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Why the Winnipeg Jets included the signing rights to Nathan Smith in the Bryan Little trade to Arizona

We look to the CBA for an answer.

The obvious answer to that headline is because they needed to sweeten the pot in order for the Coyotes to be enticed into taking the Bryan Little contract, which will be in LTIR for the remaining two seasons after this one.

Nathan Smith was drafted by the Jets in the 3rd round of the 2018 draft in Dallas. The Tampa Bay product has spent the last three years playing with the powerhouse Minnesota State University – Mankato Mavericks. This season has been his best to date where he put up 18 goals and 31 assists for 49 points in 34 games which was good enough for second overall in NCAA scoring and made him a Hobey Baker finalist. He also played with Team USA in the Beijing Olympics last month.

Photo Credit: Colby Spence (Illegal Curve)

While the Jets have a lot of prospects in the system on the backend they don’t have as many up front which is why some saw Smith as a solid addition to that forward group, especially given that he is a right shot and the organization does not have a lot of those with the big club. Interestingly last month when we had Scott Wheeler of The Athletic on the Illegal Curve Hockey Show he wasn’t overly enthusiastic largely due to Smith being an older player in college (a junior in college at 23). He felt that he would require some seasoning in the AHL but added that Smith is a “…legitimate piece. I don’t think he’s going to be a top six guy per se but I think he’s the kind of player you could serviceably use on a third line and kind of slide up and down the lineup and have him contributing in a variety of areas. He’s just a good, effective hockey player and every team needs those guys”.

Prior to departing for Bejiing Smith was on a media conference call and was asked by Jeff Hamilton of the Winnipeg Free Press about his level of contact with the Jets organization and how much he was considering his future.

“It is definitely something that is always in the back of my head. Right now I’m just kind of focused on what I am doing here and what I have in a couple of weeks which is the Olympics. Kind of just trying to take it day by day. It’s kind of a lot going on right now with school, the Olympics, upcoming games for school and then the future as well. I just try to take it one day at a time and focus on what I can control.”

Back on February 9th Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff was asked about trying to sign Smith during his mid season media availability. He indicated that after the Jets game against St. Louis on January 29th he flew to Minnesota to have dinner with Smith. At the time he said he expected Smith to have a long run with Minnesota State going for a National Championship but that they were hopeful to “see him at the end of the year”.  Interestingly he went on to say “he’s someone who probably we would have seen a lot of this year playing in our lineup because he is a very skilled player and I think really would compliment a lot of the players that we have within the organization”. Seemingly a nice carrot for the Jets GM to dangle.

Photo Credit: Colby Spence (Illegal Curve)

Which brings us to the NHL Trade Deadline on Monday when the signing rights to Smith were included in the Bryan Little deal. Darren Dreger of TSN mentioned when the Little trade was made that Smith was not going to sign with Winnipeg.

During his media availability following the conclusion of the deadline Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff was asked when he found out that Smith did not intend to sign with his club.

“Friday or Saturday. We had a conversation with his representative he just felt that the opportunity down the middle with our group, with Scheifele, with Dubois, with Lowry, with Perfetti, he just felt that there was going to be better opportunities in other places. He has the unique ability of being a player that can leave school, issue a 30 day letter and become an unrestricted free agent. His was even different than most college players who have to wait ’til August 15th to be that. We had several conversation with different teams. Lots of teams reached out to his representative to see if he would sign with them and ultimately it was Arizona that we were able to make a deal with.”

What is interesting is that Cap Friendly has Smith’s must-sign date as August 15th, 2023.

So why would the Jets need to worry about this now?

We can look to the example of NHLer Justin Schultz who was drafted by the Ducks in the 2nd round back in 2008. He would play one season in the BCHL and then three at the University of Wisconsin. He would thereafter file the necessary paperwork to quit school which gave the Ducks a 30 day window to sign him. They obviously weren’t able to and he signed with the Oilers. There’s a good explanation for it here (under example 2).

Like Schultz, Smith played one season in the USHL after being drafted and is now in his third season at Minnesota State. So it appears that Smith did have more flexibility than most in that he could force a team’s hand this summer rather than having to wait until 2023. And clearly telling the Jets he wasn’t signing was impetus enough for Winnipeg to look for this type of deal.