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Jets add depth, competition as free agency opens

by Ryan Dittrick (@ryandittrick) / Winnipeg Jets

WINNIPEG - #FreeAgentFrenzy, indeed.

Around the league, it was one of the busiest and most expensive days of all time on the business side, with more than $500 million - the cost of an expansion franchise - committed to 89 new contracts, as of 4:59pm CT.

Here in Winnipeg, it was a "methodical" day for the Jets, with the club signing three players - journeyman Shawn Matthias, local boy Quinton Howden and rugged defenceman Brian

Strait - to shorter-term deals to add depth in three key positions.

"Competition in any and all positions is very healthy," General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said during a press conference Friday at MTS Centre. "We'll see how the rest of the summer plays
out, but today was a good step forward in creating that."

The hope is to have a number of different players fighting for just a few positions, forcing players to perform at their best when camp kicks off later this fall.

"Certainly with the draft and the (courting) period opening up on the second day of the draft, there's an opportunity - whether it was myself, (Assistant GMs) Larry Simmons or (Craig Heisinger) - to reach out to a lot of these different players and agents and get a conversation going,"
Cheveldayoff said.

The conversations continued throughout the week as players from all walks took calls and had backroom deals in place, leading to a flurry of activity shortly after 11:00am CT, when free
agency officially opened up.

The Jets made their first move at 12:45, filling a need they identified after finishing in the bottom third in penalty killing last year.

Matthias, 28, split the 2015-16 season with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Colorado Avalanche, collecting 12 goals and 28 points in a combined 71 regular-season games. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound forward can play centre or wing ("Wherever I'm told to play, I'll play hard at and give it my best"), and was mainly targeted by the Jets for his excellent penalty-killing ability.

"We were looking to add someone that could give us another option for Paul to use (on the penalty kill)," Cheveldayoff said. "He can play centre, he has played centre, but I wouldn't say that's where he's penciled in yet. We've got some very good options with (Mathieu) Perreault, (Alexander) Burmistrov… It's good to have options."

 

Matthias had a career-high 18 goals and 27 points as a member of the Vancouver Canucks in 2014-15.

His cap hit over the next two years comes in at $2.125 million.

"The biggest thing was to go to a team I think can win in the next couple years," he said. "I believe this is a team I can grow with, be a part of and win. I couldn't be happier to be with this organization. … You see the fans and how passionate they are, you feed off that. Winnipeg's a place I've played in before as a visitor and it's so loud and so crazy, I just can't wait to get started.

"I can't stress how excited I am for this opportunity … I think we're going to win, and I'm expecting to win."

The same can be said of Howden, who arrived on a one-year, $650,000 contract about an hour later. The homegrown product, who saw his younger brother Brett taken with the 27th pick (Tampa Bay) in last week's draft, is excited about coming home to Winnipeg.

"I think my mom dropped the phone when I called her," he said with a laugh.

"This is something I've always wanted. It's been a dream of mine to play for the hometown team and have my family and friends in the stands every game. … This is a new chapter and I'm really excited for it.

Howden, a former first-round pick in the 2010 Draft, has 10 goals and 17 points in 92 NHL games after a sterling junior career with the Western Hockey League's Moose Jaw Warriors. An RFA entering the off-season, he became an unrestricted free agent last week when the Panthers decided not to qualify him.

Strait put pen to paper on a one-year, $600,000 deal to round out the day's activity. The 28-year-old had one goal, six points and 31 penalty minutes in 52 games with the Islanders last year.

"My speed is my asset," Howden said. "I try to get on the forecheck as hard as I can, be competitive every shift, play good defence and provide some offence when the chances are there."

Next up on Cheveldayoff's to-do list: Locking up his five restricted free agents, including Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba. There was no update today on the status of those contract talks, but the GM did say it was a priority of his to have them all done in short order.

"We addressed some needs today and I feel very comfortable with what we came away with."

- Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.com

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