Blake Wheeler (right) and Bryan Little (far left), locked in to long-term deals with the Jets this summer and will likely continue on a line with Andrew Ladd (center) next season. (Photo by Travis Golby/NHLI via Getty Images)
This off-season was set up to be a statement summer for the Winnipeg Jets and GM Kevin Cheveldayoff. With a core of restricted free agents up for contract renewal, tons of intriguing trade assets and six non-playoff seasons in a row, it was a chance to mold and adapt.
Meet the new Jets. Same as the old Jets.
When critiquing the contract extensions given to Bryan Little, Zach Bogosian and Blake Wheeler, the question isn’t “are they worth $4.7, $5.1 and $5.6 million per season” – it’s “is the core of this roster worthy of commitment for the long-term future?”
The central nervous system of any roster is going to get paid. Whether it’s Boston shelling out for Milan Lucic, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, Zdeno Chara and Tuukka Rask or Carolina ponying up for the Staals, Alexander Semin, Jeff Skinner and Cam Ward, once a franchise decides to dig in with a particular group of players, those players will get north of $4.5 or $5 million with term and move on.
Cost of commitment. The most difficult call a GM has to make is less about how much the cap hit is and more about if a player is worth tying his franchise to.
It’s just that, usually, the kind of commitment the Jets have shown their entire core goes to a group of players that has achieved something, has a proven crown jewel leader or has given reasons beyond potential to believe great strides are in the offing. Are the Jets there yet? The names they’ve locked into – including Ondrej Pavelec, Dustin Byfuglien, Evander Kane and Tobias Enstrom – certainly scream potential, but come with a warning about setting the bar prematurely high.
To be clear, signing these players was a must for the franchise – but must it have locked in each for so long?
The Jets had three choices – either deal with arbitration and the specter of tarnishing relationships with two players who would become eligible for unrestricted free agency in short order, or play hardball for shorter term, which risks the players leaving town at first chance in their prime. The Jets took the third option, a route that best coincides with their “build from within” approach, and committed to their own players, for better or worse.
And don’t kid yourself: with these cap hits and terms now on the books, it can get worse for a team that has struggled on special teams and with general consistency.
The Jets are at least a bubble team to make the playoffs in 2013-14. They won’t keep up with new division mates Chicago or St. Louis, but maintaining pace with Minnesota, Nashville, Colorado and Dallas is a reasonable expectation. After all, Winnipeg has plenty of promise, only missed the playoffs by four points last season and made three quality complementary acquisitions – Michael Frolik to help the penalty kill, Matt Halischuk to improve a mediocre bottom six and Devin Setoguchi for secondary scoring at even strength and on the power play.
But the core talent drives destiny. The Jets could have used another brief window to first see if this collection of players would perform in big-game situations, before aligning their fortunes with a group that has fallen flat down the stretch two years running. In 2013, Winnipeg went on a five-game winning streak in mid-April and still only managed to win six of its final 14 games to fade out of the playoff picture. It was much the same in 2011-12, when they only won three of their final 11 games, to fall from two to eight points out in the final month. They also had trouble with their 30th-ranked power play last season, which was run by the very players they locked up.
With this past on the board and these players in his hand, Cheveldayoff went all-in. Only Philadelphia and Nashville have more players signed for at least three seasons.
The potential is enormous and after the salary cap inevitably rises again, these deals could very well look like steals down the road. They could also look disastrous if the Jets still haven’t made the playoffs in 2016. What are these players being rewarded for?
Excuses will be and have been made for the Jets, from the inexperience this group should grow out of, to the amount of travel they had to do in the old Southeast Division, to how they’re gradually building a team of “character.”
But all that goes out with the bathwater now that the core roster is locked in. Now it’s about the results and having all that potential pay off. Because, if it doesn’t this time, Cheveldayoff has one more card in his hand to play before he becomes the focus.
Coach Claude Noel, you’re on the clock.
Rory Boylen is TheHockeyNews.com's web editor. His column appears regularly only on THN.com.
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