Jets Have Decisions to Make About 11 Pending RFAs

The Winnipeg Jets have 11 pending restricted free agents in their organization — seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goaltender. Each comes with a varying chance of re-signing this summer. Here, we’ll take a look at each, in alphabetical order.

Mason Appleton

The Jets reacquired Mason Appleton from the Seattle Kraken at the 2022 Trade Deadline and it’s likely he’ll be back for 2022-23.

In exchange for Appleton — who was left unprotected by the Jets in the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft and claimed by the Kraken — the Jets sent the Kraken a 2023 fourth rounder. Appleton had two goals and two assists in 19 games down the stretch for the Jets, and eight goals and 13 assists in 68 games between the two teams.

Related: Jets Make Smart Move by Re-Acquiring Appleton from Kraken

The 26 year old was a diamond-in-the-rough selection by Cheveldayoff, who plucked the Wisconsinite centre in the 6th round of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. He played 138 games for the Jets between 2018-19 and 2020-21, recording 20 goals and 23 assists. His 2020-21 campaign was his best as a professional, as he set career-highs in goals (12), assists (13), plus/minus, (plus 9), and average time on ice (14:25.)

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Appleton is versatile — he can play centre or right wing, kill penalties, provide depth scoring in a bottom six role, and jump up to the top six in a pinch.

Mason Appleton Winnipeg Jets
Mason Appleton, Winnipeg Jets (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

He is a known commodity and as an RFA, will be affordable; having players who can contribute in multiple areas without breaking the bank is of utmost important in today’s NHL, considering the salary cap is only rising $1 million for 2022-23. The Jets need affordable players who can contribute, since they are right up to the salary cap ceiling.

Philippe Desrosier

Whether the minor-league goalie Desrosier gets another contract depends on what happens with Eric Comrie this summer.

Comrie, Connor Hellebuyck’s backup in 2021-22, is a Group 6 UFA this offseason. The longtime farmhand signed a one-year, $750,000 contract last summer, but after performing well in his too-few appearances, may attract other suitors or demand a raise the Jets cannot afford.

Related: Jets Have Decisions to Make About 7 Pending UFAs

If Comrie goes, Desrosier will likely stay. Current Moose starter Mikhail Berdin — who has one year left on his contract — would be Hellebuyck’s backup, leaving Desrosier and Arvid Holm as the Moose’s two goaltenders.

Desrosier, 26, began the season on a Moose contract and appeared in four games for the AHL team, going 2-1-0 with a 2.54 GAA and .909 SV%. He spent most of the season with the ECHL’s Trois-Rivieres Lions, appearing in 34 games.

Pierre-Luc Dubois

Getting the hard-working Pierre-Luc Dubois re-signed will be Cheveldayoff’s number-one priority this summer.

Related: 3 Biggest Winnipeg Jets Priorities This Offseason

The big-bodied Dubois set a new career-high in goals with 28 and added 32 assists for 60 points. A force in front of the net, he led the Jets with 15 power play markers.

Pierre-Luc Dubois Joseph Woll Winnipeg Jets Toronto Maple Leafs
Pierre-Luc Dubois screens Joseph Woll in a game between the Winnipeg Jets and Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Darcy Finley/NHLI via Getty Images)

In an underwhelming season where the effort of some of the Jets’ key players was questionable, Dubois could never be accused of coasting. He was consistently in the thick of things, whether the offensive side or on the physical side — he dished out 112 hits to go along with his 60 points.

Perhaps the best illustration of how engaged he was and how hard he was for opponents to deal with is that he led the NHL in penalties drawn with 51. He also led the NHL in penalties taken, with 45.

He dripped many qualities befitting of a future captain; as the Jets stumbled their way through the season, the 23-year-old was often the one willing to sit in front of the mic and face the music while captain Blake Wheeler either hid away, spoke in hackneyed cliches, or was being needlessly combative with scribes just trying to do their jobs.

Related: Winnipeg Jets 2021-22 Report Cards: Pierre-Luc Dubois

Dubois’ strong season has him well positioned to cash in on a contract extension. His is currently making $5 million on the second-year of a two-year deal $10-million-total deal the Jets inherited from the Blue Jackets in the Patrik Laine blockbuster.

A four-to-five year contract with an AAV in the $7 million range seems appropriate for both sides; it would secure the Jets a cornerstone player on an upward trajectory for the foreseeable future, while still giving Dubois the security of knowing he’ll be able to hit the UFA market for the first time at a fairly young age.

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If the Jets wanted to lock him up for longer, they’d have to increase the AAV as Dubois would be sacrificing more of his UFA years.

Leon Gawanke

Leon Gawanke is a rising star on the Moose blue line who has completed his entry-level contract. He should be re-signed.

The 22-year-old German product is intelligent, composed, and an asset on the man advantage. In 2021-22, his third season with the Moose, he led all defenseman and was fourth on the team in points (10 goals, 26 assists in 65 games.) After the Moose were eliminated in the first round of the Calder Cup Playoffs, he went to Helsinki to represent his home country in the World Championship.

Leon Gawanke Manitoba Moose
Leon Gawanke, Manitoba Moose (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

Gawanke is quite consistent and cerebral for someone so young, and may get an NHL chance sooner than later if the Jets move Brendan Dillon or Nate Schmidt this offseason. He has a lot of upside and has just the skill-set to thrive in this era, where speed and puck-moving ability reign supreme.

David Gustafsson

David Gustafsson was derailed by injuries this season and has been slower to develop than expected. But the Jets should stay the course.

The 22-year-old Swedish centre — selected in the second round of the 2018 draft — displayed dominant power forward tendencies in a top-six role with the Moose this season, scoring 15 goals and adding 15 assists in 47 games.

David Gustafsson Manitoba Moose
David Gustafsson, Manitoba Moose (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

Gustafsson played 22 games with the Jets back in his rookie 2019-20, but just six since; he only appeared in two this season and had rotten luck on the injury front.

He got injured in the first period of his NHL season debut on Dec. 17. During an unexpected and extended Christmas break, he was able to recover and got back into action on Jan. 2, but once again got hurt in the first period and remained on the shelf until late February. Then-interim-head coach Dave Lowry opted to send Gustafsson back to the the Moose for the rest of the season so he could get back up to speed and play big minutes, rather than only a few per night in the NHL.

Strong in the faceoff circle and a true workhorse, the “Gus Bus” as he’s become known to Moose fans could be the next Adam Lowry or even the next Dubois. His potential is too high to give up on and he could really break out next season if he’s given a chance and can stay healthy.

Jansen Harkins

The 24-year-old Harkins played his first full season for the Jets in 2021-22. After a 2020-21 where he was often a scratch and limited to 26 games, Harkins was a fixture on the Jets’ bottom six, suiting up for 77 contests.

Jansen Harkins Winnipeg Jets
Jansen Harkins, Winnipeg Jets (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The hardworking forward, originally drafted 47th overall by the Jets in 2015, recorded seven goals and six assists for 13 points with a minus-8 rating and ATOI of 9:29.

Harkins is coming off a two-year contract with an AAV of $725,000. Expect him to sign a similar contract this summer.

Johnathan Kovacevic

Kovacevic has emerged as a key and consistent member of the Moose blue line, logging big minutes in all situations and recording 11 goals and 19 assists for 30 points in 62 games, along with an eye-popping plus-23 rating.

Johnathan Kovacevic Manitoba Moose
Johnathan Kovacevic, Manitoba Moose (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

The 24-year-old made his NHL debut on Jan. 27, and played four games in total. The 6-foot-4, 208-pound d-man looked cool and confident, logging an ATOI of 10:48.

Kovacevic signed a one-year contract last offseason and the Jets should offer him another one. He may be a late bloomer after three seasons at Merrimack College and three seasons with the Moose, but has good potential to be a strong player in the future.

Jeff Malott

Malott, 25, led the Moose in goals with 23 this season and also made his Jets’ debut on March 20 versus the Chicago Blackhawks.

Jeff Malott Manitoba Moose
Jeff Malott has led the Moose in goals in each of the past two seasons. (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

The undrafted winger went viral in late February with a stone-cold shootout celebration, where he tucked the puck through Chicago Wolves’ goaltender Jack LaFontaine’s wickets to cap a victory and then immediately left the ice through the side gate.

Related: Moose’s Malott Goes Viral With Unique Celebration on Shootout Game-Winner

In 2020-21, Malott burst onto the professional scene after a four-year career at Cornell University by leading the Moose with 14 goals in 34 games. As the result of his strong rookie campaign, he earned a one-year, two-way contract worth $780,000 last May.

Expect him to sign a similar contract this summer: he is a dependable scorer at the AHL level who can be called up in a pinch.

Markus Phillips

The Jets acquired Markus Philips from the Los Angeles Kings at the 2022 Trade Deadline in exchange for Nelson Nogier.

Phillips, a 23-year-old left-shooting defenseman, was chosen by the Kings in the fourth round of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. After joining the Jets’ organization, he played seven games for the Manitoba Moose, recording two assists, but was a scratch for the Calder Cup playoffs.

It’s possible the Jets re-sign Phillips as an AHL depth defender as Declan Chisholm, Ville Heinola, Kovacevic, and Dylan Samberg all have a chance for big-league work next season.

Evgeny Svechnikov

Svechnikov was “found money” for the Jets. The Detroit Red Wings castoff and 2015 first-rounder signed a one-year, $750,000 deal last August with the Moose and impressed enough in training camp on a PTO to stick with the Jets full time.

The 25-year-old Russian product’s role varied wildly. He began the season on the top six, before a long stretch of bottom-six work with occasional healthy scratches sprinkled in. He returned to a productive second-line role with Kyle Connor and former Cape Breton Screaming Eagle teammate PIerre-Luc Dubois in February and March, before once again being moved to the bottom six to close out the season.

Related: Winnipeg Jets 2021-22 Report Cards: Evgeny Svechnikov

Svechnikov was far more productive in a larger role, but went through some pretty dry stretches when playing less than 10 minutes per night. Despite being on a roller coaster ride, he chipped in seven goals and 12 assists for 19 points while skating an average of 10:45.

Evgeny Svechnikov Winnipeg Jets
Evgeny Svechnikov, Winnipeg Jets (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

While the left winger will likely never be as high-octane as his brother Andrei or live up to his draft hype as a pure sniper, he has shown he can be productive when given the opportunity and right line mates.

A smart player with decent offensive instincts and the ability to make good things happen in small spaces, the Jets would be wise to consider inking him to another modest short-term deal. As mentioned with Appleton, affordable players who can chip in are highly important to cap-ceiling teams.

Kristian Vesalainen

Kristian Vesalainen has been the most disappointing first-round pick in Jets 2.0 history. Recently, he signed a one-year contract with the to Swedish Hockey League’s Malmo Red Wings.

The decision now is whether to tender him a qualifying offer despite his decision to jet off overseas. If they do, they retain his rights, meaning if he wants to return to the NHL, he’d have to play for the Jets unless they trade him.

Selected 24th overall in 2017, the Finn never found his his footing, recording two goals and three assists in 70 NHL games. He was given a legitimate chance in 53 this season, but recorded just two goals and one assist before being sent down to the Moose.

Related: Jets & Former 1st-Rounder Vesalainen Part Ways After Lacklustre Tenure

Vesalainen was touted to have some high-end talent and goal-scoring ability, but rarely put himself in a position to showcase his skills at the NHL level. After being sent down to the Moose, AHL writer Jacob Stoller noted his lack of urgency and lackadaisical play style, which led to the formerly highly-touted prospect being scratched at times.

“I just watched every single one of Kristian Vesalainen’s AHL shifts this year and I am just completely puzzled by his continued lack of urgency/engagement,” Stoller Tweeted on March 26.

Kristian Vesalainen Winnipeg Jets
Kristian Vesalainen, Winnipeg Jets (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Vesalainen’s lack of committment and drive had unfortunately been hallmarks of his game from the very start of his career. In his rookie 2018-19 season, he he activated an out clause in his contract that allowed him to return to Helsinki to play for Jokerit rather than with the Moose.

His decision to go on that European foray was not well received by the organization and did nothing for his development; as a result of his wasted year, he spent 2019-20 learning the North American-style game and adapting to the smaller ice surface in the minors instead of making his mark in the NHL.

Related: Jets to Jokerit: Did Vesalainen Make the Right Choice?

Many other prospects in the pipeline have surpassed Vesalainen. Morgan Barron — who impressed with four points in 14 games for the Jets and was a monster for the Moose in the playoffs — and Cole Perfetti —who had rotten luck with injuries but looked right at home on the Jets’ top six in January and February — are just two. Even older players such as Mikey Eyssimont and CJ Suess have more upside on the bottom six than Vesalainen thanks to their stronger work ethics.

Perhaps Vesalainen can recapture his mojo in the SHL and return to the Jets re-energized. He wouldn’t be the first Jet to head overseas before returning to North America as Alexander Burmistrov did so as well. Right now, though, it’s quite difficult to see where he fits into the Jets’ future, if at all.