Dmitry Kulikov

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When will Jets sign Laine, Connor?

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Winnipeg Jets. 

Let’s ponder three questions facing the Jets:

1. When will the team sign Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor?

Want to dominate headlines and sports radio in a Canadian market during the offseason? Simply wait to sign a new contract.

While a lot of attention has been on Mitch Marner’s situation in Toronto, it’s Laine and Connor who’ve taken center stage in Winnipeg.

Both are restricted free agents without new deals as training camp fast approaches. On one hand, it’s not all that surprising given the landscape with RFAs at the moment. Laine and Connor are just two names on a long list of big-ticket players who’ve played the waiting game with their respective teams.

But in a hockey-mad city, it’s led to a lot of speculation, fuelled further by the posturing that naturally arises.

It’s unlikely that either play anywhere but Winnipeg next year, but when will they play among the highest concerns. The Jets need to sort out some things in their top six in training camp, and both Laine and Connor are fixtures in that group.

For their success this season, they need both signed before camp begins.

2. How will the team fair on defense?

Some context: Take a middle-of-the-pack blue, subtract one of your top-pairing defenders and two veteran depth pieces and what are you left with?

The answer? Who knows.

Losing Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot in one offseason is going to hurt any team. Losing them all in the span of a couple of weeks? Ouch.

Even if Myers and Chiarot aren’t premier blueliners, it still stings when half of your defensemen are their traded or leave in free agency.

The Jets couldn’t afford to keep Myers or Chiarot — and they’re better off for it based on what those two are making. Trouba, meanwhile, seemed destined to leave since he demanded a trade three years ago.

[MORE: 2018-19 review | X-factorMaurice under pressure]

Regardless of the reasons, the Jets are left with a very unproven bunch outside of Josh Morrissey and Dustin Byfuglien. Nathan Beaulieu re-upped with the team after being acquired at the deadline and showed well when Morrissey missed a big chunk of time down the stretch due to injury.

Neal Pionk, who came Winnipeg’s way in the Trouba deal with the New York Rangers remains a mystery. Dmitry Kulikov is a stop-gap and the team will have to employ someone, likely Sami Niku, in a bigger role this season.

The dust will settle in training camp, but there’s a lot of questions needing answers on the back end.

3. Will Connor Hellebuyck return to his Vezina finalist form?

Hellebuyck went from finishing as a runner up to Pekka Rinne for the Vezina in 2017-18 to being outplayed by his backup a season later.

All of Hellebuyck’s stats took a downturn, from his five-on-five save percentage dropping 11 points from .931 to .920, his overall save percentage dropping from .924 to .913, along with decreases in his high-danger save percentage.

And then there are his goals save above average, which went from being above average at 2.16 in 2017-18 to well below it in 2018-19 at -6.91.

No one saw more shots than Hellebuyck at five-on-five, a testament to Winnipeg’s poor play in front of him, especially in the second half of the season.

With questions on the blue line coming into this season, Hellebuyck will be up against it to rebound from a down year.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Jets, Lightning still have big RFA challenges to deal with

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This year’s restricted free agent market has been one of the most intriguing ones we have seen in years. Not only is it loaded with players that already among the league’s best, but we already saw an offer-sheet come in when the Montreal Canadiens attempted to snag Sebastien Aho away from the Carolina Hurricanes. It was an offer that was quickly matched by the Hurricanes. As things stand on Saturday, Aho is the only one of those top RFA’s that has a new contract while Mikko Rantanen, Mitch Marner, Brayden Point, Patrick Laine, Charlie McAvoy, Zach Werenski, Brock Boeser, and Kyle Connor (among others) all remain unsigned, and will probably remain so for the foreseeable future.

Some of these situations will easily get resolved. The Avalanche have more salary cap space than any team in the league and no other significant contracts to work out, so while Rantanen will get a huge pay raise, the Avalanche have more than enough space to work it out. The same is true in Columbus with Werenski where they still have more than $15 million in cap space after their free agent exodus.

Beyond them, most of the focus with the RFA market has been pointed in Toronto’s direction where the Maple Leafs have to re-sign Marner and (hopefully) avoid a repeat of last year’s William Nylander situation. But for as complicated as the Marner contract has been and still might be, the Maple Leafs still have more than $10 million in LTIR contracts to stash at the start of the season with David Clarkson and Nathan Horton.

It is going to be difficult, but it may not even be the most difficult one in the league.

Here are four teams that might have might even more headaches to deal with.

Winnipeg Jets

Good news: The Jets have more salary cap space ($17 million) than all but one team in the league, which would seem to put them in a really good position under the cap.

Bad news: As of Saturday they only have 17 players under contract for the 2019-20 season (no other team in the league has less than 19) and have two major RFA’s in need of new deals in Laine and Connor.

Laine is already one of the NHL’s most lethal goal scorers and is coming off a 30-goal season that was universally considered to be a “down” year for him, while Connor has scored at least 30 goals himself two years in a row. There have only been 17 players to top the 30-goal mark in each of the past two seasons, and the Jets not only have two of them, but they are both in need of new contracts right now.

Unless one (or both) is willing to take a significant discount on their next deal the duo is likely to cost the Jets at least $14 million against the salary cap. Those two deals are going to eat up almost all of their remaining cap space while they still have to fill out a roster around them. Even with some free agent departures this summer the Jets are still in a position where they are going to have to do some juggling to keep their two best young players.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Tampa Bay Lightning

The Lightning already had one of the deepest forward groups in the league even before Brayden Point was one of the league’s big breakout stars during the 2018-19 season.

Now that he has joined their core of top-tier players, the time has come to pay him. The Lightning have roughly $5 million in salary cap space this summer, which will obviously not be enough to pay a 22-year-old winger coming off of a 40-goal, 90-point season whose best days are still ahead of him. They will be placing Ryan Callahan on LTIR, giving them another $5 million to work with and that will certainly help in the short-term. Point won’t be a $10 million player, but the Lightning also have an upcoming arbitration situation with Adam Erne and three more significant RFA’s next summer (starting goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, forward Anthony Cirelli, and defender Mikhail Sergachev). All of that is going to add up, and you have to wonder if it might make a forward like Alex Killorn (four more years at $4.45 million per season) expendable.

Vancouver Canucks

This is an underrated and overlooked nightmare situation. The Canucks three-highest paid players are Loui Eriksson, Tyler Myers, and a 33-year-old Alexander Edler (all making $6 million per year), while they also have around $14 million going to the quartet of Brandon Sutter, Tanner Pearson, Antoine Roussel and Jay Beagle. A classic case of a bunch of small mistakes adding up to one big headache that hurts a team in trying to keep its stars. They only have $5 million in salary cap space to re-sign Boeser, their second best player and one of the best young snipers in the league. That is not enough. They need to move as many of the aforementioned contracts as they can, not only to help re-sign Boeser this summer, but to improve their long-term outlook as well.

Boston Bruins

The Bruins’ roster is almost entirely set for the 2019-20 season with two big exceptions: Defensemen Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo. The Bruins have roughly $7 million in salary cap space to make it happen, but that is going to be tight. Like Werenski in Columbus, McAvoy has earned a substantial contract extension with his play. Carlo may not be a star, but he is a rock-solid defender that needs re-signed. Together, they might cost at least $10 million. Shedding one of David Backes, Charlie Coyle, Kevan Miller, or John Moore would help.

More NHL Offseason:
Bruins face salary cap juggling act with McAvoy, Carlo
Long-term contracts for depth players is usually losing move for NHL teams
Cap Crunch: Rangers, Penguins, Flames among teams that still need moves

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

How will Winnipeg Jets fill out their roster?

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Of all the 31 teams in the NHL, the Winnipeg Jets have the second highest amount of cap space remaining at this point. Only the Avalanche have more money available than Winnipeg’s $22.872 million, but that cushion won’t last much longer.

The Jets have already lost Jacob Trouba, Ben Chiarot and Tyler Myers on defense, and they still need to re-sign restricted free agents Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor. On the surface, it seems like they have a lot of money to do so, but they also only have seven forwards and six defenders under contract right now. Neal Pionk, who they acquired from New York in the Trouba deal, is also a restricted free agent.

Losing Chiarot and Myers isn’t the end of the world, but replacing them with Nathan Beaulieu, Sami Niku, Pionk or Tucker Poolman isn’t ideal. Finding someone to step in for Trouba will be nearly impossible. The 25-year-old logged over 22:53 of ice time during the regular season and he had 50 points in 82 contests.

So it’s difficult to envision Winnipeg being better on defense this year.

Even if general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff re-signs forwards Connor, Laine and Andrew Copp, that would still only put him at 10 forwards on the active roster. That means he’d have to sign two more fourth-line players and at least one extra body. That’s not going to be easy considering Laine and Connor will likely cost somewhere in the neighbourhood of $15 million or $16 million.

If you add salaries for Pionk and Copp and you consider that a lot of the quality free agents have already been signed, you quickly realize that Cheveldayoff doesn’t have a ton to work with right now.

This is the difficult part of being in the salary cap world. It hurts less to dismantle your team piece by piece when you have a Stanley Cup to show for it. But the Jets haven’t won anything, and they’re already being forced to pick their roster apart because the talent they’ve drafted and developed is starting to get too expensive.

“I’ve got a very big plate,” Cheveldayoff said last month, per the Winnipeg Sun. “It seems like every summer, that question gets asked and the next summer is always the most important one. But that’s the truth. The opportunities and the work that we have in front of us is real important. We’ve got a lot of work that needs to be done with exceptional players that we’ve drafted and are a big part of our organization and a big part of our future. So, this summer will be the most important one, until the next one.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Assuming that Laine and Connor each make over $6 million per year, that would give the Jets five forwards at that price or higher. Add Dustin Byfuglien‘s $7.6 million cap hit and Connor Hellebuyck‘s $6.166 million cap hit, and it’s easy to see why they’re in such a difficult spot cap-wise.

They also have to consider that Byfuglien and Poolman are the only two defenseman they have under contract beyond next season. They’ll have to make important decisions on Dmitry Kulikov and they’ll have to find a way to pay Josh Morrissey once he becomes a restricted free agent next summer. So it’s not just about icing a competitive roster in 2019-20, it’s also about setting yourself up financially going forward.

The Jets still have so much quality on their roster, but can this group find a way to go on another long playoff run?

MORE:
Examining different lengths, contract routes for Laine, Jets

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Jets were never going to get enough for Trouba

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It’s hard to look at the haul the Winnipeg Jets got for Jacob Trouba and not think, ‘Man, that’s underwhelming.’

That is, of course, because the return was exactly that. And unless general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff could pull off the impossible, he was never going to replace Jacob Trouba with Jacob Trouba.

[Related: Rangers land Trouba, Jets get Pionk and first-rounder]

It was Mission: Impossible and Cheveldayoff was no Tom Cruise. The Jets were always going to lose that deal. Rarely can you replace a top-pairing defenseman that was drafted and developed from within and had helped build a flourishing partnership with Josh Morrissey into one of the better shutdown tandems in the NHL.

One half of that is missing in Winnipeg now and Neal Pionk doesn’t fill that void. This is the CliffsNotes version.

Losing Trouba — Winnipeg’s worst kept secret — is a massive blow to the Jets. They lose a 50-point defenseman and ability to play in all phases of the game while munching on big minutes every night.

“We’re certainly getting a really good player,” Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton said.

Those weren’t words Cheveldayoff uttered during his conference call with the media on Monday night.

“We’re really excited to get Neal in the acquisition as well,” Cheveldayoff said after talking about getting back into the first round of this year’s draft via the trade with the 20th overall pick. “He’s a young player that we believe has upside that is going to continue to grow.”

Pionk may indeed grow, and the Jets may indeed like Pionk over whatever else was offered to them. But there’s no question it’s a step backward for Winnipeg in terms of talent.

The Rangers got a piece that will instantly make their team better (assuming they sign Trouba long-term). Winnipeg does not.

The Jets don’t need a defenseman that can play well on the power play. They have that in Dustin Byfuglien. Morrissey can do that job, too. And Sami Niku showed good signs in limited opportunities with the man-advantage.

No, what the Jets need is a good 5-on-5 defenseman and they aren’t getting that in Pionk.

And it’s not just my words that suggest that

But all of this is really moot.

Trouba had been playing on borrowed time ever since his agent requested that his client be traded on a warm July’s night in Winnipeg in 2016.

His agent’s ransom note published on Twitter that night said Trouba wanted to realize his potential as a top-pairing, right-side defenseman. The Jets did just that, but it all seemed like a smokescreen for the desired eventual outcome.

Trouba wanted out.

Cheveldayoff stood his ground for three years until the clock ran out, likely to be expected by both agent and player. He didn’t get pushed around by Trouba until the tables turned and he had the choice of getting something for him or getting nothing at all.

He had to get something for him. No GM wants a John Tavares ending.

Could he have gotten more? Perhaps by allowing other teams to try and negotiate a contract with Trouba prior to a deal? Maybe, but according to TSN’s Darren Dreger, there were only one or two teams Trouba would commit his long-term future with. Without having it in his contract, Trouba and his agent essentially made their own no-movement clause.

And maybe Trouba just wanted what’s best for him. In a time where players are increasingly looked at as commodities and not humans, Trouba gave to the Jets what he owed them for drafting him back in 2012 and then seized control of his own future.

“It’s a great opportunity for myself and my fiancée,” said Trouba, who spoke with the Winnipeg Sun’s Ken Wiebe. “Her career is as important as my career. We both are passionate about different things and our goal from a couple of years back was we wanted to make this work. And we decided we wanted to make this work. This is part of it, to be realistic with you.

“From a life standpoint, that’s what I decided in the end. I’m going to marry the girl and I want her to be happy and for her dreams to be fulfilled. She’s worked extremely hard to get where she is with schooling and the time she’s put in. I want her to see her be successful just as much as I want to be successful.”

If you’re searching for positives here, one is that the situation is finally over. Both sides can finally move on.

Another is that Trouba’s exit means more wiggle room when it comes to the salary cap and they found a way into the first round this year. The Jets have done well to find quality players in the opening round in the past. Perhaps they’ve got a Mark Scheifele-esque guy (only a defenseman this time) they got good intel on.

“It’s a really interesting draft, once you get past the ones everybody’s talking about on the top end, I think it really spreads out,” Cheveldayoff said. “I think there are players we’re going to see at 20- we’re going to have higher on our list.”

Even then, that player is a few years away from making a meaningful impact. Last year at this time, the Jets were legitimate Stanley Cup contenders after a solid showing from a team oozing with young talent and the right mix of contracts.

Some believed this year was where their window was widest to make that run. Instead, they struggled down the stretch and got bounced in six games in Round 1 by the current Stanley Cup champs. In hindsight, it would have been better to trade Trouba a year ago. But a year ago, it would have been stupid to trade Trouba without hindsight’s benefit.

And now reality sets in.

Cheveldayoff said as much in his conference call about the “hard cap world,” and few GMs this summer face one as paramount in terms of the team’s future success as he does.

He has to sign Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor and those two, depending on how the deals come together, could command well over $15 million combined if both sign long-term. Trimming the fat may continue, too. Decisions on trading Mathieu Perreault and buying out Dmitry Kulikov to find more cap relief have to be made.

And then they need to sort out if they bring Tyler Myers back. And Ben Chiarot. And Brandon Tanev.

And then decisions on what pieces from the team’s farm system down the hall with the American Hockey League’s Manitoba Moose are going to make the jump to the bigger dressing room in the show.

“There’s no question we have a challenging summer still ahead of us,” Cheveldayoff said. “We still got lots of moving parts or balls in the air, so to speak.”

So more changes are likely coming, and a team will emerge next season very different than the one from a year ago.

And given how last season ended, perhaps a shakeup in that dressing room is what was needed anyway.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck.

Trade: Rangers land Trouba, Jets get Pionk and first-rounder

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The New York Rangers signaled that they were rebuilding at the end of the 2017-18 season, but they didn’t necessarily indicate that it would be a long one. Acquiring Jacob Trouba‘s RFA rights from the Winnipeg Jets goes a long way in accelerating that process.

The Rangers sent the Jets a first-round pick (20th overall, which the Jets sent to the Rangers for a few months of Kevin Hayes‘ services) and defenseman Neal Pionk for Trouba’s rights.

To emphasize: the picture isn’t yet complete, as to fully judge this deal, we’ll need to find out how much Trouba, 25, receives from the Rangers. One would assume that it would be a pretty hard sell to imagine Trouba actually not signing at all with the Rangers … but it’s still not a guarantee that he’ll ink a deal with New York until he does it.

What the Rangers get in Trouba

As discussed in this post about how NHL teams are more likely to improve their defense through trades than free agency this offseason, it’s my opinion that – for as impressive as Trouba has already been – it’s possible that the defenseman could show more.

Honestly, it feels like PHT’s been wondering about Trouba’s future with Winnipeg for ages. Back in August 2016, it was noted that Trouba rescinded his trade request during frosty negotiations on a “bridge” contract, one we thought might backfire for Winnipeg down the line when discussing it in 2017.

It wasn’t just about money, either. Trouba wanted a prominent role as a right-handed defensemen, yet he sometimes saw his opportunities go to Dustin Byfuglien (reasonable, but debatable) or Tyler Myers (not so reasonable) instead. None of this is to say that Trouba was “buried” in the lineup, yet there was sort of a start-and-stop element. Consider that, after peaking with 24:58 TOI per game in 2016-17, Trouba’s minutes plummeted to 21:54 per game in 2017-18, and only went up to 22:53 on average this past season.

Trouba erupted in 2018-19, nonetheless, setting easily a career-high with 50 points (his previous high mark was 33).

Now, you can get carried away by over-projecting Trouba to the point that you get out of control. Maybe he’s not a superstar in the making, but he’s very, very, good, and instantly becomes the Rangers’ best defenseman, and one of their best overall assets alongside underrated center Mika Zibanejad, and the second pick of the 2019 NHL Draft.

The question for the Rangers isn’t if Trouba is good, but just how good. It also brings up interesting questions about what’s next, beyond drafting the second pick, whether that be Kaapo Kakko or Jack Hughes.

Beyond that, though, does Trouba make the Rangers a more interesting consideration for Artemi Panarin, or some other free agent? Trouba’s young enough that, if the Rangers don’t get the greatest luck in accelerating this rebuild really fast, they can still succeed with a slower approach.

Either way … goodness, are the Rangers ever doing a deft job lately. It’s OK for fans to just “chef’s kiss” endlessly.

The Jets’ side, on the other hand, is more fraught.

Jets upsetting

It will probably help the sanity of Jets fans to look at the first-rounder as merely a first-rounder, and the 20th pick at that, and not as an alternate view: that the Rangers basically kept that pick warm while Hayes was a Jet, and then sent it back to Winnipeg.

(Seriously, Jets fans, try to look at it as positively as you can.)

It’s up to debate if a) the Rangers successfully pulled off a “pump and dump” with Neal Pionk or b) the Jets are actually realistic about Pionk’s limited potential, and will hope he can merely be a contributor.

Pionk, 23, just completed his second NHL season, but it was essentially his first full one (28 games in 2017-18; 73 games in 2018-19). He’s shown some flashes of brilliance on the offensive side, managing to score 40 points over his first 101 regular-season games. Heck, if Jets fans want to soothe and delude themselves, they merely need to watch the memorable goal the defenseman scored against the Montreal Canadiens back in November:

*fans self*

But, yeah, the bigger picture with Pionk is … less than ideal, as he was under water possession-wise.

It wouldn’t be shocking if a lot of those tough numbers come from being in over his head (even a defense-poor team like the Rangers were putting Pionk in a tough spot, as he averaged 21:30 TOI per game through two seasons), so maybe Pionk can help out in a less pronounced role.

Again, some of this comes down to public vs. private. Perhaps the Jets can spin it publicly by trumpeting Pionk’s face-value numbers (and the first-rounder), while privately realizing that Pionk is closer than a bit part than to a savvy Trouba replacement. Under almost all circumstances, any Pionk vs. Trouba comparisons would be unflattering, and unfair.

Jets fueled their own mistake

Of course, the biggest key is to remember the bind the Jets found themselves in. If they knew they couldn’t afford to keep Trouba, what with the salary cap crunch coming with Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor as prominent RFAs, then they needed to do something.

Personally, I would have been desperate to try to bribe a different rebuilder to soak up problem contracts like that of Dmitry Kulikov and/or Bryan Little, if at all possible, but that either wasn’t a conversation that worked out, or the Jets simply didn’t want to have the conversation at all.

But, again, it’s not as though this situation just popped out of thin air.

The Jets have been putting off a long-term deal with Trouba for some time now, and eventually it ended his tenure. We’ve seen certain “bridge” situations turn untenable before, with P.K. Subban and the Montreal Canadiens (and also Ryan O'Reilly with the Colorado Avalanche) coming to mind. Those two situations obviously backfired, and it’s another lesson to other teams: lock up your core pieces for term, then see if you can keep the Littles and add the Kulikovs.

Maybe the Jets simply never believed that Trouba is a “core” guy, which would honestly be baffling. For plenty of Jets fans, it could be a nauseating experience to see Trouba answer those questions, one way or another, as a member of the New York Rangers.

MORE:  Trouba was one of the headliners of this potential trade targets list, but he wasn’t alone.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.