Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff should take a moment to enjoy this playoff run, already the deepest and most successful in the history of the Thrashers/Jets franchise and better than anything produced in the Winnipeg era of the Jets/Coyotes franchise. But he can’t take his eye off the summer salary ledger, either. No GM in the league has a lengthier, more complicated list of decisions to make in the 2018 off-season. It already shaped up to be a challenge for Cheveldayoff to figure out new contracts for RFAs such as Jacob Trouba and Josh Morrissey, but two players in particular have made things infinitely murkier.
One, of course, is RFA goaltender Connor Hellebuyck. He opened the year as the projected 1B to Steve Mason’s 1A – Mason’s $4.1-million AAV told us as much – but quickly wrested the job away from him. Talk of a “prove it” bridge contract slowly grew to talk of a pricier bridge, then a long-term deal as Hellebuyck was playing in his first All-Star Game by mid-season. Then came a league-leading 44 wins and the announcement he was a Vezina finalist. Now Hellebuyck has outduelled Devan Dubnyk and Pekka Rinne to help Winnipeg reach the Western Conference final. The idea of a bridge contract feels laughable now. Hellebuyck has become the star No. 1 stopper he was always supposed to be. He’s about to get a monstrous long-term extension.
Which makes things all the more messy when trying to figure out the Jets’ other major summer conundrum: Paul Stastny. When the Jets acquired him at the trade deadline for Erik Foley, a conditional 2018 first-rounder and a conditional 2020 first-rounder, pundits widely applauded Cheveldayoff for finally getting aggressive, recognizing a contention window and cashing in a minor chip in his deep prospect pool, but the general perception of the deal was “rental.” Even as Stastny struck great chemistry on the Jets’ second line between Nikolaj Ehlers and Patrik Laine: “great rental.” And now, as Stastny continues to be one of Winnipeg’s most important players throughout the post-season: “best rental by any team this season.”
But is there any scenario in which Stastny winds up more than a rental? It’s Rubik’s-cube-level complicated to figure out.
First off, on a personal level, what does Stastny want? When he waived his no-trade clause to go to Winnipeg, it was a big statement, as players typically shy away from the famously cold market in free agency (don’t shoot the messenger here; I was born in Ottawa), which is part of the reason why the Jets do so much of their building from within. We know Stastny likes what he sees in Winnipeg from a hockey perspective. We know he’s been a fantastic fit for this team, playing in all situations and usurping Bryan Little for the No. 2 center job. It certainly seems like Stastny’s having a great time meshing with his new teammates. But he’s a married St. Louis native with two young kids. It’s hardly inconceivable he’d want to re-sign with the Blues this summer. If the Jets end up winning the Stanley Cup and Stastny crosses the No. 1 item off his bucket list, might he be even more likely to return home?
More importantly, if Cheveldayoff decides he wants Stastny back, can Winnipeg even afford it? The 2018 UFA class is top heavy and only really bountiful for teams seeking wingers. At center, John Tavares is obviously the premium catch – the most important UFA of all-time if he makes it to market July 1 – but the drop-off after that is steep. So steep that Stastny is the clear-cut No. 2 option at center, especially given Joe Thornton’s age and health woes over the past two seasons. Stastny is in a tier of his own. He didn’t perform well enough to justify his $7-million AAV over the course of his four-year deal with the Blues, but the Jets trade has shown us he can still be an high-end No. 2 pivot in the right situation with the right linemates. Stastny won’t be a $7-million man again but, given the low-supply, high-demand market for centers, he should easily crest the $5-million mark on his next deal.
I was talking to New Jersey Devils GM Ray Shero last week working on a different story for free agency and, as he explained to me, competition really does matter in free agency. If a rival sees how dominant the Jets are and realizes it can keep Stastny away from them for an extra $1 million, decisions like that really do happen.
So considering (a) Stastny will be in high demand, (b) the competition will drive up his price and (c) Winnipeg may have to overpay him to uproot his family long term, it wouldn’t be surprising if a multi-year deal to keep Stastny a Jet carried a $6-million cap hit.
And can Cheveldayoff fit that in given all the other work he has to do? The Jets currently have $54.4 million committed to 14 players for 2018-19. The projected cap for next year sits between $78 million and $82 million, so let’s call it $80 million for the purpose of this exercise. That gives Cheveldayoff $25.6 million to work with.
We know Hellebuyck gets at least $5 million of that. Frederik Andersen signed a five-year, $25-million deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs when he wasn’t even a proven, high-workload No. 1 yet before the 2016-17 season. Given Hellebuyck is younger and has superior accolades already, that contract has to be his absolute floor, no? Top shutdown pair Jacob Trouba and Josh Morrissey also need extensions as RFAs. Assuming Trouba’s itch to leave town is long gone, he’s done enough to earn a long-term pact and join the likes of Morgan Rielly, Colton Parayko and Seth Jones in the $5-million-plus range. Morrissey made tremendous strides this season and looks like a big part of Winnipeg’s long-term plan, but his sample size is small enough that he could land in bridge territory – unless the Jets decide to project him out and try and lock him up long-term for cheap, like Nashville did with Roman Josi and Dallas did with John Klingberg. Still, at the very least, Trouba and Morrissey should chew up $8 million of cap space next year. That’s a conservative estimate.
Brandon Tanev, Joel Armia, Adam Lowry? All RFAs, and each has made useful contributions in the bottom-six forward group, with Tanev in particular showing he’s more than just a plugger in these playoffs. If we project bridge deals for each, they’d still likely average a $2-million AAV between them. So call it $6 million.
So, to me, in the best-case, cheapest scenario, Hellebuyck, Trouba, Morrissey, Tanev, Armia and Lowry still cost close to $20 million in cap space, with Joe Morrow, Marko Dano and Tucker Poolman also needing new deals as RFAs. So only if every deal lands on the conservative side would there be cap space for Stastny. The money just isn’t there unless Cheveldayoff gets ridiculously creative and talks everyone into bridge deals for the sake of trying to win in the short term. Hey, it worked with Nikita Kucherov in Tampa.
Realistically, though, the only way Stastny ends up back in a Jets sweater is if Cheveldayoff trades Little, which isn’t going to happen considering Little just signed a six-year extension that kicks in next season with a $5.29-million cap hit. If Stastny was around last September, maybe Cheveldayoff would’ve thought twice about extending Little. He’s still a crucial piece of this team, but he’s just not quite Stastny right now. Mathieu Perreault’s modified no-trade clause isn’t necessarily a problem if he wants to have a bigger role somewhere else (plus he can only block a trade to five teams), and he’s making too much money for someone currently toiling on the Jets’ fourth line, but that also makes his $4.13-million cap hit a challenge to move.
Barring a shocking stroke of salary-cap genius, it’s thus difficult to see Stastny returning. He and the Jets must make the most of this playoff run.