Most of the talk here in Winnipeg this season has revolved around Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien and understandably so as both players are pending Unrestricted Free Agents who have yet to sign contract extensions. Ladd, the team Captain, and Byfuglien, the fan favourite, are both integral members of a young Jets team looking to return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second consecutive season. Yet as we near the midway mark of the 2015’16 season, the Jets are struggling and it remains unclear what the future holds for these two veteran players.
As reported by Tim Campbell of the Winnipeg Free Press back on December 14, Ladd’s camp is asking for a 6 year deal worth $41 million while Byfuglien’s camp is asking for an 8 year deal worth $55 million. With Jacob Trouba and Mark Scheifele both in the final year of their entry level deals, it is safe to say that General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff has some important decisions to make over the coming months. These upcoming decisions involving Ladd and Byfuglien will ultimately determine whether the Jets management keep a big part of the veteran core of the team together, a veteran core that came over from the Atlanta Thrashers when the team relocated to Winnipeg in 2011.
To be clear, the Jets veteran core, also referred to as “The Atlanta Association”, is the aforementioned Ladd and Byfuglien as well as Bryan Little, Blake Wheeler and Tobias Enstrom. One could throw in goaltender Ondrej Pavelec (currently injured, one year remaining on his contract after this year) but for the purpose of this article we will stick with the five skaters.
Now there is no doubt that The Atlanta Association have been the Jets most consistent players over the last four and a half seasons and it would be tough to argue that the Jets would have made the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season without any one of them. Looking at last year’s regular season performances, Ladd, Wheeler and Little finished 1-2-3 in team scoring while Byfuglien (5th) wasn’t far behind so the issue is not whether or not the Atlanta Association are talented or not but rather if this is the right core to keep together moving forward.
And thus it all comes back to the decisions that will soon be made involving Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien as it is almost guaranteed that the rest of this core is staying put for the time being.
Start with Blake Wheeler. Wheeler, 29, has three years left on his contract after this year and has turned into an elite right winger in the NHL (at the time of this writing, Wheeler had 37 points in 37 games, 9th most points in the NHL). Wheeler (who wears an “A” now) may be the next Captain of this team if Ladd doesn’t re-sign and he could easily finish his career as a Winnipeg Jet.
Bryan Little, 28, and Tobias Enstrom, 31 are both signed for two more years after this season and with the amount of young players on the Jets squad, there is no reason to believe that Kevin Cheveldayoff would trade two of his consistent senior players. Little and Enstrom aren’t going anywhere for now.
When it comes to Ladd and Byfuglien, the dilemma that Cheveldayoff faces is the amount of money that could be tied up in two players who arguably have diminishing returns. Take Ladd first, who is coming off a career high in points (62). At 30 years old, Ladd is at the point in his career where he has almost certainly reached his ceiling offensively. This is not to say that Ladd (a two time Stanley Cup champion) is not a great hockey player but the statistics show that a forward’s prime years are often not in his early to mid-30’s but rather in his early to mid-20’s. Meanwhile, Byfuglien, who is also 30 years old, presents different concerns as the physical style he plays could hurt him as he approaches his mid-30’s. Does Kevin Cheveldayoff want to be paying two aging players $7 million a year three or four years from now when they are past their “primes”?
Because the salary cap has such an impact on the moves a general manager makes, the decision that Cheveldayoff makes will ultimately come down to dollars and cents (Average Annual Value) and whether or not he believes Ladd and Byfuglien should remain part of the team’s core for the long term. (It should be noted that I have been a proponent of signing both Ladd and Byfuglien on The Illegal Curve Hockey Show on TSN 1290 Radio for the specific reason that they have been consistent contributors for the Jets and replacing them will be a difficult task. However, I do believe five or six years should be the maximum contract length for either player as seven or eight years is too long in my opinion.)
So has Kevin Cheveldayoff kept the core of this team together for too long?
The Jets made the playoffs last season for the first time since the Thrashers relocated in 2011 but they didn’t win a single game against the Anaheim Ducks and the team is in serious danger of missing the playoffs this season for the fourth time in five years (The Jets currently sit 7th in the Central Division). One could argue that the current veteran core hasn’t truly advanced this team over the last five years while one could at the same time argue that the supporting cast around them has also not improved enough to be competitive with the elite teams in the Western Conference. One could also argue (and I would) that trading either Ladd and Byfuglien could easily set this franchise back one or two years and could be an indication that Jets management doesn’t feel that this team is going to compete for a Stanley Cup anytime soon.
Ask yourself this: How do you replace a 6’5”, 260 pound physical specimen who has 203 points in 292 games over the last five years AND how do you replace a two-time Stanley Cup Champion who has 103 goals over the last five seasons and has only missed four (yes four!) total games over that span? Not easy is it?
Do you keep Ladd and Byfuglien around for the next four to five years while young players like Mark Scheifele, Jacob Trouba and Nikolaj Ehlers continue to develop or do you trade one or both of them to bring in other players who will bring a different dynamic to the team?
There are many questions but no easy answers so it is very hard to predict what the Jets are going to do before the February Trade Deadline. The only certainty is that the entire hockey world will be watching closely.
For Illegal Curve, I’m Ezra Ginsburg.
Salary cap numbers from General Fanager.