A decade ago, an almost 22-year-old Blake Wheeler received a gold-plated invitation to play in Phoenix for Wayne Gretzky and he turned it down. This summer, he was one year away from unrestricted free agency coming off the best season of his career and he went all-in with the Winnipeg Jets on a five-year contract extension.
Look at that and tell me the irony is not just a little bit delicious. In 2004, Wheeler was drafted fifth overall out of high school in Minnesota by the Phoenix Coyotes, eight years after the organization left Winnipeg for the desert. For the next four years, Wheeler could have signed a contract with the Coyotes and enjoyed the luxury of coming to the rink in shorts and flip-flops before hitting the golf course after practice and doing it all with relative anonymity. Instead, he waited four years – one season in the USHL and three at the University of Minnesota – before becoming a UFA and signing with the Boston Bruins.
Having just celebrated his 32nd birthday, Wheeler is now at home in Winnipeg in a big way. He’s the captain of the team and one of the faces of the franchise. And after his contract expires after the 2018-19 season, he’ll be there for another five years at $8.25 million a year on a contract that will take him well past his 37th birthday. He bleeds Jet blue and, if all goes according to plan and the Jets win the Stanley Cup the way The Hockey News has predicted they will this season, he’ll become the first Jets’ captain since Lars-Erik Sjoberg to captain a Jets team to a championship. (For all you kids out there, Sjoberg wore the ‘C’ for the Jets when they won the last-ever Avco Cup as World Hockey Association champs in 1978-79.)
The contract was one that was lauded as a win for both the organization and the player, even if that cap hit might look a little ugly in the last years of the deal. But if the Jets win a Cup or two along the way, they’ll be more than thrilled to have it on the books. The important thing is the Jets didn’t wildly overpay in either money or term.
So now is a pretty good time to permanently strike from the record the notion that players don’t want to play in Winnipeg. Except for Jacob Trouba, of course, who seems to be greasing the skids for an exit on the first flight from Manitoba after he becomes an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2020. But that’s almost two years from now and a lot of things can change.
The evidence to put to bed the Anywhere-but-Winnipeg notion is piling up like the snow from a mid-January blizzard. It was assumed that Dustin Byfuglien would skate out of town when he became a UFA in the summer of 2016, that was until he signed a five-year deal worth $38 million in February without even going near the free agent waters. That summer, coming out of his entry-level contract, Mark Scheifele signed for eight years and $49 million on a deal that will eat up three years of unrestricted free agency. Facing the same situation last summer, Nikolaj Ehlers re-upped for seven years and almost a full year before becoming a UFA, Bryan Little accepted a five-year deal. Coming off his breakout season, goalie Connor Hellebuyck signed a six-year contract that covers four years of UFA status.
And here’s the kicker. Actually there are two of them. The first is, with the exception of Hellebuyck’s contract, every one of those deals has a modified no-trade clause. Out of Winnipeg. The second is that none of those contracts are for what anyone would term to be crazy money. So the Jets didn’t have to overpay to keep their players. In fact, if Scheifele continues to be the player he has been for the Jets the past couple of seasons, that $6.125 million cap hit through 2023-24 is going to be viewed as one of the most team-friendly in the league.
Throw in the fact that Paul Stastny waived his full no-trade clause to be dealt to the Jets from the St. Louis Blues at the trade deadline and you have a preferred destination for players who want to be part of a winning culture. And now that they have Wi-Fi in Winnipeg, things are only going to get better.
Next on the list of accomplishments for the Jets is landing a big fish in free agency from another team. But they haven’t had to do that so far because they’ve done such a good job of building their team and keeping their players that they haven’t had to look for much help from the outside. GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has built a team where good players come and want to stay because they’re treated so well and the team has a future as a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
And that’s really all players want. As Jets coach Paul Maurice said last season, every day in the NHL is a good day. Good organizations that are well run and win are where players want to play. And as long as the Jets continue to be that, they’ll also continue to keep their star players around.