One question Kevin Cheveldayoff should be asking right now is “who’s the best of the rest?”
It’s no secret the Winnipeg Jets have not had a strong offseason. While other teams loaded up on new talent over the past few weeks, GM Cheveldayoff only tinkered, making no additions that will move the needle at the NHL level.
Cheveldayoff and company’s hope that “running it back” with the same player personnel that continually disappointed in 2021-22 is risky. They’re betting nearly completely that a brand-new coaching staff led by Rick Bowness can get much more out of the group that finished fifth in the Central Division than Paul Maurice and Dave Lowry could.
Room to improve still exists. Cheveldayoff did not clear out Brenden Dillon’s or Blake Wheeler’s contracts to free up cap space as expected, but even after dealing with his two remaining RFAs in Mason Appleton and David Gustafsson, he will still have around $6 million to play with before training camp opens next month.
Cheveldayoff promised in May spend up to the cap ceiling again, and Bowness said last month he’s not interested in overseeing a rebuild. One has to think those dollars will get spent, most likely at forward as the Jets lost Zach Sanford, Paul Stastny, and Evgeny Svechnikov up front and have a significant logjam the back end.
Here, we’ll take a look at five still-available free agents who could bolster the Jets’ depth and make a difference for the team in 2022-23.
Galchenyuk has bounced around over the past four seasons, but could be a solid third-liner for the Jets if given the chance.
A left-shooting centre who can also play wing, the 28-year-old’s most recent stop was in Arizona for a second go-around with the Coyotes. On a one-year contract, he recorded six goals and 15 assists for 21 points in 60 games.
The third-overall pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft has been well-traveled since being traded to the Coyotes from the Montreal Canadiens organization in 2018, where he spent the first six seasons of his career, recording 44-plus points in four of them. Between Coyotes stints, he had cups of coffee with the Pittsburgh Penguins (45 games,) Minnesota Wild (14 games,) Ottawa Senators (eight games,) and the Toronto Maple Leafs (26 games.)
Galchenyuk has flaws — he is a career minus-77 and isn’t great defensively — but has an excellent shot and good playmaking instincts that have allowed him to rack up 354 points in 643 NHL games.
He would also be low-risk from a price perspective: he made just $750,000 last season with the Coyotes.
Kessel, 34-year-old, is nearing the twilight of his career, but can still be depended on to produce. While he scored a career-low eight goals in his third season with the Coyotes in 2021-22, he still had 52 points in 82 games, good for third on the team.
Although the butt of jokes about his fitness and love of hot dogs throughout his career, Kessel has been one of the NHL’s elite and most consistent snipers of his generation, and there’s no arguing he’s been highly-successful throughout his 16-season career.
Originally selected 5th overall in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft by the Boston Bruins, Kessel has 399 goals and 557 assists for 956 points in 1204-career games between the Bruins, Maple Leafs, and Penguins. With the Penguins, he was a key contributor to their back-to-back Stanley Cup victories in 2016 and 2017.
He has scored 30-plus goals in six separate seasons and recorded 60-plus points in eight separate campaigns. His best statistical season came in 2017-18, when he had 92 points.
Someone with Kessel’s breadth of experience could help the Jets, especially considering Stastny’s departure (Kessel’s actually two years younger than Stastny.) He could be a third-liner and power play fixture, and jump to the top six if needed.
Kessel’s last contract paid him an AAV of $8 million, but that was tendered by the Maple Leafs back in 2013 when he was in his prime and later inherited by the Penguins and Coyotes. He would come much more affordably now.
Somehow, Sonny Milano has not been signed yet despite having a ton of upside from age and analytics perspectives.
Milano, 26, was not tendered a qualifying offer by the Anaheim Ducks. That came as a surprise as the left-winger despite succeeding in the expanded role his was given last season, recording 14 goals and 20 assists for a career-best 34 points.
Milano was drafted 16th overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft and spent the first five seasons of his career with them before being traded to the Ducks in February, 2020. In 197-career NHL games, he has 36 goals and 45 assists for 81 points.
Milano plays the game at a fast pace and his 52.02 Corsi For % ranked first on the Ducks last season. While not a massive scoring threat, he possesses high-level playmaking skills and is good on the rush, making him a potentially nice fit on a Jets’ team that values speed. His two-year contract with the Ducks carried a $1.7 million AAV.
A 29-year-old centre, Rodrigues is coming off career-highs in goals (19,) assists (24,) points (43,) time on ice (15:50,) and hits (83) in 2021-22.
Rodrigues is a veteran of 316 games over seven NHL seasons. Like many of the players who have found success with the Jets in recent seasons, he is undrafted, beginning his career with the Buffalo Sabres before being traded to the Penguins in February, 2020.
Rodrigues has not been a prolific scorer in his career, with 129 points. Last season, he reached new heights as he was a reliable and durable presence who, while showcasing increased offensive upside, remained excellent defensively and playing a key role on the Penguins’ penalty kill.
Overall, Rodrigues’ skillset and career trajectory is quite similar to Andrew Copp’s, who spent eight seasons with the Jets but was traded to the New York Rangers at the trade deadline and is now a member of the Detroit Red Wings. The Jets have really benefitted from this type of player in the past and could again if they signed Rodrigues. His last contract was affordable, at just $1 million.
Another Duck Cheveldayoff could target is Sam Steel, who like Milano was also not tendered a qualifying offer. The youngest of the bunch at just 24 years old, he has not yet lived up to his draft pedigree but could potentially succeed with a change of scenery.
Steel, a left-shot centre, recorded six goals and 14 assists for 20 points last season, and has 65 in 197-career NHL games overall, all with the Ducks. They drafted him 30th-overall in 2016 after five seasons with the WHL’s Regina Pats, where he had a 131-point season and an 83-point season.
While his transition to the NHL has been a struggle, he’s not a write-off yet. He was deployed on the wing last season to give him an easier time, and one has to wonder if he could succeed on the left side under Bowness.
Steel obviously has the skill to be an impactful two-way forward, as his hockey IQ, playmaking ability, and overall speed were all assets that led to his domination in juniors. He just needs to translate it to the NHL level it couldn’t hurt for the Jets to give him a chance by tendering him a modest, short-term contract.
Other candidates: Zach Aston-Reese, Sam Gagner, Victor Rask
Declan Schroeder is a 27-year-old communications specialist and freelance journalist in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He holds a diploma in Creative Communications with a major in journalism from Red River College and a bachelors in Rhetoric and Communications from the University of Winnipeg.
Deeply rooted in the city’s hockey culture, the original Jets skipped town when he was two and the 2.0 version came onto the scene when he was 17.