The Winnipeg Jets’ playoff hopes ended last Thursday with a 4-2 loss to the Montreal Canadiens.
Though the Jets ninth-overall finish in the Eastern Conference was an improvement over last season’s 11th-overall performance, it also marked the sixth consecutive season (dating back to when they were the Atlanta Thrashers) they’ve failed to make the playoffs.
The Jets have only been in Winnipeg two seasons, and while the city’s denizens remain thrilled to have an NHL franchise again, there are signs of unhappiness – especially in the local media – over the club’s inability to clinch a post-season berth.
Gary Lawless of The Winnipeg Free Press singled out defenseman Dustin Byfuglien’s inconsistency as a “major part of the formula” for the club’s inability to produce, believing the big blueliner “stands in the way of progress.”
Lawless believes if Byfuglien is unable or unwilling to elevate his play, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff should trade him now while there’s still value.
Byfuglien’s offensive production has been streaky while his defensive game still needs work. Those issues would be cause for concern for most 28-year-old blueliners, but this season was only Byfuglien’s third as a full-time NHL defenseman. He could still benefit from a little more time at that position.
Shopping Byfuglien would certainly be a bold move for Cheveldayoff, who’s taken a conservative approach to building the Jets roster. Despite the three years (at a cap hit of $5.2 million) remaining on his contract and concerns over his off-season conditioning, the 6-foot-5, 265-pound Byfuglien could fetch a good return on the trade market.
With Tobias Enstrom and the promising Zach Bogosian on the blueline, the Jets could afford to shop Byfuglien for a scoring forward, but that duo’s recent injury history makes moving Byfuglien risky.
Byfuglien’s inconsistency wasn’t the Jets’ only problem. As Lawless’ colleague Ed Tait observed, their special teams, overall team defense and lack of scoring depth were ongoing issues.
In addition to addressing those needs, Cheveldayoff must re-sign restricted free agents like Bogosian, Blake Wheeler, Bryan Little and Alexander Burmistov, plus decide which – if any – of his nine unrestricted free agents to bring back next season.
The Jets currently have $35.7 million invested in 11 players, leaving roughly $29 million in cap space next season. They haven’t been a cap team in recent years, but re-signing key players and addressing their roster shortcomings could push them close to next season’s $64.3-million ceiling.
Re-signing Bogosian, Wheeler and Little are the obvious priorities. The Winnipeg Sun’s Ken Wiebe considers Bogosian a future Norris Trophy candidate, calling on Cheveldayoff to ink the 22-year-old to a maximum-length eight-year contract worth “in the neighbourhood” of $48-$50 million.
Bogosian – coming off a two-year, $5-million contract – holds considerable promise, but his recent injury history is a concern and he’s yet to post numbers justifying $6.3 million per season. Five years and $25 million is more reasonable.
With 41 points in 48 games, Wheeler came into his own this season as a reliable scoring winger and should double his current average annual salary of $2.6 million. Little is a reliable playmaking center in line for a raise over the $3 million he earned this season.
Burmistrov struggled to establish himself with the Jets but dismissed speculation he might bolt this summer for the Kontinental League. The 21-year-old is coming off his entry-level contract (with a base salary of $900,000 per season) and would be an affordable re-signing.
Leading up to this year’s trade deadline, however, Burmistrov was mentioned in trade rumors and could become a trade chip for a second-line scorer or an experienced checking-line center.
Of their UFAs, winger Antti Miettinen doubts he’ll be re-signed. Forwards Nik Antropov and Kyle Wellwood failed to meet expectations and aren’t expected back.
Ron Hainsey, Grant Clitsome, Mike Santorelli and Al Montoya are their other unrestricted free agents of note. Of this group, Hainsey’s experience as a defensive blueliner makes him worth retaining, but for less than the $4.5 million per season he averaged on his present contract.
Two years after moving to Winnipeg, the Jets remain a team in transition, carrying some good young talent but lacking skilled depth throughout the lineup. Jets fans remain patient, but their expectations are growing, which could make this summer a busy one for management.
Rumor Roundup appears weekdays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and The Guardian (P.E.I.).