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With big decisions on horizon, Jets quiet in offseason

by Patrick Williams continues its preview of the 2015-16 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout August.

WINNIPEG -- It's been a fairly uneventful offseason for the Winnipeg Jets since they concluded a very eventful run to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but key decisions are on the horizon.

The Jets' 2014-15 season included a blockbuster trade that sent forward Evander Kane to the Buffalo Sabres and a stretch drive starring goaltender Ondrej Pavelec that led to the franchise's first playoff appearance since 2007, when it was the Atlanta Thrashers. A four-game sweep by the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference First Round brought the season to an abrupt end.

Since then, the Jets have seen versatile forward Michael Frolik depart for the Calgary Flames as a free agent. Two other veteran forwards, Lee Stempniak and Jiri Tlusty, were not re-signed.

Winnipeg did re-sign forward Drew Stafford, a key piece of the Kane trade, and brought back forward Alexander Burmistrov after a two-year hiatus in the Kontinental Hockey League.

"We're excited about [retaining] Drew Stafford and we're excited about bringing in Burmistrov," Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff told the Jets website on July 1.

Winnipeg faces some choices that will have implications far beyond this season.

Cheveldayoff will have to deal with the expiring contracts of captain Andrew Ladd and defenseman Dustin Byfuglien over the next 10-plus months. Each can become an unrestricted free agent July 1, 2016. Keeping Ladd and Byfuglien in Winnipeg would require a considerable commitment in dollars and term; each would command substantial interest from other teams if he doesn't get an extension before hitting the market.

Ladd's 62 points (24 goals) led the Jets last season, when he played 81 games despite having a sports hernia for much of the season. Even though Byfuglien played most of the season as a defenseman, he scored 18 goals and helped carry the Jets when midseason injuries ravaged their blue line.

Will the Jets retain Ladd and Byfuglien? One of them? Neither? If they do trade Ladd or Byfuglien, or both, do they do it before this season?

If Ladd and Byfuglien remain in Winnipeg and the Jets find themselves in contention for the playoffs, there would be considerable pressure on Cheveldayoff to retain them. However, such a scenario would mean the Jets risk losing each player for nothing in free agency next summer.

Once Cheveldayoff figures out what to do with Ladd and Byfuglien, he will need to consider the salary-cap implications for defenseman Jacob Trouba and center Mark Scheifele. Each player is a key part of the Jets' core group and can become a restricted free agent next summer.

Although the decisions on Byfuglien, Ladd, Scheifele and Trouba will have long-term aftershocks, the effects could be felt as soon as this season. The roster implications are twofold.

First, the Jets might have a limited window to blend core players Byfuglien and Ladd with youngsters such as Burmistrov and top prospects like forward Nikolaj Ehlers and defenseman Josh Morrissey.

Second, if Ladd and Byfuglien are not in Winnipeg's future, do the Jets need to accelerate the development of Ehlers, Morrissey, center Andrew Copp and others this season? The departure of Ladd or Byfuglien, or both, would leave gaping holes in the lineup, and the Jets would need reinforcements as quickly as possible.

There are several wild-card possibilities up front, particularly in the bottom six. Burmistrov played a useful role with the Jets before his KHL stint. He could compete with Adam Lowry for the third-line center role. Burmistrov and Lowry each can play on the wing and could fit in a third-line role that way.

"We had some good young players make big, big impacts for us last [season]," Jets coach Paul Maurice told the Jets website July 3.

Ehlers had 104 and 101 points in his past two seasons for Halifax of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, so another year in junior doesn't seem to be best for his development. But if he does stick with the Jets, is he prepared for a top-six role that would guarantee him the ice time needed to continue his development?

Scoring could be an issue for the Jets. Frolik, Stempniak and Tlusty combined for 48 goals last season. If Ehlers and Burmistrov can't compensate for some of those goals, the Jets may have trouble generating secondary scoring.

As always, goaltending is a major question in Winnipeg. Veteran Ondrej Pavelec excelled in the Jets' drive to the playoffs. Michael Hutchinson's early-season play pushed Pavelec, and they competed with each other for starts until Pavelec secured the starting job in mid-March.

Maurice is confident despite the questions surrounding the Jets.

"We've got a structure that we're going to stick to, and that's probably the thing I like best about working here," he said. "We have a very well-defined game plan for how this organization is going to move forward, and it has stayed on track."

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