The moves that Kevin Cheveldayoff made this offseason ensured that the Winnipeg Jets’ core would be in place for the next three seasons. Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, and Nikolaj Ehlers are under contract until 2023-24, along with five of the Jets’ current defence group and Connor Hellebuyck. According to Cap Friendly, the Jets are projected to have $12 million in cap space next season with only 12 players under contract. The Jets will have to find value contracts lower in the lineup to support their core. Here are three free agents that are likely to return to the Jets in the 2022-23 season.
Pierre-Luc Dubois is in the middle of a breakout season. He has 14 goals and 11 assists through 30 games, and has grown the defensive side of his game. When the Jets traded Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic for Dubois, he was labelled to be the Jets’ second-line centre of the future. With Scheifele missing games due to COVID-19, Dubois was forced into the first-line centre role, and he thrived there.
For the time being, Dubois has been put back on the second line, but the Jets should be thrilled that Dubois has taken a major step this season. This now gives interim head coach Dave Lowry and the team an elite one-two punch at centre, which most teams in the NHL cannot matchup with.
Dubois’ upcoming contract will be an interesting negotiation. On New Year’s Eve of 2020, he signed a two-year, $10 million contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets. This deal gave him the opportunity to prove to himself and management that he deserved a bigger contract, and he has more than earned it. If Dubois keeps up this near-point-per-game pace that he is currently on, the Jets will want to sign him to a long-term deal. He could demand anywhere from a $6 million contract to an $8 million contract depending on how he finishes this season, but the Jets will have the cap space to retain him and still spend money elsewhere.
Next on the Jets’ priority list is Dubois’ linemate, Evgeny Svechnikov. There has arguably not been a more pleasant surprise to the Jets than his emergence this season. The Jets offered Svechnikov a professional tryout during training camp before offering him a one-year contract. Now, he has become a forward that can play up and down Winnipeg’s top nine effectively.
Svechnikov only has two goals and six assists this season in 28 games. On paper, it doesn’t look as though he has been an effective top-six forward for the Jets this season, but some advanced analytics point to the fact that he has. Dubois, Svechnikov, and Connor have found instant chemistry and formed one of the best first lines in the NHL. According to Moneypuck.com, in the 145 minutes they’ve played together at even strength, that top line outscored their opponents 7-4 and dominated the percentage of both Corsi at 55.7 percent and expected goals at 58.7 percent. If Svechnikov continues to play well on Winnipeg’s top line and his contract next year stays under $2 million, he will continue to be a value.
David Gustafsson has played his last two seasons with the Manitoba Moose and has just recently been called up to play with the Jets. He plays a very specific, minimal role and the move made too much sense for the Jets not to do it. The team desperately needed players that can kill penalties, and Gustafsson is just that. Will he completely fix the penalty kill that is currently 31st in the league at 70.6 percent? Probably not. But killing penalties and winning faceoffs is what he was drafted to do. He was drafted in the second round in 2018 to be a middle-six defensive forward, similar to teammates Andrew Copp and Adam Lowry.
Gustafsson could also provide a scoring boost to the Jets’ bottom six. He came into training camp as a defensive specialist, but with 14 points in 18 games with the Moose this season, it seems he has started to unlock the offensive side of his game. Because there is such a defined role for him to succeed in next season, the Jets re-signing him to be a contributor on the third or fourth line is highly likely. He’ll be cheap and effective for the time being, and he’ll only get better with the playing time he’s given.
With their core in place and cap space hard to come by, the Jets likely won’t be signing many unrestricted free agents in the upcoming offseason. If that is the case, the Jets will have to rely on their young players such as Cole Perfetti, Kristian Vesalainen, and Gustafsson to be consistent contributors next season.
Connor Hrabchak is 20 years old, currently covering the Ottawa Senators and Winnipeg Jets for The Hockey Writers, and is working towards completing his communications and media degree. He was born and raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He’s been watching hockey ever since they moved back to Winnipeg in 2011, and that has inspired him to write about hockey and attempt to make it into a full-time career.