Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has taken care of a lot of off-season business over the past month.
After five restricted free agents filed for arbitration, Cheveldayoff proceeded to cross each off of his summer to-do list one-by-one. First came Connor Hellebuyck, followed by Adam Lowry and Brandon Tanev, and after a hearing was required to hammer out a deal with Jacob Trouba, the Jets went ahead and insured the same wouldn’t be necessary for Marko Dano. Over the same span, Cheveldayoff has also locked in blueliner Tucker Poolman, who made the jump from the NCAA to become an NHL part-timer last season, and re-signed still-promising prospect Nic Petan. And all of this came on the heels of the Jets GM plugging a few depth holes earlier in the summer.
But as the days dwindle before September’s training camp, Cheveldayoff still has one important piece of business that needs completing: getting a deal in place for RFA defenseman Josh Morrissey.
Still unsigned months into the summer, Morrissey, 23, is the lone outstanding piece from the Jets’ Western Conference finalist group. Unlike Trouba, Hellebuyck or even Poolman, who had but waived his right to arbitration, there isn’t necessarily any impetus for Morrissey’s contract negotiations to be propelled along. Rather, Morrissey is an RFA under full team control whose bargaining power is limited at best. All he has on his side is the threat of a potential holdout, the ability to skip out on training camp as an unsigned RFA as he awaits what he feels is a fair price for his services.
The Jets, on the other hand, have options when it comes to signing Morrissey. At his age, with years remaining until he can hit the open market, one would see Winnipeg work out a two- or three-year bridge deal with the blueliner that would limit his cap hit and see Morrissey remain an RFA at the culmination of the pact. It would, however, also give Morrissey arbitration rights and the chance at a much greater rate of pay not too far down the road. But the other option — and quite possibly the best course of action — would see Morrissey inked to a long-term contract, particularly as it could offer the Jets a certain level of cost effectiveness that wouldn’t be there were they forced to re-up the blueliner in two or three years’ time when his resume is much deeper and potentially far more impressive.
While he may not be a standout outside of Winnipeg, Morrissey has been an incredibly quick study on the Jets’ blueline and a rearguard who seems worthy of the long-term pact treatment. Following one season with the AHL’s Manitoba Moose, injuries vaulted Morrissey into a top-four role on the Winnipeg blueline as a second-year pro and he responded remarkably well. Mentored by Dustin Byfuglien, Morrissey was steady and effective while producing six goals and 20 points. He only improved this past season, too, partnering with Trouba throughout the campaign and improving on early career-bests with a seven-goal, 26-point performance while skating 20:27 per outing.
It may not be blow-your-hair-back levels of production, sure, but Morrissey appears to be a blueliner cut from the same cloth as other young standouts such as Jaccob Slavin, Colton Parayko and even partner Trouba. In fact, according to Corsica’s wins above replacement model, Morrissey ranked 30th among the 160 1,000-minute defensemen in the NHL last season in overall WAR across the regular season and playoffs. That was better than any other Jets rearguard and in the same company as notables such as Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Parayko. Across his two full campaigns, Morrissey remains in almost the exact same company, too.
Considering the calibre of player with which Morrissey can be at least somewhat associated, a long-term deal makes all the more sense. If he were to sign a six-year deal that carried a cap hit in the $5.5-million to $6-million range, it would be exactly the type of contract that would be considered a steal in as little as two to three seasons’ time. With Trouba’s negotiations becoming rocky again this past summer, too, locking Morrissey in would at least ensure one of the two young, top-tier blueliners on Winnipeg’s roster is signed well into the future. And while there may be some questions about what an additional $6-million cap hit would do to the financial future of the Jets, the outlook actually isn’t all that worrisome.
If we suggest the cap will rise about half of what it did this past season ahead of the coming campaign, which is to say roughly $2 million, Winnipeg would be projected to enter next off-season with upwards of $37 million in spending room. Morrissey at $6 million would leave the Jets with north of $30 million to spend, and that would be more than enough to tie down pending RFAs Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor, as well as re-sign unrestricted free agent-to-be Blake Wheeler. The only real hurdle would come in deciding how to fill out the bottom half of the blueline — the Jets will be staring down deals for Trouba, Tyler Myers, Ben Chiarot and Joe Morrow — but Poolman’s bargain three-year deal as well as the presence of prospects Sami Niku, Dylan Samberg and Logan Stanley offer the promise of cap friendly reinforcements on the way.
None of this is to say that there aren’t positives to a short-term bridge deal. Saving money against the cap this season and next can pay dividends for Winnipeg as they seek to capitalize on a wide-open championship window. But if the Jets want to ensure that Morrissey’s eventual contract doesn’t break the bank when he puts forth another pair of high quality seasons on the blueline of a true-blue Western Conference contender, it sure seems as though the right move for a more cost-effective future would be paying the blueliner now and reaping the rewards of some additional financial flexibility later.
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