About one year ago (August 17/17), I publicly predicted that the Jets would reach 105 points for the 2017-18 season, finishing second in the Central to the Nashville Predators, but ahead of the third place Minnesota Wild.
It was a bold prediction at that time, but the Jets did a fly past on that, garnering 114 points.
My prediction was based on my guess about the Jets’ youthful players’ likely development. Some highlights from that exhilarating year:
- Kyle Connor’s ascendancy to top 6 forward, scoring 31 goals in his rookie season;
- Jack Roslovic’s development into a solid, every-day NHL forward (14 points in 31 NHL games);
- Adam Lowry’s rise to become a shut-down centre (57.6% Corsi, matched against the opposition’s better lines, while contributing 21 points in just 45 games);
- And… the cream of the crop – Scheifele, Laine, Ehlers, Trouba and Morrissey, all taking big steps forward in their careers.
In addition to the youth, there were significant improvements from veterans such as Blake Wheeler and Dustin Byfuglien.
Wheeler has become one of the league’s elite playmakers (he was tied for the lead in NHL assists).
Dustin Byfuglien adapted his game to emphasize defensive responsibility. This included excellent teamwork by the big man and his line-mates, ensuring that his position was covered when he did rush the puck offensively. Byfuglien was among the Jets’ leaders in Corsi %, and led all Jets defensemen in absolute Corsi (5 on 5) for the year (plus 74). With his legendary strength, “Big Buff” was a formidable force. Who can forget the many times that he manhandled two opponents at once during the playoffs?
The problem that the Jets now face is keeping the core of this team together under the NHL salary cap. They should be fine for the upcoming 2018-19 year, with about $5-6 million left to sign RFA Josh Morrissey. But the cap issues become really challenging next offseason (for the 2019-20 season), with Laine, Connor and Wheeler all needing new contracts (not to mention Tyler Myers).
Every contending team has had to deal with the cap issues, since the era of the hard salary cap began. The only consistently successful solution to managing the cap is to bring in new, young players at cheaper contracts.
Fortunately for the Jets, they have a lot of good prospects still in the development pipeline, such as Vesalainen, Appleton, Petan, Lemieux, Gustafsson, Poolman, Niku, Stanley, and Samberg.
These prospects’ individual success at the NHL level has yet to be determined, but at least they are possibilities for the Jets over the next few years. Their success at the NHL level is critical for the Jets’ ability to manage their looming cap crunch. The cheaper salaries (for a few years) for these younger players need to replace some of the more expensive veteran contracts. Given the guaranteed contracts in the NHL (and particularly Little’s no move clause for the next 2 seasons), the Jets will be forced to take action with certain players, in order to keep the rest of their core intact.
The timing of Jacob Trouba’s future UFA status presents several challenges for the Jets. The team controls his RFA contracts through June 2020, but the potentially big contracts for other players will be needed one year before that, in the summer of 2019. The Jets will need to accurately assess Trouba’s long-term intentions, in order to correctly determine how to either fill his bank account, or fill his roster spot instead.
All of this sets up a fundamental choice – more like a dilemma – for Kevin Cheveldayoff. Do the Jets emphasize the preservation of the long-term core players? Or do they maximize the Jets’ talent for just the next three years, at the expense of the long-term future?
If the Jets’ want to emphasize the long-term future of their core players (more than three years out), this would influence the Jets to sign key young players to long-term contracts instead of bridge contracts, but at the higher “Average Annual Salaries” (AAV) that comes with long-term contracts. This would also mean that more of the veteran contracts would have to be unloaded sooner, at the expense of the short-term roster, in order to get under the cap.
Alternatively, if Chevy decides that the Jets’ goal is maximizing their talent for the next 3 years, his motivation will be to get the short-term AAV’s as low as possible, using bridge contracts for the young players, and maybe a long-term, back-loaded contract with Wheeler (within the current CBA limits for back-loading). However, the bridge contracts imply much higher AAV’s a few years down the road, and even more roster manipulation at that later time.
All of this complexity is heightened by two other factors:
- The possibility that there may be a new CBA in the summer of 2020 (or a lock-out/strike in 2020-21), if either the NHL or the NHLPA elect to terminate the current CBA early; and
- The certainty that there will be another expansion draft in June of 2020, with rules similar to the Vegas expansion draft.
If you can whip up a solution with dollar values that work, in 10 minutes or less, you’re probably one of those people that can solve Rubix Cubes in a few seconds. That’s beyond me.
However, I am good with numbers. And, I’ve surprised myself a little by my own “eye test” for making some pretty accurate evaluations of young Jets prospects’ future potential. (I’m not a scout, hockey coach or even a good hockey player – I guess I just have a good gut reaction when I watch).
I promise you that this series of blogs will hook, slash and hold everything that crosses a blue line, with the hope of providing some possible solutions, with each Jets’ objective in mind.
And maybe throw in a few more predictions, as well!
Go Jets Go!
(Photo: Jonathon Kozub/NHL)