The Winnipeg Jets were approaching Sunday’s free agency with one apparent goal in mind: re-signing trade deadline acquisition Paul Stastny. And Saturday, with little more than 24 hours to go before signing season officially opens, the Jets cleared cap space in an effort to keep the veteran center in Manitoba’s capital.
In what was nothing more than a salary-dumping deal for the Jets, Winnipeg sent goaltender Steve Mason, winger Joel Armia, a 2019 fourth-round pick and a 2020 seventh-round selection to the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for Simon Bourque. The deal clears $4.1 million in cap space for the coming campaign, giving Winnipeg roughly $28.2 million in spending room as July 1 fast approaches. As for the Canadiens, they flex some financial muscle — using cap space as an asset to acquire two players and two picks — without having to give up, well, anything, really.
That Mason has been moved along by the Jets comes as little surprise given their efforts to clear cap space. The 30-year-old was brought in by Winnipeg on the opening day of free agency last season, inked to a two-year, $8.2-million contract that GM Kevin Cheveldayoff hoped would solidify his team’s crease after goaltending woes effectively sank the Jets’ season the year prior. Mason’s acquisition did little to actually provide Winnipeg with additional strength in the crease, however, for two reasons.
First, Mason missed the majority of the season due to injury, sidelined a total of 34 games as he battled through both a concussion and a knee ailment. Maybe more significantly, though, Mason was simply outplayed and lost his opportunity to provide Winnipeg any top-tier goaltending when he was healthy. Not only did third-year NHLer Connor Hellebuyck play his way to franchise-best marks — not to mention setting the win record for American-born goaltenders — he earned himself a nod as a Vezina Trophy finalist and finished second in voting. And Hellebuyck was able to take the crease from Mason with relative ease given he had posted a mediocre-at-best 2-4-1 record, .904 save percentage and 3.45 goals-against average in his first eight appearances as a Jet before being sidelined with the aforementioned concussion.
In all likelihood, Mason’s off-season movement doesn’t end with Montreal, however. Already with $10.5-million committed to starting netminder Carey Price and Antti Niemi inked to a one-year, $950,000 contract, the Canadiens are set in goal and will look to move on from Mason. There are potential suitors for the netminder, too. The Carolina Hurricanes, New York Islanders and Buffalo Sabres are among those who could use an upgrade or split-starter between the pipes. But as far as Winnipeg is concerned, moving Mason again is Montreal’s problem now, even if ensuring that was the case required the Cheveldayoff sweetening the pot, which is where Armia and the two draft choices come in.
Armia, 25, was originally acquired as part of the Jets’ blockbuster Evander Kane trade back in February 2015, and the 2011 first-round pick is coming off of a career year in Winnipeg. Despite missing a bit of time due to injury, Armia finished the past season with 12 goals and 29 points despite playing largely fourth-line minutes. And there’s an honest-to-goodness shot he flourishes in a bigger role with the Canadiens, particularly given his mix of size, puck-handling ability and an underrated release. Adding Armia into the deal actually has its benefits for the Jets, however, as the restricted free agent was likely to earn himself a raise on the $925,000 cap hit he carried last season. And with Winnipeg needing all the cap space it can get, flipping him to Montreal saves Cheveldayoff and Co. some money in the long run while giving the Habs another piece with which to work up front.
If one needed any evidence this was a pure money-freeing deal, though, it comes in the form of the Jets’ return. There’s some potential in Bourque, but the 2015 sixth-round pick and former Rimouski Oceanic captain managed a scant three points in 46 games with the AHL’s Laval Rocket this past season. He’s a project, one Winnipeg will no doubt work on, but his odds of cracking an NHL roster, and particularly that of the Jets, aren’t great at the moment.
The fact of the matter, however, is that the deal itself is not in service of vastly bettering one team or the other. Rather, the Canadiens gave up nothing and used their cap space to get a middle-six winger, while the Jets executed the trade to free up spending room to bring back Stastny.
It’s no wonder the Jets want Stastny back, either, after he scored 10 goals and 28 points across 36 games in Winnipeg across the regular season and playoffs. He was a natural fit between two of the Jets’ star youngsters, Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers, and that’s where’s he projected to slot in if he returns to the Jets next season. And in the event he decides against returning or inks a deal to head elsewhere, all is not lost here for Winnipeg. With key RFAs Hellebuyck, Jacob Trouba, Josh Morrissey, Adam Lowry, Brandon Tanev and Tucker Poolman all needing new contracts ahead of next season, every cent saved in moving Mason and Armia is one that can be put back into the roster, be it short term or long term.
Either way, you can rest assured the money the Jets cleared in Saturday’s transaction will be spent one way or another. All that’s left to see is whether that’s on bringing back deadline-acquisition Stastny or simply toward locking up the young guns who helped make Winnipeg a Stanley Cup contender before his arrival.
UPDATE: Mason's short time in Montreal is ending rather unceremoniously. The Canadiens announced Saturday afternoon that Mason has been placed on unconditional waivers for the purpose of a buyout. Buying out the final year of Mason's contract, which was set to pay him $4.1 million, will cost Montreal and count against the cap to the tune of $1.367 million in each of the next two seasons.
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