The Winnipeg Jets have never been known as a “cap team” (one which spends close to the NHL’s salary cap each season),which includes their final years as the Atlanta Thrashers.
By re-signing restricted free agents Zach Bogosian, Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little this summer to lucrative long-term contracts, the Jets (for the first time) are close to the salary cap ceiling, with roughly $2.3 million in cap space.
Bogosian (cap hit: $5.142 million per season), Wheeler ($5.6 million per season) and Little ($4.7 million per season) join Evander Kane ($5.25 million per), Tobias Enstrom ($5.75 million), Dustin Byfuglien ($5.2 million), Andrew Ladd ($4.4 million) and Ondrej Pavelec ($3.9 million) among the Jets’ highest paid players. Their combined cap hit for next season (and each season up to the end of 2015-16) totals almost $40 million (roughly $39.942 million).
In rewarding those players so generously, however, Jets management (as well as Winnipeg pundits and fans) will be expecting significant payback. As the Winnipeg Sun’s Ken Wiebe and the Winnipeg Free Press’ Gary Lawless observed, the time for living off potential is over. It’s time for those high-paid players to justify those big contracts by carrying the Jets into not just playoff contention, but eventual Stanley Cup contention.
Some critics, however, questioned the logic in the Jets investing so heavily in its young core players by signing Bogosian, Wheeler and Little to those lucrative new contracts,.
It’s a legitimate critique. Those core players have yet to prove they can carry the Jets into playoff contention. By investing nearly $40 million in just eight players, Jets management is gambling on that group proving itself as a foundation upon which to build a contender.
One can respond to the question, “Should the Jets have invested so heavily in that core” with another question: “What choice do they have?”
Sure, management could’ve played hardball, insisting on shorter, more affordable contracts, perhaps going through arbitration to achieve that goal.
But is it really worth the possibility of alienating those players? Is it worth the risk of driving one or more of them into the UFA market at their earliest opportunity?
Yes, it’s possible most of those players could fail to meet expectations. Then again, most could meet or exceed those expectations, justifying management’s investment.
Bogosian, Wheeler and Little were reportedly very happy to stay in Winnipeg, touting the club’s promising future and their desire to be part of it. Surely they’re the type of players worth retaining?
What of the team’s reputation if they didn’t invest in their homegrown talent? The Jets would be seen as little more than a glorified farm club developing talent for other NHL teams. Shades of the 1990s, which I doubt many Jets fans wish to relive.
Think of the message that would’ve sent to Jets fans who bought into management’s spiel about building around mostly young, homegrown talent. How would it look to those fans watching their best players dealt away or lost to free agency because management was unwilling or unable to retain them long-term?
What shouldn’t the Jets re-sign their core players to lengthy contracts? Where’s the wisdom in cutting most of them loose and starting over at this point because they’ve yet to prove themselves as playoff contenders?
Nothing wrong with debating the worth of Bogosian, Wheeler and Little. or the other members of the Jets core, but at least Jets management didn’t waste their dollars this summer on overrated talent in the weakest UFA market ever. If you’re going to invest big bucks in talent, you’re usually better off investing in your own.
The current Jets management didn’t acquire those core players, but they’ve seen enough of them over the past two seasons to believe it worth the expensive investment.
It remains to be seen, of course, if those investments pay off. Lawless is right when he said they can no longer get by on potential. Those players must all justify the big bucks they’re earning.
Still, it’s a gamble which should pay off in the long run for the Jets. Their chances of building toward playoff and possible Cup contention are better by investing now in their current core than by trying to play it cheap or investing in questionable free agent talent.