While the start of free-agent frenzy is only a few weeks old, the Winnipeg Jets still have plenty of work to accomplish before next season begins, which includes adding another reliable defender to the team’s blueline.
Though general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff was able to re-sign defenseman Dylan DeMelo to a four-year, $12 million contract, which was a solid and vital move, that signing alone won’t be enough to significantly improve the club’s defensive corps for the 2020-21 campaign. Since the front office wants to avoid placing a ton of pressure on goalie Connor Hellebuyck for the second consecutive season, they must locate a quality blueliner who could play effectively with Neal Pionk on their second defensive pairing.
With teammates Josh Morrissey and DeMelo featured on the top defensive pairing, the Jets appear to be just one defenseman away from completing their defensive unit, which would be a massive accomplishment compared to how bare that squad looked at the start of this past season. But as it stands right now, veteran Nathan Beaulieu is slated to be paired alongside Pionk on the second pairing and that probably isn’t an ideal situation, as he’d be better suited to be positioned on the team’s third defensive pairing.
Considering Winnipeg will be able to free up forward Bryan Little’s $5.29 million salary by placing him on long term injured reserve, along with potentially making a few cap casualties, Cheveldayoff and his staff should still be able to add a top-four blueliner either through free agency or via the trading market. Taking these factors into account, it seems the club probably won’t be forced to trade either forwards Patrik Laine or Nikolaj Ehlers to make a significant upgrade on the back end.
Even though the free-agent market has been cleaned out over the last few weeks, there are still a few notable players available who could help the Jets in a massive way next season and likely wouldn’t come with a high price tag either. With this in mind, it’d make sense to target someone like veteran Sami Vatanen, who split time between the Carolina Hurricanes and the New Jersey Devils in 2019-20.
Coming over in a last-minute trade at the deadline, Vatanen was acquired by the Hurricanes in hopes that he’d be able to help fill that gap left by defenseman Dougie Hamilton, who missed the remainder of the regular season due to a broken fibula. Unfortunately, the 5-foot-10 blueliner suffered a setback while recovering from his lower-body injury, which also prevented him from returning to action before the league’s shutdown in March.
Despite missing a large chunk of his eighth season in the league, the 29-year old was able to produce effectively over his limited sample size during the regular season. While he also missed some time during the playoffs, as he was deemed “unfit to play” in the second round against the Boston Bruins, the former fourth-round selection still made a respectable contribution when he was slotted in the lineup.
Over his 47 regular season contests with the Devils, Vatanen averaged 21:45 minutes of ice time, producing five goals, 23 points, 0.11 goals per game, 0.49 points per game (most since 2015-16), 95 shots on net (fourth-most among all defensemen who played in 50 games or fewer), 80 blocks (ninth-most), 50 hits, along with 14 takeaways. Additionally, the right-handed shooting blueliner played in seven postseason games with the Hurricanes, averaging 18:10 minutes of ice time and creating three assists, 11 blocks, 10 shots on net, and a trio of hits.
Based on these results, it appears the Finnish native should still be capable of performing as a top-four defenseman next season if he’s able to stay healthy and on the ice throughout the majority of the regular season. That said, the former Anaheim Duck hasn’t played more than 50 games in each of the last two seasons and will be turning 30-years old next June, which has undoubtedly impacted his value on the open market.
Coming off his four-year, $19.5 million contract, there’s zero chance Vatanen will receive an amount anywhere close to his 2019-20 salary of $4.875 million and he could be forced to settle for an inexpensive one-year deal to prove he’s capable of staying on the ice during the later stages of his career. From Winnipeg’s perspective, this type of contract would certainly be ideal, as it’d solidify the team’s defensive corps and help fill the gap until one of their top prospects could emerge into a top-four role.
Though this wouldn’t be a long-term solution, it’s definitely one that would improve the Jets’ roster and would hopefully position them one step closer to achieving their ultimate goal, reaching and winning their first-ever Stanley Cup trophy. But before that happens, they’ll need to continue tweaking their roster through the rest of the offseason in preparation for next season, which is expected to start shortly after 2021 begins.