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Jets 2021 Free Agency Preview: Needs, targets, issues

WINNIPEG — Kevin Cheveldayoff didn’t want to risk waiting until free agency opened, so he made a pre-emptive strike instead.

After watching a number of defencemen move in trades or to the expansion Seattle Kraken during the previous week, the general manager of the Winnipeg Jets orchestrated a deal for Brenden Dillon on Monday night.

Just last week, Cheveldayoff was discussing the pursuit of defencemen and mentioned that it would be interesting to see who was going to be left on the board when free agency opened.

Cheveldayoff saw several teams address their need — and with speculation surrounding potential target David Savard and expected interest of the Montreal Canadiens after news Shea Weber was likely lost for the upcoming season and that he might not play again — and decided to part with second-round picks in 2022 and 2023 in order to acquire Dillon.

Dillon’s arrival is expected to coincide with the departure of pending unrestricted free agents Derek Forbort and Tucker Poolman.

This isn’t just a stopgap solution either, as Dillon provides some cost certainty for the Jets — since his contract runs for three seasons and carries an AAV of $3.9 million.

Dillon, who is six-foot-four and 225 pounds, plays with an edge, has showcased the ability to contribute offence at even strength, should help the penalty kill and brings some valuable playoff experience to an organization looking to take a step forward after getting swept in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Jets had been interested in acquiring Dillon when he was a member of the San Jose Sharks, but they ended up with Dylan DeMelo prior to the NHL trade deadline in 2020.

Prior to Monday’s trade, the Jets addressed another need by signing veteran forward Paul Stastny to a one-year contract worth $3.75 million.

Stastny, 35, is coming off a strong season and had expressed an interest in extending the relationship during a year-end zoom session, but made it clear he was in no rush to make a decision on his future.

After waiving his no-trade clause at the deadline in 2018, Stasty chose to forego unrestricted free agency this time around and is taking a pay cut (he made $6.5 million during the past three seasons) to remain in the fold.

The Jets were expected to be active Wednesday, but these two moves helped stabilize a defence corps that was in need of an upgrade and also bolsters a strong forward contingent with a middle-six option who is a part of the leadership group and has the versatility to play either centre or the wing.

With the two moves, the bulk of the remaining salary-cap space ($11.2 million, not including centre Bryan Little and the $5.291 million that is likely heading to LTIR once again) to be allotted for deals to lock up restricted free agents Neal Pionk, Logan Stanley and Andrew Copp.

But if the price is right, the Jets could consider a forward to provide some organizational depth that might push for a spot on the edges of the roster, or perhaps serve as a replacement for right-winger Mason Appleton — who landed with the Seattle Kraken.

The Jets are also in the market for an experienced backup goalie to share the crease with Connor Hellebuyck and will likely be looking at external options after Cheveldayoff said following the 2021 NHL Draft that he expected Laurent Brossoit to test the market as an unrestricted free agent.

The expectation is that a number of goalies will be on the move this off-season and there could be a musical chairs feel to the position.

Morweena, Man., product James Reimer could be an option, but only if he’s willing to make less than the $3.4-million AAV he was paid on his previous five-year deal.

Salary cap space: $11.2 million
Roster size: 19/23 ($70.3 million)
Salary committed to forwards: $48 million
Salary committed to defence: $16.0 million
Salary committed to goalies: $6.17 million
Salary cap overages for 2021-22: $145,122

Potential UFA targets

Joel Armia, RW

The former Jets winger was a salary-cap casualty back in the summer of 2018 as he was traded to the Canadiens. Armia excelled in a fourth-line, penalty killing role as the Canadiens reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2021, but he’s shown an ability to play higher in the lineup as well. The 28-year-old from Finland is coming off a two-year deal that carried an AAV of $2.6 million and he will be looking for a multiyear pact in a similar price range.

Nick Ritchie, LW

The 25-year-old is a power forward who has battled consistency issues during his career, but he’s got size, soft hands and managed to record 15 goals and 26 points in 56 games with the Boston Bruins last season — though his role was reduced after the arrival of Taylor Hall. The 10th-overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft is looking for a fresh start, but likely is hoping for a raise after a three-year contract paid him $4.6 million ($1.53-million AAV).

Ritchie became a UFA because the Bruins were concerned about the potential arbitration award, so he might be out of the Jets’ price range.

Andrew Cogliano, LW

The 25th-overall pick in the 2005 NHL Draft can provide a boost on the fourth line, while showcasing his speed and penalty killing abilities. His resume includes 1,066 NHL games and another 100 Stanley Cup Playoff contests.

Cogliano’s previous three-year contract carried an AAV of $3.25 million, but he’s likely going to need to take a pay cut.

Ondrej Kase, RW

A lot hinges on his medical report as the former Anaheim Ducks forward was limited to only three games with the Bruins last season, much of which was related to concussion issues. There’s risk attached, but also the potential for a reward as Kase produced 20 goals and 38 points in 66 games during the 2017-18 season. He’s a hard-working winger with some finishing ability and he’s likely going to need to take a deal for less than the $2.6-million AAV he made during his prior three-year contract.

Danton Heinen, C

A versatile forward with speed, the 26-year-old isn’t a big point producer, but he’s a responsible player and can contribute on the penalty kill in a bottom-six role and provide some secondary scoring — reaching double digits in three seasons. Danton had a $2.8-million AAV the past two seasons, which is part of the reason he didn’t receive a qualifying offer from the Ducks.

Trevor Lewis, RW

A return for the two-time Stanley Cup winner wouldn’t necessarily generate a lot of headlines, but he earned the trust of Jets head coach Paul Maurice and was an important contributor to the penalty kill while playing responsibly on the fourth line. Lewis played for just over the league minimum last season and should be in a similar range on the next deal. There is believed to be mutual interest to extend the relationship.

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