It truly is unfair.
The window for the Winnipeg Jets to not win a Stanley Cup opened way back in 1979 when they arrived as a World Hockey Association merger club and stayed open for 35 years. Even though the Jets’ doors did not.
Today, the window for the Winnipeg Jets to win a Stanley Cup is officially open, but they’d better hurry. Because as they sign captain Blake Wheeler to a five-year, $41.25 contract extension, we are already talking about the difficulties involved in keeping together a handsome roster compiled by general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and his right-hand man Craig Heisinger.
“The key is to try to keep this group,” Wheeler told reporters in Winnipeg Tuesday. “It kind of looks like that window is opening up. And you want to try to keep it together as long as possible. That’s where Chevy has a great luxury in having that problem, but it’s also probably really difficult to try and manipulate.”
Signing Wheeler, who will be 33 when he embarks upon this five-year deal, is something this fiscally prudent, risk averse team might not have done a few years ago. But the Jets have never been a serious Cup contender before, and with that comes the responsibility to commit to a player who means so much to the project that’s been built in Manitoba.
If you didn’t watch a ton of Jets hockey during the regular season last year, you may have gone into the playoffs unaware of Wheeler’s level of play. Assuming you tuned in for the Jets’ run to the Western Conference Final, however, it should be plain that Wheeler is far more than just the captain of this club.
He’s the one who sets it on a tee for Mark Scheifele, both at even strength and on the power-play, a unit that runs through the big Minnesota native. He’s their barometer — the veteran player who chooses the emotion that runs down through the club at any given hurdle during a game.
And if it is tangible items you’re looking for, how about finishing tied with Claude Giroux at 68 for the most assists in the NHL last season? Or the fact he sits seventh in assists over the past five seasons among all NHL players.
There have been times when players like Wheeler have parlayed success in Winnipeg into contracts elsewhere around the NHL. Those times, at least in the near term, are gone.
“We’ve invested,” he said. “There have been guys here that have invested a lot of time and a lot of blood, sweat and tears to try and build this into something we can be proud of. Hopefully, we are getting to the point now where we can be a contending team year-in and year-out. That’s kind of what we’ve been pushing for. To be able to be locked into those years is really exciting.”
Wheeler is the definition of a player who makes the players around him better, through both leadership and production. And with the young crew coming up underneath, to have his kind of veteran leadership married with a player who just had his best NHL season (23-68-91) is a luxury the Jets cannot afford to let go.
But now, of course, the cap dancing begins for Cheveldayoff.
He’ll have to figure out an eight-year deal with Patrik Laine prior to next season, as players who average 40 goals in their first two seasons tend not to have to wait until the third contract to get paid. Then he must solve Kyle Connor, whose contract next season could be a bear if Connor puts up another 31-goal season.
After that, the contracts of defencemen Jacob Trouba and Tyler Myers expire after this season. Meanwhile, RFA defenceman Josh Morrissey — a very important part of the program in Winnipeg — remains without a contract as we speak.
Clearly, it’s a difficult puzzle to solve when you draft and develop as successfully as the Jets have. The goal is to have all those young players grow into weapons, but the inherent problem is the direct relationship between how well you build and how hard it becomes to afford everyone, which is where Cheveldayoff finds himself today.
Credit him for ticking off some boxes as he goes along, with goalie Connor Hellebuyck signing a six-year, $37-million deal this summer, and Scheifele locked down for six more seasons at a ridiculously low $6.125 AAV.
It wasn’t as much fun in Winnipeg when the Jets were trundling along at the bottom of the Central. But, there weren’t as many headaches either.
Today, they are paying the price of success. It will all be worth it, if this project delivers on a Stanley Cup in the next year or two.
In fact, after all these years, it had better.