It should not be nearly as stressful a summer for Winnipeg Jets’ general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff this time around. But that does not mean he won’t have his fair share of work to do.
The Jets have seven upcoming restricted free agents (RFA) and 15 unrestricted free agents (UFA) within their organization (this includes players currently on the Manitoba Moose). The list includes 13 forwards, eight defencemen, and one goalie with most of them being lower-tier players who should not command high salaries.
Whether NHL free agency begins July 1 or not remains to be seen, but that date could very likely get pushed back with a possible August or September finish to the 2019-20 season, assuming things start up again at some point.
Restricted Free Agents
There are four key RFA’s who stand out the most for the Jets and they Jack Roslovic, Mason Appleton, Jansen Harkins, and Sami Niku.
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I think it is very likely we see these four players sign bridge deals with Roslovic’s deal being the richest and having a similar average annual value (AAV) to the one of forward Andrew Copp ($2.28 million). They are all key pieces to the Jets’ lineup moving forward and I think 2020-21 could finally be the season we see Niku make the jump to a full-time NHL defenceman.
The other three RFA’s are currently with the Moose and they are Nelson Nogier, Michael Spacek, and C.J. Suess. I expect all three to get new deals with all of them likely returning to the Moose again next season. I expect Spacek to make the biggest push for a 2020-21 roster spot, but I do not see a fit for him just yet.
DeMelo and Eakin
A big decision for Cheveldayoff will be whether or not to re-sign Dylan DeMelo and Cody Eakin and for how long and how much. Acquired near the trade deadline, DeMelo and Eakin are both UFAs at the end of the 2019-20 season and they will both be looking to cash in.
DeMelo (26 years old) will be looking for a large raise and should get it whether it is with the Jets or another team. Before the NHL paused its season, DeMelo was playing on the top defensive pairing with Josh Morrissey and looking good doing so.
The interest will definitely be there on the Jets’ side of things but whether or not DeMelo has any interest staying in Winnipeg remains to be seen. Hopefully, he has enjoyed his time here because some team will pay him big if he hits the open market. If Cheveldayoff can sign him long term for anywhere around the $4 million mark, I’d say that’s a win for both parties.
Eakin – a Winnipeg native – is currently making $3.85 million in the final year of his contract and will be 29 years old in May. I cannot see the Jets signing him for that much if they want him to return and I think it would be a mistake if they did.
Eakin will likely be looking for as long-term of a deal as possible to give him some sense of comfort and security for his upcoming 30’s. The Jets have recently been using him as their second-line centre and they could look for him to continue that role next season if Bryan Little is still not ready to return to hockey.
Assuming both sides are interested in making a deal, I can see a three or four-year deal around $3-3.5 million per season happening. However, my gut tells me Eakin tries the open market and gets a better deal elsewhere.
Unrestricted Free Agents
Now that we covered the Jets’ trade deadline acquisitions, let’s go over the remaining 13 UFAs that Cheveldayoff will have to decide upon.
The first one that comes to mind is backup goaltender Laurent Brossoit who is currently making $1.225 million this season. After looking exceptional in 2018-19, things have gone downhill in 2019-20 and that could ultimately be the deciding factor on whether the Jets decide to keep him or not.
The pros are he has a great relationship with Connor Hellebuyck, he’s still just 27 years old, and we know he is capable of putting up consistently strong numbers (see 2018-19). The Jets will ultimately have to decide whether they feel Mikhail Berdin is ready to step up to the NHL or not.
I think Berdin needs another season or two with the Moose, so I expect the Jets and Brossoit to come to an agreement on a one or two-year deal with a very similar AAV to the one he has now.
With the remaining 12 UFAs, seven names come to mind before the rest and they are Nick Shore, Mark Letestu, Gabriel Bourque, Logan Shaw, Dmitry Kulikov, Nathan Beaulieu, and Anthony Bitetto. All these guys are currently holding down NHL jobs with the Jets – with the exception of Letestu who suffered a health scare in October – and I could see a few of them returning again next season.
Shore, Shaw, and Beaulieu, I feel, are the most likely to sign new deals with the club and Bitetto should not be ruled out either. I think we see the Jets move on from Bourque, Letestu, and Kulikov. However, if Cheveldayoff happens to offer Kulikov another contract, expect it to be a lot less than he currently makes ($4.33 million).
The remaining five names on the UFA list include Luca Sbisa, Cameron Schilling, JC Lipon, Seth Griffith, and Andrei Chibisov. I do not see the Jets re-signing Sbisa and the other four – if re-signed – will likely be back on the Moose again next season. I would not be against Cheveldayoff keeping Lipon, Griffith, and Chibisov in the fold next season as they have done well during their time with the Moose.
Other Free Agents & Cap Management
Along with bringing back a lot of their own free agents, I fully expect the Jets to be active once free agency begins – whenever that happens to be. They could still use a solid top-four defenceman to bring some stability and flare to their back end.
Depth scoring has been an issue this season for the Jets, so they may look to bring in a middle-six forward, likely a centre if possible. Second or third-line centres do not grow on trees, however, so that is easier said than done. Of course, we also need to be prepared for a possible trade scenario that could potentially still take place in the offseason.
Cheveldayoff will have an easier time with the salary cap this offseason as opposed to the last. Freeing up Dustin Byfuglien’s $7.6 million salary along with Kulikov’s $4.33 million will go a long way for the Jets’ general manager with whatever decisions he makes.
No matter how things play out over the next six months, expect to see a few new faces in the Jets’ lineup next season. I can see the fourth line being completely remolded and the back end is sure to look much different also.
If those things remain the same, one might ask what Cheveldayoff did all offseason, no matter how shortened it may be.