Jets pay heavy price to avoid a rebuild with Hellebuyck and Scheifele extensions

The Winnipeg Jets are prioritizing giving themselves a reasonable floor, and they're willing to spend inefficiently to make that happen.

When the Winnipeg Jets signed Connor Hellebuyck and Mark Scheifele to matching seven-year extensions on Monday, they sent a clear message about the direction of the franchise.

This group is not going to bottom out for the foreseeable future — at least not intentionally.

Winnipeg had a clear opportunity to turn the page and reboot its competitive cycle by shipping off its established veterans. When the Jets traded Pierre-Luc Dubois, that course of action seemed probable. There didn't appear to be much use in taking a small step back by losing Dubois and not continuing further down that road, especially for a group that barely made the playoffs in 2022-23.

By locking in Hellebuyck and Scheifele, the Jets are committing to continuing an era that has seen the franchise consistently reside in the middle of the pack.

Since Hellebuyck took over as a full-time starter in 2016-17, the Jets rank 13th in the NHL in points (627), having made the playoffs in five of seven seasons and earning three series wins along the way.

The team's only standout campaign in that time came in 2017-18 when they produced 114 points in the regular season and made it to the Western Conference Finals. That's the lone 100-point campaign the franchise has managed since moving to Winnipeg.

In a sense, it's admirable that the Jets don't want to wave the white flag and go into a deep rebuild. It's an unsavory process that can result in years of unwatchable hockey.

What they've done instead undermines their chances of being truly great for the rest of the 2020s, though. Looking at these contracts individually, Hellebuyck's is far more defensible than Scheifele's as he is one of the best players in the league at his position while carrying a massive workload.

Since the Jets made the 30-year-old their starter, the team has a goal differential of +124 while he his goals-saved-above-average mark sits at +90.6. A massive percentage of the team's recent success can be directly attributed to the netminder.

While Scheifele is coming off a 42-goal season, he's also a poor faceoff man and defender. The 30-year-old is an offense-only contributor who ranks 28th in the NHL in points per game over the past four seasons. He's a dangerous and valuable forward, but paying him to be a core player deep into his thirties doesn't seem like an efficient allocation of resources.

That might be easier to swallow for Winnipeg than some franchises, given that the team traditionally has trouble attracting top talent in free agency. Overpaying Scheifele is less of an issue when the Jets have fewer alternative options than some other teams might.

But if Winnipeg had moved on from their veterans, there would've been plenty of ways to weaponize their future cap space, from taking on bad contracts in exchange for futures, to serving as brokers helping facilitate trades between other teams for a price. There wasn't necessarily another top forward who was going to sign with the Jets for top dollar, but if they had gone into a rebuild there would've been a use for their flexibility.

The Winnipeg Jets have locked in two core players. (Darcy Finley/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Winnipeg Jets have locked in two core players. (Darcy Finley/NHLI via Getty Images)

The contracts the Jets signed can be picked apart, but the issue at play is the philosophy behind them. There's an argument to be made that keeping the pair was Winnipeg's best chance to stay competitive, at least in the medium term.

What exactly that's worth is another matter. Outside of an impressive 2017-18 campaign, the Jets have built solid, but unspectacular, teams with Hellebuyck and Scheifele at the center for seven years. Now they are signing up for another seven when that duo will be older, far more expensive, and presumably less effective.

That is a poor recipe for winning a Stanley Cup, particularly if staying afloat in the standings will hurt the team's chances of finding stars in the draft.

Winnipeg's extensions for Hellebuyck and Scheifele — with Kyle Connor and Josh Morrissey being under contract for at least three more seasons as well — give the front office a mandate to keep aiming for postseason berths, and some solid pieces to accomplish that goal.

Achieving anything more ambitious than that isn't going easy.