DALLAS — At first blush, it looks to be the quietest draft in their history. The Winnipeg Jets don’t own a first-round pick courtesy of a bold trade, and their lofty place among the NHL’s elite this past season means they don’t step to the podium until 59 players have already had their names called.
Forget about finding a franchise player when it all begins tonight here in Texas with the first round, followed by the final six rounds on Saturday. The Jets might be hard-pressed to come away with much more than a few spare depth parts that are likely several years away from being NHL players.
However, the Jets do find themselves in a unique position this weekend, one that could have general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff’s phone burning up on the draft floor and turn a rather sleepy event for his squad into something much more sizzling.
Cheveldayoff has many talented players on his roster and several prized prospects knocking at the door. And he’s staring at some major financial issues, which may require him to shed some salary in order to keep his rock-solid core together.
Add it all together and the Jets would appear to be a team open for business. They could be a match made in hockey heaven for other teams looking to wheel and deal.
Cheveldayoff admitted as much as he emerged from Thursday’s GM meetings at a downtown Dallas hotel. He learned earlier in the day the 2018-19 salary cap would be set at US$79.5 million, short of the US$82 million that had been previously rumoured.
Now he’s got to find a way to make that number work when it comes to signing nine restricted free agents, including key pieces due for big raises such as Vezina finalist Connor Hellebuyck, top-pairing defencemen Josh Morrissey and Jacob Trouba and shutdown centre Adam Lowry.
“The reality is, now we have our hard number to work off, and there’s going to be some cold, hard realities that we may have to face depending on how these other contracts come into place. So we have to be prepared for anything,” Cheveldayoff said.
“There was movement in the cap in an upwards type of thing. Any time that there’s more money in the system with some teams, there’s some loosening of things that need to go. There’s lots of decisions that everyone has to make, both internally and externally.”
That could mean activity as it relates to the draft. Cheveldayoff has always prized his first-round picks and said he was open to finding a way back in despite trading his to the St. Louis Blues for veteran centre Paul Stastny.
“That’s easier said than done. Certainly you never say never, but trying to is sometimes a difficult thing. Right now my focus is more on trying to keep the group together with all the different contracts and stuff like that, so if we go through without a first-round pick we understood that when we made that trade,” Cheveldayoff said. “You’re always looking, but that’s not my focus right now. But it could become the focus in the next 24 to 48 hours.”
Speaking of Stastny, Cheveldayoff admitted the team is interested in getting him re-signed.
“You know what, we’ve got the hard number now and we’ll have to take a look at it. At this point, that’s my best answer. If we have to get creative, we’ll try to, but we’ll see how it all works,” he said. “He was and is a great fit in our organization. It wasn’t just lip service on both sides. The feelings were real and mutual when we talked about his importance to us. These are the hard facts and hard decisions that come in with this. Several years ago, if we had a guy in this situation, we had ample cap space to do something. Right now, we obviously have some players that have gotten extensions and some players that need extensions and we have to make sure that we are in a proper position to do all of that.”
But getting his own stars signed and finding room for Stastny would absolutely mean purging some players. Prime candidates might be defenceman Tyler Myers, with one-year left on his contract and a cap hit of US$5.5 million. Or forward Mathieu Perreault, signed for three more seasons with a cap hit of US$4.125 million.
Cheveldayoff has been speaking with several player agents this week in Dallas, but had no update on how contract talks are going while stressing the urgency of time.
“Right now there’s lots of different contracts, or different numbers that are in our spreadsheet in pencil. You’d like to get them in ink so that you know exactly what you’re dealing with,” he said. “The hard part for me is we do have a lot of restricted free agents, we have several unrestricted free agents. It’s hard to comment on one without commenting on all. We’re working under the parameters of the CBA and we have the number to work off now… So we’ll go to work on that.”
Cheveldayoff said there’s no question the Jets will likely spend to very near the cap. They came within a couple hundred thousand dollars of exceeding last year’s US$75-million maximum.
“Obviously with the way things are shaping up and different contracts we do have to do and several performance bonuses we still have on the books moving forward, and obviously the unknown of injuries and everything like that, we’re going to be right up against it,” he said.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.