Despite all the optimism in Winnipeg as the Jets prepared for opening night, there was cause for at least some concern about the future. Not when it came to the on-ice product, mind you, but with regard to the team’s salary structure. One can understand why.
With contracts for Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and now Jack Eichel drastically changing the parameters when it comes to a player’s second contract, it looked as though Winnipeg’s youth movement could prove incredibly costly rendering it remarkably difficult to keep intact. Nine players were set for restricted free agency next season, many of whom were roster regulars for the duration of 2016-17 and some who were legitimate top-unit talents in Winnipeg. Yet, to suggest the Jets would find themselves in some sort of financial peril in the next few seasons would be to overlook the fact that GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has been nothing but brilliant when it comes to locking up his homegrown talent.
Case in point? On Wednesday, mere hours before the Jets kick off their campaign against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg locked up RFA-to-be Nikolaj Ehlers to a seven-year, $42-million contract. To call that anything other than a resounding win for the Jets — and their salary cap situation — would be downright foolish.
Over the past two seasons, and especially during the 2016-17 campaign, Ehlers has proven himself to be a ready-made NHL scorer and his untapped potential is enough for Jets fans to salivate over. As a rookie, he posted 15 goals and 38 points, but he blew away all expectations in 2016-17, upping his goal total to 25 and producing 64 points while suiting up in all 82 games for the Jets. He was a second-line winger, a power play producer and his combination of speed and skill made him a threat every time he touched the ice. The expectations for Ehlers this season are more of the same and it is no doubt safe to suggest that he’s in for a campaign that sees him elevate his totals even further.
That alone makes the fact that Ehlers is now signed to a long-term deal that pays him $6 million annually incredible. It gets even more impressive when you consider some comparable contracts.
This summer, Jonathan Drouin, Bo Horvat and David Pastrnak all signed deals that carried a cap hit somewhere in the $5.5-million to $6.7-million range, and Ehlers was impressively productive when compared to those players. In terms of 5-on-5 production, Ehlers had the highest points per 60 minutes (2.29), the second-best primary points per 60 minutes (1.72) behind only Pastrnak (1.74) and scored more total points at five-a-side than the three others, putting up 44 for the Jets last season.
In fact, and maybe even more notably, Ehlers was actually a more impactful 5-on-5 player than Draisaitl, who scored an eight-year, $68-million deal from the Edmonton Oilers this summer. While Draisaitl produced a healthy 2.05 points per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, it was less than Ehlers’ mark. Draisaitl’s mark of 1.49 primary points per 60 also paled in comparison to Ehlers' impressive production, as noted above. The kicker there, too, is that while Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine are no slouches, Ehlers wasn’t playing alongside McDavid all season. Draisaitl, for the most part, was.
That said, if we’re going to dive into numbers, it’s worth noting that Ehlers was more middle of the pack when it came to all-situations totals. Among the aforementioned group of five, Ehlers finished third in points, points per 60 and primary points per 60, while Pastrnak and Draisaitl were 1-2 in each respective category. Even still, that Ehlers is earning a salary closer to that of Drouin and Horvat than he is either Pastrnak or Draisaitl is almost incredible.
That brings us back to Cheveldayoff, who has pulled off something of a masterstroke. It’s not the first time he’s done this, either, and you need look no further than the eight-year, $49-million deal Scheifele was awarded ahead of the 2016-17 season. Over the back half of the 2015-16 season, leading into restricted free agency, Scheifele was a better than point-per-game player, a bona fide star down the middle for the Jets, yet he walked away with a long-term extension that paid him $6.125 million per season. Already, Scheifele has made his deal look like a steal — and Cheveldayoff like a genius — by posting 32 goals and 82 points in 79 games for Winnipeg last season.
And while some wondered aloud why Cheveldayoff, who hasn’t been able to build a team capable of winning one playoff game since the Jets arrived in Manitoba, was handed an extension earlier this off-season, it’s very evident it’s because of signings like those of Scheifele and Ehlers. Cheveldayoff has shown an ability to sign young talent to good value contracts, ones that will allow a team with high hopes to grow together and stay together for years into the future.
So, while the Jets are staring down a summer in which Jacob Trouba, Josh Morrissey, Adam Lowry, Joel Armia, Marko Dano, Nic Petan and Brandon Tanev, and several others are due new deals, there may be no reason for concern at all. Sure, signing Ehlers is only one part of a larger puzzle, one that’s going to include a new deal for Laine in the near future, but Cheveldayoff has shown that he’s the right man for the job when it comes to keeping the band together in Winnipeg and doing so at a price that works for the Jets.
(All advanced statistics via Corsica)
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