As crucial as it was to make the playoffs for the first time since returning to Winnipeg, the 2015-16 season is even bigger for the Jets.
After years of frustration, management’s slow-and-steady approach showed serious returns, but the franchise is heading toward multiple forks in the road.
Let’s consider some of the big factors ahead.
Contract years for key players – Hockey fans can debate whether Dustin Byfuglien’s the biggest name on the Jets or not, but he’s the earth-shaking wild card. Andrew Ladd is the gritty, stable winger who might just be the polar opposite. They’ve been immensely important players in Winnipeg, but what does the future hold?
Aging core – It’s easy to look at 21-year-old Jacob Trouba and 22-year-old Mark Scheifele and picture a bright future, especially with a generally well-regarded farm system.
For all the future talk, it’s a make-or-break season for the current crop of key players. Byfuglien is 30, Ladd is 29, Blake Wheeler is 28 and Bryan Little is 27.
Those core players aren’t ancient, but management probably needs to see them win some playoff games (or even series) to justify keeping the band together.
Goalie question – To especially weary Winnipegers, Ondrej Pavelec’s contract probably feels endless, and it does still have two years remaining. Management is sticking with Pavelec and Michael Hutchinson, which is a short-term gamble. Are they any closer to making a decision that reaches a little further?
The Jets have some big questions to answer next season, yet let’s not forget: Winnipeg hasn’t been home to an NHL team with this sort of potential for a long, long time.
Despite his $5.2 million cap hit, Dustin Byfuglien heads into this season as the highest paid member of the Winnipeg Jets taking home $6 million in salary and could hit the open market next July.
According to Ken Wiebe of the Winnipeg Sun, Byfuglien is looking for a long-term deal of more than $7 million per season as an unrestricted free agent.
If the 30-year-old is going to command those kinds of numbers from the Jets, or anyone else for that matter, he’ll need to prove he’s worth it.
Winnipeg was shorthanded a league-leading 308 times last season and Byfuglien was the face of the problem leading the way with 124 penalty minutes – good for seventh most in the entire league. It’s not exactly a category you want one of your leaders, and highest paid players, leading.
As the Jets were battling for a playoff spot in April, Byfuglien was suspended four games for his cross check on Rangers’ forward J.T. Miller.
His questionable play continued in the playoffs when he hit Corey Perry from behind following a goal.
Byfuglien certainly gives Paul Maurice options as he’s capable of playing both on defense and up front, but has been a liability on the back end, which led his former coach Claude Noel to use him as a forward in 2014. Even Maurice thought he was better suited there leaving him as a forward to start last season.
The 6-foot-5, 265-pound blue liner’s inconsistent play and contract status coupled with the young talent the Jets have on the blue line (Jacob Trouba and Josh Morrissey) could make him expendable.
Byfuglien is under pressure to prove he should be paid the money he’s looking for in his new deal.
Related: Looking to make the leap: Nikolaj Ehlers
Here’s the latest from the Free Press on talks between Winnipeg and d-man Dustin Byfuglien, who’s set to become an unrestricted free agent next July:
It’s expected that Ladd, the team’s captain, will likely get his desired extension (the Free Press figures it’ll be “north of $6 million” annually, and “in the range of $40 million” overall.) At 29 and coming off a career-high 62 points, he’s vitally important to the Jets and looks to be paid accordingly.
Which brings us to Byfuglien.
Though he’s coming off a stellar campaign of his own — 45 points in 69 games, an All-Star nod — Byfuglien plays on one of the NHL’s deepest bluelines. Tyler Myers (25 years old) and Jacob Trouba (21) represent the future, while Tobias Enstrom and Mark Stuart are locked in through 2018. All told, the Jets currently have 10 blueliners on NHL deals — Byfuglien, Myers, Trouba, Enstrom, Stuart, Grant Clitsome, Adam Pardy, Paul Postma and Ben Chiarot — and a pair of bright young prospects in Josh Morrissey and Jan Kostalek on the horizon.
So it’s fair to suggest something has to give.
Byfuglien’s heading into the last of a five-year, $26 million deal that pays $5.2M annually. Though he’s now officially on the wrong side of 30 — he’ll be 31 next March — Byfuglien likely still has high value across the league, and scored a handful of Norris votes this season.
So, the big question: If the Jets can’t afford to pay Byfuglien, especially after the Ladd extension, can they afford to let him hit free agency and lose an asset for nothing? GM Kevin Cheveldayoff already did that this summer with Michael Frolik, who flew the coop to sign in Calgary.
Can’t imagine Chevy wants that to happen again.