(The Winnipeg Jets UFA/RFAs)
The playoffs are over for the Winnipeg Jets. While the remaining teams in the 2015 Playoffs continue to march on GM Kevin Cheveldayoff and the coaching staff led by Paul Maurice will sit down and look over the list of Winnipeg Jets Unrestricted and Restricted free agents. There is a lot to consider, the salary cap for next season is not expected to go up, in fact, there is speculation that the salary cap could even go down. The salary cap is only a minor issue for the Jets, who are not (and won't ever be) a big money team pushing the top of the cap. The biggest questions when Chevy and PoMo sit down is how they see these free agents fit with the on-ice systems developed by Maurice and the budgetary system developed by Management/Ownership.
Take a look at the above list. Who fits where? The NHL is tough league to crack, not all these players will be with the Winnipeg Jets let alone in the NHL. Last season Ben Chiarot made the Jets through injuries to other players, he made the most of his chances and now most people believe him to be a solid NHL D man. In contrast players like Paul Postma and Keaton Ellerby have never been able to fully crack an NHL lineup. Will those 2 players be content in their current roles of AHL (occasional NHL) defencemen? Or will they seek employment across the Atlantic in the KHL?
Opinions about the last lineup that was on the ice for Game 4 against the Ducks was that it was probably the best we've seen from the Jets since moving north from Atlanta. However, to continue with the philosophy of draft and develop room has to be made for the younger players to try and crack the lineup. If all the spots with the NHL club are filled up with veterans on one-way contracts there is not a lot of room for advancement. One method of freeing up space on the NHL lineup card is not to sign UFAs. Tough choices indeed.
There are definitely some openings on the forward lines for the Jets going into next season. Taking out free agents Stafford, Frolik, Tlusty, Stempniak, Halischuk, and Galiardi (UFAs) in addition to Peluso (RFA) there are 5 openings from the last lineup we saw from the last game played. Cheveldayoff and the Jets have a draft and develop system, filling those empty slots with veteran players does not leave a lot for younger players like Andrew Copp and the Danish Dash Nik Ehlers. Not to mention bubble players like Eric O'Dell and Patrice Cormier. Logic would tell us that Cormier is on his last chance with the organization, he has been given a couple of cups of coffee with the Jets over the last few seasons but has never found a full-time spot under either Claude Noel or Paul Maurice. Eric O'Dell on the other hand is an AHL all-star who appears to be on the cusp of being an NHL regular but he has been stuck in the depth chart under veteran Jim Slater. Andrew Copp got some regular season ice-time at the end of the year and did not seem too out of place, he also drew praise from Maurice. O'Dell is a Restricted Free Agent; however, it is unlikely that he walks and should be a strong candidate for 4th line duties in the 2015-2016 season.
Who Stays and Who Goes?
For most of the season the general consensus was that Michael Frolik should be the priority signing for Cheveldayoff. The aftermath of the Evander Kane situation saw the addition of Drew Stafford. Stafford quickly bought into the system and the identity of the Jets. He scored goals when needed, was responsible defensively. It is very doubtful that the Jets re-sign both Frolik and Stafford. Both players are due for a raise in salary and the budget conscious Jets cannot pay for both as well as fill in the other openings. Frolik plays an all-round good game, his offensive numbers are not as good as Stafford, but his defense is probably a little better. Stafford would be my choice to re-sign before the July 1st deadline.
Tough choices face the Jets General Manager, all the Free Agent forwards for the Jets were good soldiers. They did their jobs, they were good team players, and in Jim Slater's case; an exceptional community ambassador. Slater's 'Take a Jet to Work' segments showed his commitment to the city of Winnipeg and he was respected for it. That being said, it is doubtful that Slater will be offered a new contract with Winnipeg.
In my opinion I would let Frolik, Tlusty, Slater, and Galiardi walk this season. Tough business decisions indeed. If it were my money I would go try and re-sign Stafford, Stempniak, Halischuk, and O'Dell. With the exception of Stafford, who will most likely get in the 4.5 million per year range, the other 3 could all be had at reasonable prices (going off of their 2014/15 salaries). This would still leave room for players such as Ehlers and Copp to crack the line-up next season.
Tradebait Alert! Alex Burmistrov is still listed as a member of the Jets as an RFA. Playing in Russia in the KHL he has put up 'okay' numbers there. The emergence of players such as Adam Lowry and Mark Scheifele have relieved any pressure or leverage Burmistrov had over the Jets. In fact, unless Alex Burmistrov's career with the Jets is more than likely done. Trade him for what you can get Chevy.
There are 7 blue-liners signed through next season. That does not leave a ton room for any new faces on the back end. Ben Chiarot made a case for himself to be invited back as a regular NHL d-man next season as well. The Jets will have to re-sign him first before anything. Perennial bubble players Paul Postma and Keaton Ellerby will be in tough to find regular time in the NHL with the Jets. Also on the outside looking in is playoff hero Adam (Dangles) Pardy.
There is another way to make room on the blue-line is via the trade route. Signed players next year include the oft-injured Grant Clitsome and Toby Enstrom. Enstrom was exposed quite a few times during the playoff series against the Anaheim Ducks. Trading either, or both, would free up slots for new/younger players and salary to sign free agents.
This year saw a reliable duo in the crease for the Winnipeg Jets. Mike Hutchinson and Ondrej Pavelec did a better job this year, helping propel the Jets into the Playoffs for the first time since coming to Winnipeg. Both are signed for next year. Veteran Peter Budaj will more than likely not be signed going forward, leaving AHL rookie Connor Hellebuyck to pick up where he left off. Fresh off completing his WHL career Eric Comrie will be looking to push for time in the AHL or to be the go-to guy in the ECHL. Journeyman goalie Juho Olkinuora (RFA) will most likely be the AHL backup. In-house development is big on the Jets list so look for Hellebuyck to anchor the AHL team and Comrie to take the reigns in the ECHL.
Things are looking good for the Winnipeg Jets. Next year the AHL and NHL will be sharing the MTS. This will allow for the Jets to keep an eye on things without having to fly out anywhere. There is a healthy stock of draft picks in the system and GM Cheveldayoff will be looking to add more this June when the NHL Draft takes place. New players will push for time, which will hopefully drive the veterans to play harder and default making the Winnipeg Jets that much better for years to come.
Feel free to add your two cents. What would you do if you were handed the keys to the Jets Kingdom?