Even stretching back to when he was a member of the Atlanta Thrashers, Winnipeg Jets forward Bryan Little has long been a worthy addition to any “underrated players” list.
While it wasn’t the sort of deal that’s guaranteed to collapse your salary structure, Little’s six-year, $31.75 million contract extension should ensure that he isn’t on many underpaid players lists.
PHT’s been mowing through many teams’ salary cap situations during this off-season, so why not continue with Winnipeg?
A unique challenge
Sometimes it’s fairer to “grade on a curve” when it comes to judging a team’s situation.
In the case of the Jets, it’s no secret that they sometimes face an uphill battle when it comes to drawing in free agents. Just ask Ilya Bryzgalov.
Now, such thoughts don’t totally excuse the near-immunity that GM Kevin Cheveldayoff and head coach Paul Maurice seem to enjoy, but it’s worth noting that the Jets might have more incentive than other teams to keep players in the fold because it’s not always so easy to draw people in.
Young players with dollars to earn
It’s been said before, and it’s true: patience is running low for the Jets. Well, aside from the whole “handing the GM and head coach an extension even though the franchise has never won a playoff game” thing.
Anyway, this is a key season in many ways, including deciding which players to add to the core.
This post goes into great detail on Jacob Trouba likely costing the Jets a lot of money in the future, but there’s little doubt that, if they want to keep him – and they should – it probably won’t be so cheap this time around. Trouba, 23, will see his $2.81M cap hit expire after this season.
There are some expendable veterans with expiring contracts, but to keep this post from being Byfuglien-sized, let’s consider the most important players with short deals.
One interesting guy is Nikolaj Ehlers, whose rookie deal runs out after 2017-18. He’s shown serious potential already; if I were in Cheveldayoff’s shoes, I’d strongly consider signing him now rather than allowing him to pull a poor man’s Pastrnak/Draisaitl and drive up his value.
There’s not much they’ll likely be able to do to keep Patrik Laine from costing a lot, but at least he has two years left on his entry-level contract. (These are the windows that contending teams exploit, so we’ll see if Winnipeg can take advantage.)
Joshua Morrissey and Connor Hellebuyck are other especially interesting pending RFAs to watch; long story short, the Jets have a lot of them to consider.
Key veteran decisions
The good news for Winnipeg is that the Ondrej Pavelec nightmare is over.
It’s also mostly good news that, unlike other NHL teams, they’re not tied to a goalie long-term. That could make for very helpful flexibility in this league.
Still, many GMs get queasy over uncertainty in net, so Hellebuyck only being under contract for one year and Steve Mason only having two covered might make some nervous. (Personally, it seems like a refreshingly positive situation.)
One really big consideration is Blake Wheeler.
Wheeler, 31, is worth a lot more than the $5.6M per year he’ll fetch for two more seasons. He’s getting up there in years, and if the Jets continue to struggle, it could be a tough call for both sides.
Tyler Myers‘ seemingly eternal $5.5M cap hit expires after two more seasons. What does the future hold for the towering 27-year-old?
The Jets should expect some relief when Toby Enstrom‘s $5.75M cap hit evaporates. He’s been a good soldier for Winnipeg/Atlanta, to the point that it’s surprising he’s only 32. If he’s back, one figures it would be for a steep discount. Chances are, the Jets will appreciate that extra money with some important, core players needing deals.
Dmitry Kulikov is settled in with a three-year deal, but he has a lot to prove.
Dustin Byfuglien is a force of nature, and a guy who deserves a Phil Kessel-type renaissance after frequently being a scapegoat (and also often being snubbed by Team USA). Even so, that huge frame could become a problem as he ages – Buffy is already 32 – and his $7.6M carries through 2020-21.
Little is a quality player, but his age and history of injury issues makes his contract a bit of a gamble.
Shrewd with Scheifele
Overall, there’s a lot to like with Winnipeg.
Mark Scheifele‘s deal might honestly deserve its own section. Scheifele, 24, has dreams of matching Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid, but he’s already developed into a legitimate top-line center. He’s entering the second year of a contract that carries just a $6.125M cap hit, and it runs through his peak years (ending at 2023-24).
Expect that contract to climb the biggest bargain ranks, especially once we see Erik Karlsson and John Tavares get new deals.
All things considered, the Jets’ situation looks very good.
That said, much like on the ice, some of the most important moments lie in the future.