Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff still has plenty of work ahead of him as he tries to finalize his roster for the 2021-22 NHL season.
While the coming days, weeks and months will be dedicated to signing key, pending restricted free agents and figuring out what, if any, additional pieces need to be added, what he’s accomplished over the past week, and particularly the last 48 hours, has him positioned to approach this final stretch with confidence.
“Certainly, from the onset, if you could’ve had a wish list and just put it up on the wall, I don’t know if it could have fallen into place any better with how it complements the defence we have in place already,” Cheveldayoff said Wednesday, just hours after NHL free agency officially opened. “It fits real seamlessly.”
Wednesday was a quiet day for Cheveldayoff and the Jets, with the only notable signing being goaltender Eric Comrie. Comrie returns to Winnipeg, inking a one-year, US$750,000 contract, and will play behind starter Connor Hellebuyck. Other deals included a couple two-way contracts for forwards Mikey Eyssimont and Luke Johnson, both of whom will battle for roster spots on the AHL’s Manitoba Moose.
The expectation was the Jets weren’t going to make a big splash into the unrestricted free agent talent pool. That’s because Cheveldayoff had already achieved his top priority of landing not one but two top-four defencemen, acquiring Brenden Dillion from Washington and Nate Schmidt from Vancouver in trades that sent future picks, not players, the other way.
He also didn’t have a whole lot of money left over, as Dillon and Schmidt account for a combined seven years and US$35.5 million. Winnipeg’s current cap space for this season is around US$7.7 million, with another approximately US$5 million added once Bryan Little is added to long-term injured reserve.
“The two guys that we got, I would put as ‘unavailable’ in this signing market. There weren’t really guys that I could go and pick and choose to say, ‘well, if I didn’t have Dillon, I could get this guy to play like Dillon or I didn’t have Smitty, I could get this guy to play like Smitty,” Cheveldayoff said. “The elements, how they fit, how the two of them fit is just so, so perfect for our group. You’ve heard me say that so many times when it comes to trades or when it comes to free agency, that there has to be a fit.”
He added: “But it comes at a cost though, too. We’ve used up a lot of our cap space. So, certainly some of the directions that we might have had going into today, being the first day of free agency, definitely were changed by the moves that we made.”
Much of the leftover money will be spent trying to finalize deals with forward Andrew Copp and defencemen Neal Pionk and Logan Stanley, all of whom are RFAs. Both Copp and Pionk are eligible to file for arbitration rights, which must be filed by Aug. 1.
Copp (two years x US$2.28M) and Pionk (two x US$3M) are coming off team-friendly deals and are due major raises. Stanley had a breakout season last year but is likely to sign a modest bridge deal as he continues to grow his stock within the club.
“Logan Stanley’s RFA is much simpler to work on because of the nature of his tenure. So, the other two, you’re still in a little bit of a guessing game as to how it’s all going to play out,” the Jets GM said. “That’ll be a major function of what we can and can’t do and what we may or may not have to do in getting those deals done.”
Cheveldayoff noted he loves what Copp and Pionk bring to the team but understands the business doesn’t always allow you to reward everyone. He’s seen some of his former players leave and sign big deals elsewhere, including defenceman Tucker Poolman, who inked a four-year, US$10-million contract with Vancouver. That’s more than three times the US$775,000 he was earning per season in Winnipeg.
“The cap is very real, and our contract situation is very real,” Cheveldayoff said. “The good thing is we have our defence core locked up and locked in. But also, there’s fixed costs there now.”
With the loss of reliable fourth liners such as Mathieu Perreault, Nate Thompson and Trevor Lewis, Cheveldayoff was asked if he was inclined to look in-house to fill these holes. Jansen Harkins, David Gustafsson, Dominic Toninato and Kristian Vesalainen will all be looking for increased playing time next season, after sitting out most nights in a truncated 2021 campaign.
The Jets GM called it “a work in progress.”
“There are some names on the board there that we do have a level of interest in and we’ll see how that all plays out,” he said. “It will be largely a function of available discretionary dollars to spend. We have two key RFA deals that we need to get done. After the days of today, that’s squarely the focus of the job at hand, is to get those in the books, then take a deep breath and see where you’re at from there.”
With the addition of Dillon and Schmidt, suddenly what seemed like an open competition on the blue line is now fairly log-jammed at both sides. With so much money and term locked in, Cheveldayoff was asked where might promising prospects Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg fit in.
“There’s going to be opportunity and there’s going to be competition certainly at training camp for the roster spots. I don’t know if that means if what you see in its (current) form will be what you see at training camp, we’ll see how that all plays out,” he said.
“But (those are) good young players that are going to be a part of what we have going here. Having this opportunity to grab those two players (Schmidt and Dillon) that help the top end of our defence right now is certainly something that I think will actually help those players get into the lineup. When they do, you’ll have greater options to be able to play younger players with real sound defensive players as opposed to guys who are just trying to cut their teeth or play at the level that they have to stay in the game.”
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.
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