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31 in 31

Inside look at Winnipeg Jets

Mason, Kulikov added to talented core in hopes of securing playoff berth

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

NHL.com is providing in-depth roster, prospect and fantasy analysis for each of its 31 teams throughout August. Today, the Winnipeg Jets.

The Winnipeg Jets went shopping this offseason to aid their attempt to move up in the Central Division and find a way into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

They made an uncharacteristic foray into the free agent market July 1 to try to support their draft-and-develop philosophy, signing goalie Steve Mason to a two-year, $8.2 million contract (average annual value $4.1 million) and defenseman Dmitry Kulikov to a three-year, $13 million contract (average annual value $4.33 million).

It was the most money the Jets spent at the start of free agency since the franchise relocated to Winnipeg from Atlanta in 2011.

 

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The Jets also went the extra mile to protect key players from the NHL Expansion Draft by making a trade with the Vegas Golden Knights.

The Jets traded the 13th pick in the 2017 NHL Draft and a third-round pick in the 2019 NHL Draft to Vegas for the 24th pick in the 2017 draft, and a presumed assurance from the Golden Knights not to choose veteran defenseman Toby Enstrom.

Enstrom, 32, agreed to waive his no-movement clause so he could be exposed in the expansion draft.

"People can say we paid a price, [but] we've always been and will always be a draft-and-develop team," general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said. "We feel we've got some really good pieces here that can click and work together, so we didn't want to lose one of those pieces."

Without Enstrom's decision and the trade, the Jets may have been forced to protect eight skaters and one goalie from the expansion draft (instead of seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie), so they could protect defensemen Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Enstrom. That would have exposed forwards Adam Lowry and Mathieu Perreault.

After the trade, Vegas selected forward Chris Thorburn in the expansion draft. Thorburn signed with the St. Louis Blues after becoming a free agent.

Video: 31 in 31: Winnipeg Jets 2017-18 season preview

The Jets' motivation to add veterans in free agency comes from a roster of ascending young players.

Last season, rookie forward Patrik Laine, 19, was their leading goal-scorer with 36. Center Mark Scheifele, 24, had 82 points (32 goals, 50 assists) in 79 games to finish seventh in the NHL. Forward Nikolaj Ehlers, 21, improved to 64 points (25 goals, 39 assists) in his second season from 38 as a rookie. Trouba, 23, became an all-situation player and played an NHL career-high 24:57 per game.

Each was a key element in helping the Jets win 40 games (40-35-7, 87 points). Winnipeg finished fifth in the Central and seven points behind the Nashville Predators for second wild card into the playoffs from the Western Conference.

Mason will be asked to stabilize the Jets goaltending. Winnipeg allowed 255 goals last season, fourth-most in the League behind the Colorado Avalanche (276), Dallas Stars (260) and Arizona Coyotes (258). Goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, 24, was 26-19-4 with a 2.89 goals-against average and .907 save percentage. He signed a one-year, $2.25 million contract July 24.

"It should give the coaches great options on a nightly basis," Cheveldayoff said.

Video: The crew talks about where the Jets can improve

Winnipeg's poor defense last season was the impetus to add Kulikov's experience.

"He is still relatively young, one of those guys who started in the League as [a teenager]," Cheveldayoff said. "He was injured [last season], and we're looking for that player that helped [the] Florida [Panthers] in the [2016] playoffs and was one of their best defensemen in their last playoff run."

Winnipeg's defense will improve significantly if Myers is recovered from surgery to repair a lower-body injury that limited him to 11 games last season.

In addition to improved health -- the Jets lost 355 man-games to injuries last season -- the ability of the young roster to step up will be a must.

"The NHL is a very, very unforgiving place to have to teach," Cheveldayoff said, "but when you have young talent like we do or did, and they're emerging into veteran players, those are the experiences that you're going to benefit from moving forward."

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