The Winnipeg Jets have been publicly vocal that “The Summer of Chevy” redux will focus primarily on a ‘retooling’ as opposed to a ‘rebuild’. Metaphorically, the phone lines are open, but the negotiation lines have been drawn.
Rather than continue to yell at the clouds, let’s focus on what this could/should mean for a Jets team 14 years into their reincarnation. Retooling is a nebulous term. It can range from tinkering to a dynamic shift in personnel. I surmise the Jets currently sit somewhere in the middle, meaning they want to compete for a Stanley Cup, but are malleable in terms of how they get there as currently constructed.
The obvious big-ticket questions surround impending UFA’s Mark Schefiele, Connor Hellebuyck and Pierre-Luc Dubois. However, margins are where championships are forged, and because players are assets, let’s perform a margin call:
1. Defensive overhaul
Neal Pionk has the 46th-highest salary cap hit amongst all NHL defensemen. Given there are 32 teams in the NHL, on a cumulative average, Neal Pionk is being paid as a high-end no.2 defenseman.
“Wins Above Replacement” (WAR) is a metric that attempts to express how much value (or wins) each player contributed to their team’s success, expressed as a single number. Last season Neal Pionk ranked 311th in WAR out of 326 defensemen by Evolving Hockey. For context, Logan Stanley was ranked 262nd, and Josh Morrisey was 11th.
That means that Pionk is being paid in the 85th percentile of NHL defenseman for 2nd percentile production. Alas, Nate Schmidt is mired in an identical downward dichotomy. Both players make $6M per year to play below a replacement level.
I believe the Jets are suffering from sunk-cost fallacy – a phenomenon whereby a person is reluctant to abandon a strategy or course of action because they have invested heavily in it. The Winnipeg Jets are not going to get anywhere close to sticker value for Pionk and Schmidt, but I refuse to believe these players are simply untradeable. The Jets need to pivot regardless of perceived value loss.
This is simply a matter of addition by subtraction. Using Pionk’s and Schmidt’s $12M cap space to bolster the roster (forward depth) is beneficial enough to move on from Captain Chaos and The Joker.
2. If you’re bringing back Scheifefe and Hellebuyck – do it wisely
Unlike trees, in the NHL, aging is no guarantee of rings. In fact, quite the contrary. NHL players peak around age 27-29 (sources vary):
We can debate the merits of using metrics like Corsi and Fenwick as our benchmark, but studies are clear that production wanes as players reach their 30s.
Anecdotally, we can look no further than Winnipeg Jets’ own Blake Wheeler for evidence. Wheeler signed a 5-year $41.25 M contract on Sept 4, 2018, at the age of 33. The results have been less than encouraging:
This is not an indictment of Blake Wheeler the player, but rather an indictment of Blake Wheeler the asset. As cold and calculated as it sounds, NHL players are commodities, and therefore market principles apply. The Jets bought high on Blake Wheeler.
Let’s look at Mark Scheifele. After a slowish start to his career, Schefiele was just flat elite from 2014-17. I for one regret not recognizing his outsized production and contribution in real-time:
His production has dipped from its peak, but 55 is (statistically anyway) a valuable asset (especially at his current salary). That said, paying for past performance is a great way to find oneself in salary cap purgatory. Outliers exist, but the reality is we have more than likely seen the best Mark Scheifele has to offer.
The same age principle holds true (in general) for Connor Hellebuyck. Yet, there is evidence (again, anecdotal) that goalies can defy age expectations. Patrick Roy (35), Chris Osgood (35), Tim Thomas (37), and Dominik Hasek (37) all won Stanley Cups well past their age apex. A then 32-year-old Marc-Andre Fleury led the Golden Knight to the Finals. Outliers are easier to find in a singular position like goaltender.
In a perfect world, the Jets can convince Scheifele and Hellebuyck to sign 3-year deals. I can hear the cacophony of laughter from NHL player agents everywhere. Therein lies the problem. Each I assume will be looking for a minimum term length of 5 years and north of $7M ACV. On a balance of probabilities, that is not a desirable long-term outcome for the Winnipeg Jets.
3. Trade PLD
When the Jets said goodbye to yet another prolific Finnish scorer in January 2021, Jets fans took solace in the fact that the organization had procured a 2-way, potentially no. 1 center in return. While PLD unquestionably had the best overall season of his career in 2022-23, the uncertainty of his future creates a pervasive negative valence.
PLD has walked back (somewhat) the “Montreal or die” credo but has yet to show any willingness to sign a long-term deal in Winnipeg. The Winnipeg Jets can’t risk injury, or a muddled market to maximize their return on PLD. Starting the season with him on the roster would be a distraction and a mistake.
Want your voice heard? Join the Jets White Out team!
“The Summer of Chevy” is likely to be muggy and inclement – much like current Winnipeg weather conditions. If the Jets are committed to a retool, then time is of the essence, and the organization would be wise to get the summer started.