The Winnipeg Jets currently have about as much salary cap space available in their wallet as there were Manitobans sunbathing on Portage and Main this past month. That’s a big zero. They have spent the full amount of cash available to them on this year’s roster and have bought nothing but disappointment. Instead of discussing Andrew Copp or Paul Statsny as trade possibilities like most are doing, let’s step outside the box for a few minutes. Captain Blake Wheeler has had a forgettable first half by anybody’s standards. He has resurfaced as of late but carries with him the tag of being the Jets’ top wage earner at $10 million this season. Could it be possible to move on from him and his hefty contract?
At the start of the season, it would have been unfathomable to move on from Wheeler. He was much too valuable on what was touted as a Stanley Cup contender. Into the New Year with his less than expected level of play on a disappointing team would have seemed impossible. Now? Currently, an interesting set of circumstances have presented themselves, as the Jets have played somewhat better in the last couple of weeks. The question remains: can the Jets move this aging forward who carries an incredibly large contract? With his recent play, Wheeler himself may have created be an opportunity for both the Jets and him to part ways with a brighter future for each.
Wheeler’s Recent Play May Outweigh the Contract
I have an idea I’d like to share. You’re welcome to agree or disagree and comment, but I can’t see how it doesn’t make sense for the Jets. As mentioned, it would seem Wheeler could be a difficult player to move financially. The average annual value (AAV) is the average salary a player is earning over the length of the contract. It is calculated by taking the total value of the contract and dividing it by its term, and that number is applied to the team’s salary cap. Wheeler carries an AAV of $8.25 million, the highest amongst the Jets.
The Jets’ captain has been a perennial workhorse, having played in over 1,000 games and scoring over a point-per-game in his previous five seasons, all while being over the age of 30. He has played his best hockey in that period. In that same time frame, he has added 26.2 points per year on the power play. Throughout his career, he has proven himself to be an offensive stalwart and the undeniable leader of this club. The 6-foot-5, 225-pound power forward is a large force in the offensive zone and has made the neighbourhood in and around its crease his office by making a living scoring from there.
This season has been a bit of an anomaly for Wheeler. He got bit by the COVID bug early in the season then suffered a pretty major injury, causing him to spend an extended amount of time in physiotherapy. He sustained a lower-body injury (knee) in December that kept him out of the lineup, but luckily for him and the Jets, it happened during the COVID outbreak when the Jets had to reschedule a number of games. Fortunately for him, he missed only six games, considering he spent six weeks in recovery.
Much has been made of Wheeler and his lack of production this season. Some have argued he has slowed a step or two being 35 years old and that he should play on the third line to make room for younger, faster legs. But in all the media and fan chatter, he has still scored 34 points in 38 games. Agreed, it was a slow start for him, as he scored only nine points in his first 20 games, finally scoring his first goal of the season in his 22nd game on Dec. 10 against the Vancouver Canucks…the same game he obtained the aforementioned knee injury. So to summarize, a COVID quarantine followed by six weeks of rehab and add a change in head coach, and yes, he did indeed have what some would consider an off-season. Things have since changed.
Wheeler’s Recent Play Could Create Some Interest
Wheeler has rejuvenated his scoring touch, with 13 points (4G – 9A) in his last eight games. In their 3-1 loss to the Calgary Flames, Wheeler was arguably their best forward, especially in the third period of a 1-1 game that felt like a playoff match. His play and speed have improved now that he’s healthy. He’s solidified the number one power-play unit, has notched a couple of goals with the man advantage, and has logged an average of 19 minutes per outing in that eight-game span. IN fact, if you ignore his first 20 games, he’s produced 25 points in the 18 games he’s played since. If you were a team looking for a top-six forward, someone to solidify your forward unit, be a solid power-play contributor, and were a team with a great regular season record looking to make a deep playoff run, would Wheeler not be an appealing addition? I think he would.
He’s big, strong, works well along the boards and in the crease, is a true leader and has experience. The only thing that would cause a team to pause is his large contract. Is there a team with those previously mentioned needs? A franchise looking to do some damage in the playoffs, and most importantly, has the appropriate cap space? Indeed there is. The New York Rangers are looking for more stability up front and conveniently have more than $6 million in available space. They would be a good fit for Wheeler, and he would be a great fit for them and invariably a good reprieve to the Jets’ salary cap problems moving forward.
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In Wheeler, the Jets would be asking for a second-round draft pick at best with some assets. I would take a serious look at having the Rangers throw in Filip Chytil and K’Andre Miller. Chytil was a first-round selection in 2017 who is a 22-year-old forward and comes with a $2.3 million price tag, while Miller was a 2018 first-round pick. This 6-foot-4, 220-pound defenseman, who also happens to be 22 years old, has played in every game for the Rangers this season and has vastly improved his skills to become a top-six blueliner (from “K’Andre Miller’s emergence making Rangers’ defense more formidable”, New York Post, 23/02/2022). He’s also signed to an entry-level contract of $925,000 next season. Two young players like this, who have proven to be NHL level that would also come with $5 million savings, would be a win-win for the Jets.
With Wheeler playing as well as he has of late, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and the Jets have an opportunity they didn’t anticipate. The Jets are unlikely to make the playoffs and should be looking to acquire some assets and reduce their payroll as they have some current players that are going to require a raise in the offseason. I’m not saying Wheeler is going to get traded, but I am saying his play has created a situation where he could be. It would be a bold move, to say the least, but one that has some real upside.
Keith Forsyth is a freelance writer and sports junkie from rural Manitoba who is covering the Winnipeg Jets for The Hockey Writers. Keith loves all sports and is a huge fan of the NFL (Skol Vikings… if you know, you know) and the Montreal Expos (they’re coming back… you watch!). He recently retired from the education world teaching high school, where his greatest passion was coaching young athletes. He brings that same logical, behind the bench type of approach to you as he delivers an insightful look into the NHL and specifically the Jets. For interview requests or content info, follow Keith on Twitter or his social media accounts. They appear under his photo on articles like this one.