relied upon by coach Paul Maurice. And beyond his ability to be trotted out in any situation against any strength of competition, Wheeler can also be utilized in a variety of positions. Case in point, when Scheifele was sidelined for several weeks, Wheeler, a natural winger, shifted to the middle of the ice to center Winnipeg's top line. The Jets didn’t miss a beat. There’s value in that brand of versatility.
That’s not to say the contract is all sunshine and rainbows. There are some reasonable concerns about handing a five-year pact with an $8-million cap hit to a player about to enter into his mid-30s. By the time Wheeler plays his first game under his new pact, he’ll have celebrated his 33rd birthday. When the contract is complete, he’ll be inching ever-closer to his 38th. Those are by no means the prime years of a player’s career, and big money tied up in aging players isn’t always the most sound of strategies. It should be said, however, that the Jets likely paid more to keep the contract shorter, which would appear to be a worthwhile gambit even if a longer-term deal would have lessened the cap hit.
We can’t discount the possibility that Wheeler is cut from the same cloth as a Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Jarome Iginla or Henrik Zetterberg, either. All four remained effective players into their mid-to-late 30s. Thornton, for instance, had an 82-point season as a 36-year-old, and he plays a similar pass-first game to Wheeler. Marleau and Iginla remained effective offensive forces, albeit with significant drop off for the latter, past their 35th birthday. And Zetterberg, whose career is likely over as he battles back injury, was the Detroit Red Wings’ scoring leader with 68 points as a 36-year-old in 2016-17.
Of course, there’s also risk in that Wheeler’s high-priced extension could prevent future spending in some way. With Wheeler’s contract complete, the Jets now project to have roughly $27 million in spending room for 2019-20, according to CapFriendly, and that’s without restricted free agent Josh Morrissey putting pen to paper on an extension of his own. If we assume that costs Winnipeg somewhere in the $5-million range, that leaves the Jets with about $22 million to spend on retaining a long list of free agents-to-be that includes RFAs Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor, Jacob Trouba and Joe Morrow, as well as UFAs Tyler Myers, Ben Chiarot and Brandon Tanev. Suffice to say, cap space could get awfully scarce awfully fast in Winnipeg.
Having to maneuver a tight salary situation and retaining the services of an early-30s winger on a high-priced deal are two gambles the Jets absolutely had to take when it comes to Wheeler, though, which is why it’s hard to fault GM Kevin Cheveldayoff and Co. for an extension some franchise’s would deem too high-risk. After last season — a campaign in which Winnipeg took a long-awaited step forward, flirted with a Central Division crown and came within three games of punching their ticket to the Stanley Cup final — the Jets would be foolish not to go all-in. Their Stanley Cup window appears wide open, and retaining Wheeler, no matter the price, is one way in which Winnipeg will ensure they can still strike while the iron is hot.