The Winnipeg Jets found themselves scrambling for a second-line centre once again in 2019-20. Blake Wheeler made a quick flip from wing to centre after Bryan Little went down with a serious head injury. But that was clearly not meant to be a full-time change for head coach Paul Maurice.
The Jets acquired centre Cody Eakin in February and were quick to move him to second-line centre seeing Wheeler shift back to right-wing on the top line. We have seen a number of different players fill the second-line centre spot over the past three seasons and it is about time the Jets find someone long-term to solidify that spot once and for all.
With the unrestricted free agent (UFA) centre market relatively thin, the Jets should look at targeting potential restricted free agent (RFA) centres to fill the spot instead.
Here are three RFA centres the Jets should think about extending offer sheets to when the time comes.
The 22-year-old centre Mathew Barzal will be an RFA this summer, and he will likely be a hot target for offer sheets. He is a long shot for the Jets and will likely demand more than they can afford while any reasonable offer will be easily matched by New York Islanders’ general manager Lou Lamoriello.
Barzal has reached the 60-point mark in each of his last three seasons, including an 85-point performance in 2017-18. The Islanders will have just over $12 million in salary-cap space with the projected $84 million upper limit. That number might come down with all the uncertainty around COVID-19 and how it will impact the NHL moving forward.
The Islanders will have to try and fit in the new contracts of defensemen Ryan Pulock and Devon Toews who will both be getting raises. Goaltender Thomas Greiss is also an upcoming UFA and he has played half of the Islanders’ regular-season games in each of the past five seasons.
Can Semyon Varlamov handle the starting duties full-time? Or will they need to spend big money on Greiss or another goalie?
Regardless, I’d say it’s worth a try for the Jets to find a way to pursue Barzal. The Islanders might have a hard time matching an offer sheet depending on how hefty it is and having a one-two punch of Mark Scheifele and Barzal would be a scary thing for any opponent.
Here is another player – like Barzal – who will be in for a big raise this summer. Upcoming RFA Pierre-Luc Dubois has become a mainstay as the Columbus Blue Jackets’ first-line centre while racking up 158 points in 234 games over the past three seasons.
He is big (6-foot-3), durable, and he plays a solid two-way game with the ability to put up points – something the Jets could use to solidify their second line.
The Blue Jackets will have just under $13 million in salary-cap space and they will have other key free agents to sign along with Dubois. They have eight other RFAs to sign on their NHL roster, including Josh Anderson and Elvis Merzlikins who are likely getting raises.
While Dubois is another long shot, the Jets should not hesitate to see if they can make something work to bring the 21-year-old on board.
This is an option I like a lot and one that seems a lot more likely to happen compared to the two players mentioned above. Anthony Cirelli had a breakout season in 2019-20, registering a career-high 44 points in just 68 games while getting Selke Trophy attention.
He is a combined plus-64 over the past three seasons and he played the majority of this past season at second-line centre for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Cirelli will not command as high a salary as Barzal and Dubois, and the Lightning will be facing some salary cap issues this summer, making Cirelli an intriguing target. If the Jets could sign him to an offer sheet around $4 million they will only need to give up a second-round draft pick. Anything above that – which is what it might take to get him – and they are looking at giving up first and third-round picks.
The Lightning will have just $7.8 million cap space to work with and that’s if the cap rises to $84 million. They have only three defensemen under contract next season and will need to pay up to re-sign Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak.
Kevin Shattenkirk – who turned his career around in 2019-20 – will be a UFA this summer and it is unlikely the Lightning will be able to afford to keep him around. One of their top prospects Alexander Volkov will see his entry-level contract expire this summer and will be another RFA the Lightning will need to give a raise.
Unless the Lightning make some major moves, they will be hard-pressed to match an offer sheet for Cirelli and Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff should jump all over the opportunity.
Other RFA centres the Jets could target include: Nolan Patrick (Philadelphia Flyers), Chris Tierney (Ottawa Senators), and Dylan Strome (Chicago Blackhawks).
The last time an offer sheet was not matched by the players’ original team was in 2007 when the Edmonton Oilers signed Dustin Penner to a five-year contract.
Going the RFA route is not an ideal situation, especially for the Jets who value draft picks very highly, but sometimes it needs to be done, and in this case, I think they should go for it.