Decisions, Decisions: The Winnipeg Jets Future

Nobody expected the Winnipeg Jets to be fighting for a playoff spot in the 2014-15 season, yet the team huddled together and created something magical, as they pushed towards their first post-season appearance since returning to the city of Winnipeg.

Sure, they got swept by the Anaheim Duck, the team that made it all the way to the conference finals this year, but for Jets fans it was still something to keep hope alive; A team that could make the playoffs and put up one heck of a fight against one of the powerhouses in their conference. Every game was close, the Jets often leading the score but unable to close it out, and the battles on the ice were anything but a simple sweep for Anaheim. Yet head coach Paul Maurice couldn’t find the answers and his team couldn’t close things out. The one saving grace of the final game was that the fans chose to cheer their team off the ice, a team they were proud of, despite never winning a post-season game.

As the off-season is upon us, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has some decisions to make regarding his line-up for the 2015-16 season, as a handful of forwards and defensemen are in need of a new contract. As the playoffs indicated, the Jets lack of overall depth hurt them the most, and Cheveldayoff will need to search for some answers to create a team that can roll four lines consistently, as well as build on a strong defensive core.

Decisions, Decisions: The Winnipeg Jets Future

Crop of Forwards

Blake Wheeler
(4 years/$5.6 million), Bryan Little (3 years/$4.7 million), Andrew Ladd (1 year/$4.4 million), Mathieu Perreault (2 years/$3 million), Chris Thorburn (2 years/$1.2 million), Mark Scheifele (1 year/$863,333), Adam Lowry (1 year/$828,333)

Free Agents:
Drew Stafford
(UFA), Michael Frolik (UFA), Jiri Tlusty (UFA), Jim Slater (UFA), Lee Stempniak (UFA), Matt Halischuk (UFA), T.J. Galiardi (UFA), Eric O’Dell (UFA), Anthony Peluso (RFA)

With only seven forwards signed for next season, Cheveldayoff has his work cut out for him. Only Peluso is restricted to the team, while eight forwards can test the free agent market next month. The major priority not listed above is their 2010 8th overall pick Alexander Burmistrov, who has spent the last two seasons in the KHL. The 23-year-old bolted for Russia after the 2012-13 season when he and then-head coach Claude Noel were butting heads and as a result, Burmistrov’s development was hurt. His Kazan Ak-Bars teammate Evgeni Medvedev, who has signed with the Philadelphia Flyers, also indicated during an interview with a Russian reporter that Burmistrov would also be leaving the KHL to go to Canada. Burmistrov may excel under the coaching of Maurice or Cheveldayoff may look to trade the rights of the skilled center, who is a restricted free agent until he turns 27.

Of the forwards currently looking for a new deal, Frolik may be the biggest target for Cheveldayoff to retain. The 27-year-old right winger has provided scoring and a big presence, nearly hitting the 20-goal plateau last season. Stafford provides some veteran leadership and defensive awareness. In half the games played with Winnipeg compared to Buffalo, Stafford score just as many goals and improved his +/- from a -18 in 50 games with Buffalo to a +6 in 26 games with Winnipeg. He’s proven himself to be useful, though it may depend on what he’s asking and the Jets could need him to take a discount to retain his services while also keeping some breathing room cap-wise.

There are a few prospects in the system that may be fighting for a spot at training camp. Nikolaj Ehlers had another tremendous season with the Halifax Mooseheads, hitting the 100-point plateau for a second straight season. The 19-year-old winger from Denmark put up 31 points in 14 playoff games as well. Joel Armia can also make a case for himself, doing well in the American Hockey League with both the Rochester Americans and the St. John’s IceCaps. The Finnish forward, acquired in the  blockbuster Evander Kane trade, possesses speed and flash but also remains inconsistent and has some work to do at both ends of the ice. Nic Petan may not have the size but he has the tenacity and heart that very few have and he’ll be a Winnipeg Jet sooner rather than later. Hitting 89 points in 54 games last season with the Portland Winterhawks, the gritty 5’9” forward has also hit 28 points in three consecutive post-season appearances. He may be another year away, but Petan has had a tendency to surprise and shut down his critics.

Defensive Dilemma

Toby Enstrom
(3 years/$5.75 million), Tyler Myers (4 years/$5.5 million), Dustin Byfuglien (1 year/$5.2 million), Mark Stuart (3 years/$2.625 million), Grant Clitsome (1 year/$2,066,666), Jay Harisson (1 year/$1.050 million) Jacob Trouba (1 year/$894,166)

Free Agents:
Paul Postma (RFA), Keaton Ellerby (RFA), Adam Pardy (UFA), Ben Chiarot (UFA)

Unlike the forward depth, the blue-line is quite strong and three of the four top-six defenseman are locked up for the next three-four seasons. The defense core currently eats up 34% of the cap. Byfuglien and Trouba are both in line for a new deal at the end of this upcoming season, which causes problems. Three of the Jets blueliners are already making north of $5 million per season and Byfuglien will earn just as much on his new contract, if not more. With Clitsome and Harisson making $2+ million, Cheveldayoff may have to think about trading one of his defenseman to clear up some room for a cap-friendly replacement while also adding some depth to the forward position.

Stuart, 31, earns just over two-and-half million until the 2017-18 season. He provides stability on any top-four rotation and plays his role as defensive defenseman very well. He can still play at a high level at his age and could bring in a return for the Jets. Both Clitsome and Harisson are on the final year of their contracts, making it easier on Cheveldayoff to move one of them, especially at the trade deadline. Clitsome is a smallish defenseman that doesn’t produce much offensively. He’ll struggle to keep in the top-six and may not receive much attention from other teams. Harisson was traded to the Jets for a low draft pick and is quit reliable, so if the Jets move him then they should expect nothing more than what they got him for – something around a 6th-round pick.

Two names that could also make for a push, making Cheveldayoff’s job harder, are Josh Morrisey and Jan Kostalek. Both defenseman were key players on their teams’ (Kostalek – Rimouski, Morrisey – Kelowna) success in their respective leagues, leading them into championship success and a Memorial Cup appearance. Morrisey, 20, has excellent puck-moving skills and is a smooth skater. He’ll certainly be in the mix and could make a strong case for himself, while Kostalek is not too far behind. The Czech Republic native was named the best defenseman of the QMJHL for the 2014-15 season and made great strides in his progress.

Pavelec and Hutchinson going on

With Ondrej Pavelec locked up for another two years at $3.9 million and Michael Hutchinson making $575,000 for one more year, the Jets may be looking at a final season of Pavelec and Hutchinson sharing duties. Pavelec showed signs of turning his game around late into the season, being one of the biggest contributors to the Jets pushing for and eventually securing a playoff spot. However the old Pavelec showed up in the post-season, appearing to look rattled at moments and giving up shaky and questionable goals when Winnipeg was taking charge.

Hutchinson was one of the remarkable stories mid-way through the 2014-15 season, receiving increased starts and playing at a high level, almost completely stealing the job away from Pavelec. As the story goes, Hutchinson lost his grip on the starting role and conceded the net back to Pavelec. Both goaltenders had their struggles and moments of inconsistency but Pavelec managed to put it together before Hutch.

Peter Budaj, who was acquired from the Montreal Canadiens, didn’t look like himself in the AHL and will likely test the market as a UFA, while Eric Comrie should be geared to face greater competition, either at the AHL or ECHL level. One goaltending prospect to look out for is Connor Hellebuyck. The 22-year-old appeared in 58 games with the St. John’s IceCaps and put up respectable numbers, but he was showcased beautifully at the World Hockey Championship earlier this year. While he’ll have to wait for a spot to open up, Hellebuyck made great strides to proving that he is closer to making it than initially expected.

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