Winnipeg may not be the most attractive free agent destination, but Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has turned it into a place players don’t want to leave by building a winner with potential for short- and long-term success.
When the Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg seven years ago, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff knew the challenge he was facing. Yeah, it gets cold there in the winter, an average of minus-18 Celsius in the month of January. So you’ll need a block heater for the truck. He went in fully knowing what the perception is of Winnipeg, so he realized it would be important for the organization to draft good players, develop them well and keep them in Winnipeg once he got them there.
And he’s actually been wildly successful in doing all of those things, which is one reason why THN has already predicted the Jets will win the Stanley Cup in 2019. The latest example is Vezina Trophy finalist Connor Hellebuyck, who re-upped with the Jets for six more of those harsh winters with $6.167 million a year to keep him warm. And get this, he’ll have a modified no-trade clause in the latter years of the deal. Imagine that, a Winnipeg Jets player insisting on a no-trade clause.
In addition to Hellebuyck, Cheveldayoff has managed to get Mark Scheifele, Dustin Byfuglien, Nikolaj Ehlers and Bryan Little to commit to long-term deals. When Byfuglien signed his five-year deal two years ago, he did so despite the fact he was free to sign anywhere else in the NHL as an unrestricted free agent. In fact, it’s getting to the point where the Jets can’t sign players because they don’t have the salary cap room, not because players don’t want to come there. Take Paul Stastny for example. Stastny waived his no-trade clause to come to Winnipeg at the trade deadline last season and wanted to stay, but left because the Jets couldn’t fit him in under the salary cap long-term.
But the point here is that one player at a time, Cheveldayoff and the Jets are changing the perception of the organization around the league. And nothing does that better than having a responsibly run organization where players are treated well. And winning. Nothing changes perceptions like winning.
When a player is looking for a place to spend a good chunk of his career, he weighs a number of factors – money, the pressures of the market, livability, family environment and taxes. But one of the most important of those is whether or not he thinks he has a chance to win a Stanley Cup. And there’s not a player in the NHL who can look at the Jets roster and their group of prospects and not think this group has a real opportunity to contend for multiple championships over the course of the next decade.
As far as the other factors, well, there’s no escaping the fact that according to the Gavin Hockey Wealth Specialists, Hellebuyck’s estimated tax rate on his new earnings will be about 46.33 percent. That’s fourth-highest in the league behind Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa. There is nothing the Jets can do about that. Nor can they do anything about the fact that the winters are cold and that they play in the smallest building in the NHL.
But what they can control is the environment in which they put their players. And even if players who don’t play there are scared away by things like cold weather and taxes and don’t bother to look any deeper into it, at least the Jets can convince their own players to stay once they get them into the fold.
And when it comes down to it, that’s really how teams win Stanley Cups. Look at the Washington Capitals, for example. Almost all of their core players with the exception of T.J. Oshie and Lars Eller were drafted and developed by the organization. The ones who weren’t ready to jump directly to the NHL were placed in one of the best minor league systems in Hershey and almost all were signed to long-term deals beyond their entry-level contracts. Look at most teams that perennially contend in the NHL and that pattern of team-building is there.
Being able to sign John Tavares to a seven-year deal because he wants to come home is great, but the true success to winning Stanley Cups does not lie with signing unrestricted free agents. Actually, most of the evidence points to the contrary. It’s clear the risks outweigh the benefits when it comes to signing aging UFAs to long-term contracts. The way to build a contending team is to do exactly what the Winnipeg Jets are doing right now.
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