The Winnipeg Jets are in a tough position when it comes to their restricted free agents. On one hand they just were not a playoff team in the Eastern Conference even with everyone of them in uniform. On the other hand some of them were pretty productive last season, one even having a career year. On the third hand with the Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets promoted to the Eastern Conference the west is likely to be a lot easier sailing than they had it last season. And on the gripping hand, with the cap coming down and uncertainty about how well the market will support the team in this its third season in town with the team finishing out side the playoffs each of the previous two years spending a lot might not be wise. Of the 21 players to elect salary arbitration this summer, a quarter of them were Jets, and two have now reached a deal prior to their hearing.
Of the remaining three, we have Blake Wheeler who has been second and then first on the team in scoring over the last two seasons. Bryan Little an average center, Zach Bogosian a solid defenseman. All three were first round picks. Bogosian and Little are home grown products for the transplanted Atlanta Thrashers. Blake Wheeler declined to sign with the Phoenix Coyotes and upon completing his college career at the University of Minnesota was signed as a free agent and sent to the then Thrashers with Mark Stuart as part of the deal that sent Rich Peverley and Boris Valabik to Boston. Last year after a brief stop in Europe during the lockout Wheeler turned in his best career numbers with a .854 ppg. His career number is notably at .623 which includes his time with the much more defensive minded Bruins where he received less ice time. In the two years he and the team have been in Winnipeg his ppg is .820, over the same period of time Matt Duchene was a .676 per game, barely higher than Wheeler’s career number and far lower than the comparative time. Duchene’s new deal was five years at six million.
For Bogosian, the numbers that matter are pretty plain to see. He’s averaged over 23 minutes a night for the last three seasons. On any team in the league that’s a top two or three defenseman slot. Over the last three seasons he’s been able to finish in the offensive zone at least as often as he finished there. Essentially he both gets the puck out of his zone, and keeps it move forward. Better still, there’s been a solid progression. In the 2010-11 season he started and finished in the offensive zone the same percentage of the time, during the 2011-12 campaign he was a best among all regulars with the second highest increase in offensive zone finishes over starts. The 2012-13 adventure saw him double the previous years gains, and again finish behind only Ron Hainsey.
A quick look at his On Ice Save Percentage might lead you to believe he’s a defensive liability, but keep in mind he plays as much as three minutes of shorthanded ice time a night, and the teams goaltending isn’t spectacular. Some of the players who play a similar amount of time shorthanded are Bryan Allen formerly of the Carolina Hurricanes and now of the Anahiem Ducks, Brian Campbell of the Florida Panthers, Johnny Boychuk of the Boston Bruins, the Nashville Predators captain Shea Weber, and Vancouver Canuck Kevin Bieksa. When look at last season’s points totals, Bogosion kept company with Matt Niskanen Lubomir Vishnovski, and Dan Girardi while playing less games than any of them.
Over the past three seasons, Bryan Little has finished above fifty percent in faceoffs just once. That pleasant occurrence was this past season. Among NHL Centers he finished tied for the bottom of the top 30 with Vincent Lecavalier, and Mike Richards. Not elite company offensively, but not the bottom of the barrel by any stretch of the imagination. In terms of Time On Ice Little did play a huge number of minutes, finishing 10th among NHL centers playing well more than better known names like Sedin, Toews, Thornton, and Krejci. His powerplay time puts him in the top half of the NHL’s centers, but the teams powerplay finished an embarrassing 30th. For the “fancy stats” he does finish in the offensive zone more than he starts there by a very solid margin of almost 9%, he takes very few penalties and draws them better than most of his Winnipeg Jets forward teammates.
Salary wise nailing down where any of these guys lands is difficult. Little plays top end minutes and can get the puck to where it is supposed to be, Bogosian’s stats are murky to interpret, and Wheeler has clearly found his game in Winnipeg. At 25 years old heading into the season Little has accumulated six seasons and 404 regular season games of experience. He’s about he same age David Krejci was when his current deal was signed, Duchene at 22 signed a deal that will kick in when he’s 23 for $6m per, Tyler Bozak who is two years older and a bit less productive inked for $4.2 a year under the current CBA. A fair range for Little is $4.5-5.6 average annual value depending on length of deal, signing bonuses, and things like no trade or no movement clauses.
Blake Wheeler is harder to nail down. Yes last year was a career year and he did indeed finish ninth overall in scoring for right wings on a team that was 16th in scoring for the year. A lot of the guys he finished ahead of are or should be household names, Jordan Eberle, Jarome Iginla, Jaromir Jagr, Wayne Simmonds, and Bobby Ryan. Two seasons ago he finished 15th among right wings, meaning he might have the staying power to finish in the top 15-20 right wings in scoring for the next several years. Comparable contracts of players in that range are Jason Pominville, Bobby Ryan, Nathan Horton and Jakub Voracek. Again we’re looking at a range of $4.5-5.6 AAV.
Bogosion is probably the guy who will have the most brutal arbitration session if it comes to that. Hammering out the stats you can make a case in a certain light that he’s an elite defenseman, you can equally make the case he’s a liability, the truth per usual, likes somewhere between those two. Defensemen who bring a similar toolkit to the rink include Johhny Boychuk, Kevin Bieksa, and Brent Seabrook. When you weigh in all the stats and the eyeball test you come to a range of anything from $4.4m as a low ball figure to a $5.8 as a long term deal if you expect him to keep progressing.