Winnipeg wasn’t able to keep Paul Stastny in town, and while disappointing, Thursday’s announcement that five restricted free agents have filed for arbitration and the Jets’ long-term financial outlook makes it clear why letting the veteran center leave may have been for the best.
As the Jets wrapped up their season with end-of-year press conferences, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff commented on how the summers in Winnipeg have become “very real.” That is to say that while other organizations are able to go out their business without cap concerns or the need for a strict short- and long-term financial plan — a situation the Jets themselves were in not too long ago — Cheveldayoff and Co. need to be incredibly wary of where every dollar is being allocated and ensure they’re making every single cent count.
Thus, when the NHLPA announced the full arbitration list Thursday, a docket which increased by nearly 50 percent from last season to include 44 players, it came as no surprise to see Jets restricted free agents make up more than 10 percent of the filings. All told, five players filed: Connor Hellebuyck, Jacob Trouba, Adam Lowry, Brandon Tanev and Marko Dano. But Cheveldayoff has long been aware that Winnipeg was in for a busy summer as it pertains to arbitration.
“We have a lot of players that have contracts coming up that are (arbitration) eligible, so there’s a process that’s going to be in place there,” Cheveldayoff said at the post-playoff press conference. “Don’t write articles that the sky is falling if we have fix or six guys filing for arbitration.”
And this is not that because the sky is decidedly not falling. In fact, with nearly $27 million in cap space, the Jets should be able to power through these arbitration hearings without much issue, though it is going to eat up a considerable amount of money. Hellebuyck, fresh off of a trip to Vegas as the runner-up for the Vezina Trophy, and Trouba, a top-four defender who will command a hefty raise, are the two most important contracts. In both instances, a long-term, high-paying deal seems the most likely solution. Lowry and Tanev, two bottom-six skaters who were lineup throughout the past season and made an impact in the post-season, seem likely to fall in the short-term range with total contract values in the low millions. That leaves Dano, who spent the majority of the past season as a healthy scratch. Chances are his deal is in the $1-million range, give or take a hundred thousand on either side.
But the reality is the Jets have likely only avoided such a sky-falling situation because of their one notable whiff in free agency. When Winnipeg moved out Steve Mason, Joel Armia and two draft picks in a salary-dumping deal with the Montreal Canadiens, the belief was it was done in part to bring Paul Stastny back into the fold, seen as a particularly worthwhile move given his post-trade deadline performance after being acquired as a rental. But when the dust settled on July 1, Stastny departed the Jets and joined the Vegas Golden Knights, the same Golden Knights that eliminated Winnipeg in the Western Conference final, on a three-year pact with a $6.5-million AAV. In the immediate aftermath, some considered the Jets’ decision to let Stastny walk over what may have been as little as half a million to a million annually foolish. But given the money Winnipeg is about to shell out, it may have been wise for the Jets to admit the contract was slightly too rich for their blood, especially when it comes to keeping this group together. Cheveldayoff pointed that out well before Stastny bolted, too.
“We only have a set number of dollars to work with, and whatever the cap is going to be, that’s the set number of dollars that you have to try to figure out,” Cheveldayoff said at the end of the campaign. “We will have a couple of players with performance bonuses next year that we’re going to have to take into consideration. We were fortunate this year that we were able to get to the point that we did without having to spend any cap dollars of next year, because it was important for us, while we wanted to give ourselves the best opportunity to win this year, you don’t want it to come at the expense of having to sacrifice things when you know that there’s going to be some contract questions moving forward.”
Those questions will get some answers this summer, too. As noted, Hellebuyck and Trouba are due and likely to earn big-money deals ahead of next season. If we conservatively estimate both players at a $6.5 million AAV, Winnipeg then sees its cap space dwindle to roughly $14 million. If Lowry and Tanev then combine for, say, $3.5 million total, the Jets are then left with little more than $10 million. Dano will eat another million, as well, bringing Winnipeg down to $9 million in cap space with contracts not yet in place remaining RFAs Josh Morrissey or Tucker Poolman. And depending on whether or not Morrissey receives a bridge deal, that cap space could be halved or trimmed even further.
So, let’s again make an estimation here and say, with contract considerations all cleared up, the Jets end this summer and head into next season with $4.5 million in cap space. That’s assuming largely the same roster with every current on-roster RFA inked to a new deal. The money remaining gives Winnipeg wiggle room for the coming campaign, to be sure. But come next summer, the Jets have three major concerns and arguably one of the toughest financial situations to manage of any club.
First, captain Blake Wheeler, who garnered some Hart Trophy consideration this past season and has been one of the league’s top producers over the past few campaigns, will be set to become an unrestricted free agent next July. Meanwhile, Patrik Laine will be due a new contract as an RFA, as will Kyle Connor, who scored 31 goals this past season as a freshman and finished fourth in Calder Trophy voting. Those are three significant contracts to which the Jets will need to attend, and the combined sum of the deals could conceivably inch close to $20 million if, say, Wheeler earns $7 million annually, Laine gets $7.5 million and Connor earns $5.5 million.
Now, there are ways for Winnipeg to clear cap space and they have an additional $17 million or so set to come off the books in 2019-20, including the contracts of UFAs-to-be Wheeler (currently $5.6 million), Tyler Myers ($5.5 million) and Ben Chiarot ($1.4 million). But the waters would be that much more difficult to navigate were Stastny also on the books at $6.5 million for the next three years. Sure, Bryan Little or Mathieu Perreault could have been moved along to clear additional space, but the extra million-plus dedicated to Stastny would still act as a hurdle for the Jets management team in keeping their young core together. Few GMs would willingly take on those deals to help out a top-tier team when they could also land a young asset in the exchange.
And while the Stastny loss may seem significant in the short term, consider that before he was acquired, Winnipeg was still in the running for top spot in the Central Division and the Presidents’ Trophy. His addition most certainly pushed a good team onto the cusp of greatness, but the current roster still stands to be a top team in the Western Conference. Additionally, Winnipeg has considerable talent in the pipeline. Jack Roslovic still projects to be a top-six center, Brendan Lemieux will be willing a spot in short order, Kristian Vesalainen has the tools to be an impact player and there’s still some who believe 2013 second-rounder Nic Petan’s potential to be untapped. And using that talent to supplement an already talented roster is the best way for Winnipeg to keep their window open as long as possible, even if it had to come at the expense of Stastny.
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