The Winnipeg Jets desperately need to bolster their blue-line this offseason, as it’s been decidedly subpar over the past two seasons.
General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff has never made up for the mass exodus in 2019 that saw Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Chiarot, Tyler Myers, and Jacob Trouba all depart and has since only tinkered by adding bottom-pairing players who haven’t had much impact.
This offseason, Cheveldayoff’s first priority must be finding a top-four defenseman, someone of higher calibre than Nathan Beaulieu, or Jordie Benn, or Carl Dahlstrom, or Luca Sbisa.
There are no shortage of unrestricted free agents who will be available come July 28. Here, we’ll take a look at five players Cheveldayoff could sign with the nearly $15 million of cap space projected to be at his disposal.
The biggest fish in the free agent pool is Dougie Hamilton. The 28-year-old right hander has spent the past three seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes, who have given him permission to speak with other teams. He has recorded 39-plus points in seven-straight campaigns, while also posting extremely strong possession numbers.
Hamilton, the ninth-overall pick in 2011, is a player who would drastically and immediately improve the Jets’ d-corp. This past season, he recorded 10 goals and 32 assists in 55 games while skating an average of 22:43 and posting CORSI and Fenwick percentages near 60.
Hamilton could be a perfect partner for Josh Morrissey, and would allow Dylan DeMelo to move to the second pairing alongside Neal Pionk (assuming DeMelo is protected or unprotected but unchosen by the Seattle Kraken at the Expansion Draft.)
But the first-time UFA will be looking for a big payday, and even though Cheveldayoff’s got some cash, he has been historically loathe to make big-money offseason signings and also has his own UFAs and RFAs to deal with. If there’s someone to open up the wallet for though, it’s Hamilton, because he’s a stud.
Ryan Murray has not quite lived up to his draft pedigree (second-overall in 2012) but still has upside as a poised and stable defenseman capable of logging 20 minutes per night.
The left-handed 27-year-old generally plays a mistake-free game — and while his possession numbers took a hit playing for a rebuilding New Jersey Devils team this season — he is known for his positioning and his ability to move the puck out of his own end. Clearing the defensive zone cleanly is something the Jets have had massive problems with over the past two seasons, and failures to clear have too often ended up in goals against.
Murray isn’t the most physical or a prolific points producer, but would still be an upgrade if the organization once again won’t give top prospect Ville Heinola a chance to challenge for a top-four role. One thing the Jets would have to be careful with is Murray’s history of injuries: he has played 60-plus games in an 82-game NHL season only three times.
Yes, we’re talking about Travis Hamonic again.
The St. Malo, Manitoba born d-man has been on the Jets’ radar for a number of seasons now — really, dating all the way back to 2015 — and at some points, him signing with the Jets seemed almost a foregone conclusion (this writer asked last offseason if 2020-21 was the season he’d finally come home.) But for one reason or another, Hamonic coming to the Jets has never quite worked out.
Now 30 years old, Hamonic spent the 2020-21 season with the Vancouver Canucks on a modest-one year deal after playing three seasons with the Calgary Flames and seven with the New York Islanders.
No, Hamonic is not the big fish he once was and has been out of the spotlight since choosing to opt out of the summer 2020 bubble playoffs, but his lower profile could actually work in Cheveldayoff’s favour in contract negotiations.
There’s no question he’s still a capable defenseman who can log 20-plus minutes per game on the right side, where the Jets are the weakest, and provide the type of poise and confidence one only gets from playing nearly 700 NHL games.
Reilly is another first-time UFA and another defenceman who is just entering his prime. He played for four teams already in his 259-game NHL career, but could find a longer-term home in Winnipeg.
The 27-year-old wrapped up his season with the Boston Bruins after being acquired from the Ottawa Senators the day before the trade deadline. He’s also played for the Montreal Canadiens and Minnesota Wild but was originally a fourth-round 2011 pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Reilly is a strong puck mover and another potential partner for PIonk. He has some offensive upside, recording a career-high 27 points (all assists) in 55 games this season. He’s said that he wants to stay with the Bruins, according to MassLive coverage, but money always talks.
Yet another first-time UFA, Cody Ceci enjoyed a solid season with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2020-21 on a one-year deal.
The right-handed 27-year old recorded four goals and 13 assists in 53 games while skating an average of 18:31. He was also a plus-18, which many may find surprising given he was a minus-player in five of his seven NHL seasons prior to 2020-21. He was a career-worst minus-27 with the Senators in 2017-18, where he was overused and miscast.
Being traded to the Maple Leafs prior to 2019-20 in the Connor Brown trade did nothing to change his fortunes, as he was subpar in Toronto as well and the club let him walk.
The Penguins primarily used Ceci in a bottom-pairing role due to their defensive depth, but that was the perfect spot for him. SBNation’s Adam Gretz noted he was one of their most effective defenders In terms of scoring chances allowed, expected goals, and actual goals produced. He was also their most-used player on the penalty-kill, logging an average of 2:35 of short-handed ice time per game.
Now a few questions remain: will the Penguins re-sign him, or call the experiment a success and move on? And would Ceci be as effective in a Jets’ jersey, or would he revert back to the player who did not live up to expectations in two Canadian markets already?
Cheveldayoff Needs to Get it Right This Time
After failing in the 2019-20 and 2020-21 offseasons, and at April’s trade deadline, to add a bona-fide top four defenceman, Cheveldayoff cannot afford to fail a fourth time. The Jets have a number of systemic issues, but their defence is certainly one of the main things holding them back from being anything more than a fringe playoff team.
At his year-end media availability, he was non-committal and didn’t promise to be “aggressive” as one scribe asked. He noted the flat salary cap, internal contracts, and the Expansion Draft would complicate acquisitions.
Those are baked in excuses, as one thing is obvious to everyone paying attention: a bolstered blue-line would go a long way to getting the Jets to the next level.
Declan Schroeder is a 26-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.