The 2015-16 season was never going to be a cakewalk for Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff. His first few seasons with the team were notably quiet. He took over in June of 2011 and didn’t make his first player-for-player deal until October of 2014. That’s a long period of silence for an NHL general manager, and one that fans were all too aware of.
It seems that Cheveldayoff may have just been saving his energy — and cap space — for this year, as a majority of his team’s core is up for new contracts of some kind. The Jets never were interested in losing Dustin Byfuglien, and clearly made him the priority. Cheveldayoff finally hammered out a deal with his top defenseman earlier this week, and his new $7.8 million cap hit will kick in next year.
It’s a deal the Jets had to make, but it could create issues for the team’s other pending free agents. Restricted free agents Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba both need new contracts, and deciding between long-term extensions or a bridge deals for each will be difficult.
Especially since captain Andrew Ladd’s future with the organization is also hanging delicately in the balance.
On paper it looks like the Jets have plenty of room to make all this work, but Byfuglien’s new contract is going to eat up a decent chunk of the team’s $11.6 million in available cap space. He’s jumping from a $5.2 million hit to a $7.6, and it seems likely that Ladd will be looking to secure a sizable raise over the $4.4 million he’s hitting the cap for now.
The big question for Cheveldayoff is easy to ask but difficult to answer: the veteran forward is seeking a raise, but does he deserve the kind of money he’s probably asking for? There are a few schools of thought here.
There’s the idea that the core group that was in place when the team moved from Atlanta simply hasn’t worked over the last five seasons. They made a Cinderella run to the Stanley Cup playoffs last year, but were ousted by the Anaheim Ducks in just four games. That’s the only time that the Jets have made the playoffs since relocating, and they’ve struggled to match last season’s pace in 2015-16.
Winnipeg is the worst team in the Central Division at the moment. They are 18 points behind the St. Louis Blues, who hold the third playoff spot in the Division, and are seven points behind the final Wild Card spot with five teams left to jump. All told, they have a 9.7 percent chance to make the postseason. At this point it’s more likely that the team will snag a draft lottery position than a playoff berth.
Ladd isn’t strictly at fault here, but he’s essentially been the face of the franchise for the last six seasons as the Jets haven’t been nearly good enough to compete in the Central Division. The gap between them and a team like the Colorado Avalanche or Minnesota Wild might not seem large, but consider how far Winnipeg needs to climb to catch the Chicago Blackhawks, the goal of any team in the Central.
Can Ladd be a part of that push? Or at the age of 30, have his best years already passed him by?
That may seem like a strange question to ask about a player is coming off of a 62-point campaign. It’s worth noting that 2014-15 was the best of Ladd’s career though, and he is projected to finish with fewer than 50 points this year. That’s more in line with what he’s typically done across his time in the NHL, and Cheveldayoff should be weary about paying the veteran for what he did two campaigns ago.
This contract situation is a lot like what the Columbus Blue Jackets dealt with when re-signing Nick Foligno. There’s an extra year to consider with Ladd, but the Jets can’t afford to get locked into a similar commitment. If he’s asking for north of $5.5 million, then it’s probably best for Cheveldayoff to make a trade before the deadline. According to recent comments, it sounds like the general manager is of that mind already.
"Probably either a deal to be had or a trade to be made." – Jets' Cheveldayoff on Andrew Ladd, regarding Feb. 29 deadline (Hockey Central)
— luke fox (@lukefoxjukebox) February 11, 2016
We’ve recently heard that the Jets aren’t actively shopping Ladd but that could change quite soon.
Dreger: "I don't believe the Winnipeg Jets have formally put Andrew Ladd in play" on the trade market yet. #NHLJets
— Chris Nichols (@NicholsOnHockey) February 10, 2016
What Winnipeg could get back really boils down to what Ladd looks like to the other GM. If he’s brought in as a rental — say, to the Blackhawks or L.A. Kings — then the the return will be smaller. Maybe a first- or second-round pick and a mid-range prospect. If the opposing organization sees Ladd as a potential cornerstone player, then maybe they’d be willing to add some more to the pot in the form of future considerations.
“If Ladd re-signs and plays in X number of games for Y team, then the Jets receive Z draft pick(s).” Something like that.
Here’s what is clear, at least from the outside: if keeping Ladd means losing either Scheifele or Trouba, then it’s a no-brainer for Cheveldayoff to make a trade. Winnipeg doesn’t have enough depth at center as it is, and not being able to keep Scheifele long-term would be a major blow. Trouba hasn’t progressed as expected this season, but he’s still a player the Jets should actively be looking to keep.
They both would be next to impossible to replace via trades or free agency, and it seems like Ladd has already been usurped by Nikolaj Ehlers as the top left wing on the team.
This is one of those scenarios where the player really does hold his fate in his own hands. If Ladd is willing to take a discount to stay in Winnipeg, then perhaps there’s some solid foundation for an extension. It seems more likely that he’ll want to cash in while he has the opportunity to do so though, which means that he’ll be playing for another team by the end of this month.