Little extension helps Jets take big steps towards winning

The Jets signed Bryan Little to a six-year, $31.75-million extension Friday, proving that they’re dedicated to keeping the pieces in tact to ensure this team can deliver on its promise for future success.

In our Future Watch edition in 2015, we picked the Winnipeg Jets to win the Stanley Cup in 2019, which means they have two years to fulfill their destiny. That means an appearance in the playoffs and at the very least a decent playoff run is mandatory in 2017-18.

So we may have to push that back a tad. But it was what GM Kevin Cheveldayoff said when he talked about the organization’s plethora of young talent that revealed he absolutely gets it in his approach to franchise building. He knows the Jets are never going to be a preferred destination for top free agents, so why waste your resources chasing them? He talked instead of taking the players they draft and creating an environment that will have them wanting to stay. That way if the drafters and developers do their jobs, they shouldn’t feel the need to chase unrestricted free agents.

“We’ve said it since Day 1, once players come here, they’re going to enjoy being here,” Cheveldayoff said. “And we know the kids we draft and the kids we develop, they’re going to know from Day 1 what it’s like to be part of the Jets family and they’re going to embrace that.”

And that was exactly what happened when they signed Bryan Little to a six-year deal worth $5.3 million per year Wednesday. Instead of chasing free agents, the Jets concentrated on keeping their own from becoming them. Getting the jump by one season, the Jets signed an extension that will keep Little with them until he’s 36 years old. They’ve already displayed a willingness to walk the walk by keeping Mark Scheifele and Dustin Byfuglien in the fold with long contract extensions and refused to buckle to Jacob Trouba’s contract demands. This is something the Jets know they must do to have any hope of being seriously competitive.

Did they overpay Little? Not in the short term, but almost certainly in the long term. Do they risk him becoming a seriously declining asset in the final years of the deal? Without a doubt. But as long as this deal doesn’t seriously hamper the Jets’ ability to sign their young players to long-term deals after this season, it shouldn’t pose too much of a problem. The reality is, Cheveldayoff has a crucial summer ahead of him in 2018. Nikolaj Ehlers, Trouba and Josh Morrissey are due to become restricted free agents and Patrik Laine will be entering the final year of his entry-level deal, meaning the Jets will be able to sign him to a long-term extension anytime after July 1, the kind of extension Cheveldayoff was talking about where a player sees what’s around him, likes it and decides to stay for the long-term.

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Showing those young players that you’re intent on keeping your good players is an excellent place to start. Since coming to Winnipeg, Little has proved to be a pretty consistent 20-goal scorer who can put up numbers somewhere in the 50-point range. He had 21 goals and 47 points last season despite playing through much of the campaign with a knee injury that occurred in the first period of the first game in 2016-17. Had Little managed to match that production going into unrestricted free agency, there would have been no shortage of teams after him, willing to overpay him and give him a longer term the same way the Jets did. So really, if they look at him through that prism after this season, they’ll likely be happy with the deal.

Keeping a player of that ilk around will show some of those young players that the organization is serious about building a contending team and it might nudge them into making a long-term commitment. So if the Jets have to give a deal like the one they gave to Little to get their best young players under contract long-term, that’s probably a choice they’re willing to make.

Now it’s time for the Jets to prove they’re something more than a collection of promise. If this franchise is going to begin the process of becoming a team that is truly to be reckoned with in the Western Conference, the time to start showing it is now. And with a player such as Bryan Little happy and secure, that should help the process of fostering a winning environment.