The Winnipeg Jets are set to open training camp on July 10 and meet the Calgary Flames later this summer in a best-of-five play-in series that will purportedly take place at a venue in Canada. However, the Jets also must consider the 2020-21 season (whenever that may be) and how they will fill holes up front, on the blue line, and one behind standout goaltender Connor Hellebuyck.
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Heading into next season, the Jets have 13 players signed with a combined projected cap hit of nearly $66 million, and around $15.5 million to spend, provided the cap remains at $81.5 million. The Jets can use the cash to facilitate trades and sign free agents.
THW’s Ryan Goethals recently examined restricted free agents the Jets should target. Will the Jets sign one to an offer sheet and give up draft picks? Or will they keep some of their own free agents and take a shot with some unrestricted free agents?
Here’s a look at some options:
Winnipeg has eight forwards under contract for 2020-21 not including Bryan Little, who has been on injured reserve since last November with a concussion and punctured eardrum.
Little’s status for a possible play-in series in August is uncertain, but his contract is not. He’s got four more years remaining, each with a cap hit of $5.29 million and a no-trade list of fourteen teams of his choice. A buyout would see the Jets pay him through 2027-28, when he’ll be 40. You can view the year-by-year breakdown here.
Centers Cody Eakin and Nick Shore will be unrestricted free agents after the 2019-20 postseason (or sooner if the NHL scraps its playoff plan and moves on to prepare for 2020-21).
The 27-year-old Shore was serviceable as the fourth-line center, posting eight points and averaging 17 minutes in 38 games after being claimed off waivers. He made for $750,000, so bringing him back for another year at $800,000-$850,000 probably makes sense.
Eakin had four goals and six assists in 41 matches last season for the Vegas Golden Knights before being traded to Winnipeg last February. The 29-year-old found new life with the Jets, posting five points and a 54.6 faceoff percentage eight games as the center between Nikolaj Ehlers and Patrik Laine.
Eakin also had a 54.6 faceoff percentage for Winnipeg, and over his nine years in the NHL has won 49.9 percent of his draws. While his age and cap hit ($3.85 million) might be red flags to some, there aren’t many better options on the open market.
The Jets might be served best by bringing back both Eakin and Shore at the right price. Meanwhile, the entry-level deals for right-wingers Mason Appleton (24) and Jack Roslovic (23) are set to expire, but each is restricted and likely to return.
The same might not hold true for Mark Letestu, the 35-year-old forward limited by injury to seven games last season, or Logan Shaw and Gabriel Bourque. All are set to become UFAs.
Free Agent Forwards
Jesper Fast (Unrestricted)
The 28-year-old has played mostly on the right-wing for the Blueshirts but is one of their most versatile players. Over his seven seasons on Broadway, he’s filled in on the top two lines, seen action on the power play and penalty kill, and is usually on the ice late in close matches.
Fast’s offensive stats won’t cause any sets of eyeballs to widen. He had 12 goals and 17 assists in 69 games last season, bringing his career totals to 55 tallies and 92 helpers in 422 matches. But offense isn’t why Fast plays regularly season after season. His consistent commitment to playing on both sides of the puck is, which is why the Rangers rely on him in many different situations.
Fast averaged 16:36 per contest last season. The only Rangers forwards who saw more time were superstars Mika Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin, as well as Ryan Strome, Chris Kreider, and Pavel Buchnevich. Fast finished second on the Rangers in short-handed goals (2), and third in hits (125). Among New York’s forwards, Fast had the third-best defensive point shares (1.6).
Best of all, his cap hit was just $1.85 million. Money aside, the biggest testament to Fast’s value to the Rangers is the decision by general manager Jeff Gorton to keep Fast for a potential playoff run rather than trade him before the league’s deadline. There reportedly were plenty of suitors then, and likely will be should the Rangers fail to re-sign him.
Ryan Strome (Restricted)
The 26-year-old center put up career numbers last season playing with superstar Artemi Panarin, posting career single-season highs in points (59) and assists (41), as well as the highest average ice time at 19:35, nearly four minutes above his career average.
Strome also won 47.5 percent of his faceoffs and recorded his second straight 18-goal campaign for the Rangers. His spike in assists and points no doubt can be attributed to playing with Panarin, who tied Boston’s David Pastrnak for third in points with 95.
Strome is a solid player but consider: he’s scored 36 times in two seasons with the Rangers after potting a combined 59 over six seasons with the New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers.
He also had a $3.1 million cap hit that will surely bulge to at least $5 million per in a new deal. If Winnipeg were to sign Strome to an offer sheet for that much over, say, four years, they’d owe the Rangers one first-round and one third-round pick as compensation.
Mikael Granlund (Unrestricted)
The 28-year-old center had 17 goals and 30 points for the Nashville Predators last season, but also a cap hit of $5.75 million, which is probably less than the Jets would have to pay to retain Eakin. Granlund also had a lower faceoff percentage than Eakin (48.7 on just 10 draws compared to Eakin’s 641).
Derick Brassard (Unrestricted)
He put up 10 goals, 32 points, and won 55 percent of his draws last season for the New York Islanders, carrying a cap hit of $1.2 million.
However, he turns 33 in September and has a lower career faceoff percentage than Eakin at 48.4. Brassard is not an equitable alternative to Eakin, but given his price, experience, and talent, Brassard might be a nice fit as a fourth-line pivot in place of Shore.
Free Agent Defensemen
The Jets UFAs are Dylan DeMelo, Nathan Beaulieu, Luca Sbisa, and Dmitry Kulikov.
DeMelo posted 11 assists and averaged just over 20 minutes per game next to Joshua Morrissey on the first pairing. DeMelo was a bargain at $900,000 and is only 27. How much of a pay bump does he get, and does he receive it from the Jets?
Beaulieu, who signed last July for $1 million, posted eight points in 38 games and was placed on injured reserve three times. Even the sadsack Buffalo Sabres gave up on him, and they haven’t made the playoffs in nine years. Perhaps 23-year-old prospect Sami Niku earns a spot?
Do the Jets bring back Sbisa and Kulikov?
Sbisa is 30 and coming off injured reserve. He’s likely to play if there is hockey this summer, and his cap hit is already $250,000 less than Beaulieu’s.
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Kulikov, 29, had two goals, eight assists, and 32 penalty minutes in 51 matches. Among Jets’ blueliners, he was second in blocked shots (77), third in hits (104), and fourth in points. Which would be fine if he didn’t carry the highest cap hit of the group, as he did at $4.3 million.
Look, we could throw any and every big name unrestricted defenseman into this piece. Boston’s Torey Krug, Toronto’s Tyson Barrie, Pittsburgh’s Justin Schultz, Calgary’s T.J. Brodie … the household names are endless. See for yourself.
However, if the Jets are looking to make a splash on defense, their search should start and end with one and only one player:
Torey Krug (Unrestricted)
Last season, he placed fourth among Bruins with 49 points in 61 games. He’s by far the best of the free-agent crop and only 29. He’s Boston’s power-play quarterback, as evidenced by his team-leading 26 assists when the B’s have the man advantage.
If there’s a red flag for Krug, it’s that he had a $5.25 million cap hit and a no-trade clause. If the Jets want Krug, they better prepare to cough up Dustin Byfuglien-like money, as in $8 million per if not more. Especially since a flight from Boston to his hometown of Livonia, Michigan, is about 83 minutes compared to a 131-minute journey to Winnipeg.
Lees expensive, quality free agents include:
Erik Gustafsson (Unrestricted)
Had a $1.2 million cap hit, six goals, and 23 assists for Calgary and the Chicago Blackhawks last season. Younger, cheaper, and more productive than Kulikov.
Carson Soucy (Unrestricted)
Counted just $750,000 against the Minnesota Wild’s cap and had 14 points in 55 games. He’s only 25 and still has upside. Great replacement for Beaulieu or Sbisa.
Kevin Shattenkirk (Unrestricted)
The 31-year-old rejuvenated his career in 2019-20 after an underwhelming stint with his hometown Rangers. “Shatty” had a cap hit of $1.75 million, 34 points, and a plus-22 rating in 70 games for the Bolts.
He’ll probably need a substantial raise from the Jets if they hope to lure him to Manitoba from the tropical paradise on Florida’s Gulf Coast.
Laurent Brossoit. Bring him back for $2.5 million (which would be just more than double what he made last season). He’s only 27, capable, and reportedly gets along well with standout start Connor Hellebuyck.
There isn’t a cheaper and younger alternative among UFAs. However, there are some decent restricted options, including Alexandar Georgiev ($792,500 cap hit), Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray ($3.75 million), Buffalo’s Linus Ullmark ($1.32 million), and Chicago’s Malcolm Subban ($850,000). But it’s hard to imagine any of them passing on a chance to compete for a starting job — an opportunity they won’t get with the Jets.
Free Agents to Avoid
Tyson Barrie (Unrestricted)
Barrie counted $5.5 million against Toronto’s cap. For that, the Maple Leafs got a return of 39 points and a minus-7 rating in 70 games. And those are not the only red flags with this player.
His 39 points were 20 fewer than his total for the Colorado Avalanche in 78 games the previous season, and 18 short of his output in 68 contests in 2017-18. His five goals for the Leafs were a far cry from the back-to-back 14-goal campaigns with Colorado prior to being traded to Toronto.
Justin Schultz (Unrestricted)
Produced 12 points in 46 matches for the Penguins, who absorbed a $5.5 million hit and gave him a no-trade clause. He also turns 30 in July, so barring Schultz accepting a major pay cut, it’s doubtful he’ll be back with Pittsburgh.
T.J. Brodie (Unrestricted)
Already 30 and coming off a season in which he posted 19 points in 64 games with a cap hit of $4.65 million and a no-trade clause.
The Jets head into the 2020-21 season with needs at forward, on defense, and backup to Hellebuyck. They’ll have a good chunk of dough to address those areas, but how will they spend it? Hopefully, we won’t find out the answer until after the return-to-play postseason concludes next fall.
I’m not related to Phil or Tony, but I have played, coached, scouted, and written about hockey. I’m getting back into writing after teaching elementary school for the past 15 years. Prior to becoming an educator, I covered collegiate and pro hockey for nearly a decade for a New Jersey newspaper. My beats included Princeton University, the Eastern College Athletic Conference, the East Coast Hockey League, and the ECHL’s Trenton Titans. I also covered the New York Rangers’ playoff run in 1997.