Two Central Division teams are emphasizing their transition phases with recent buyouts.
The Winnipeg Jets bought out right winger and former captain Blake Wheeler, placing him on unconditional waivers for purposes of a buyout, while the Nashville Predators made the surprising decision on buying out the rest of forward Matt Duchene’s contract.
Wheeler had one year remaining on his deal at an $8.25 million cap hit, while Duchene had three years remaining at an $8 million cap hit. Both will now become unrestricted free agents.
The Blake Wheeler Buyout
On the last day to buy out players, Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff bought out his former captain, who was on the final year of a five-year, $41.25 million contract that carried an $8.25 million cap hit. The buyout effectively ended a long-lasting speculation whether or not he would be bought out or traded.
The last remaining Jet to have played for the Atlanta Thrashers, the 36-year-old captained the Jets for six seasons before having it stripped by incoming head coach Rick Bowness last summer. Wheeler saw the rise of the Jets under previous head coach Paul Maurice, a time in which they made the Western Conference Final in 2017-18, falling to the Vegas Golden Knights. Since then, they have won just one playoff series, a four-game sweep over the Edmonton Oilers in 2020-21.
The buyout will free up $5 million in cap space for this season, reducing his cap hit to $2.75 million for each of the next two seasons. Financial flexibility is at a premium for them, and they have freed up significant cap space this summer for their rebuild/retool.
It also allows Wheeler a fresh breath of air to get a chance elsewhere in the league to compete for a Stanley Cup, while the Jets move on from someone who arguably was the face of the franchise.
Jets Turning a New Leaf with This Decision
Bowness stripping Wheeler of the captaincy was a gutsy move, but it showed what many fans perceived from the outside looking in as him and other members of the veteran core creating a toxic culture and a lack of accountability in the locker room. While it’s not known the reality of the situation inside the locker room actually was, it was clear that after the captaincy was removed that a fresh start was needed on both ends.
It also showed to Wheeler’s inability of leading a winning culture and showed that the disappointing 2021-22 season was not acceptable to the team. Even though he bounced back with 55 points in 72 games, his production declined down the stretch, and he called out Bowness when the head coach said he was “disappointed and disgruntled” after Game 5 against the Golden Knights in the 2023 first round, with the Jets on the brink of elimination. Winnipeg lost that game 4-1, with their lone goal coming at the latter half of the third period with the game already decided.
Bowness tried to “change the guard” of the Jets, to no avail. Many players also even viewed Wheeler as the captain of the team even though he was not in 2022-23. He wasn’t an effective leader to wear the captaincy. Whether he undermined the coaching staff is not known, but even if he did or didn’t do that, he was still viewed by the players as their team leader.
That makes it more well-known that the only way that his influence is no longer on the team was to either trade him or buy him out. Alternate captains Adam Lowry and Josh Morrissey, along with a third alternate captain to replace the likely-to-depart Mark Scheifele, will now lead in their own way without Wheeler’s influence, which, in hindsight, is for the betterment of the team.
Wheeler’s Legacy in Winnipeg
In his time in Winnipeg, Wheeler was an elite playmaker, and he has the Thrashers/Jets franchise records in games played, assists, and points. He had back-to-back 91-point seasons in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons. He fought through injuries, and had some of the best moments in the current iteration of the Jets.
However, it wasn’t all clear skies. Winnipeg won just three playoff series in his tenure in six playoff appearances. He was a very serious player, which didn’t sit well with some of his teammates, and he and Scheifele were reportedly the reason why Patrik Laine wanted out, where Laine and Jack Roslovic eventually got traded for the recently-traded Pierre-Luc Dubois.
Wheeler was most comfortable under Maurice, and the fact that Maurice didn’t take Wheeler off the top six when it was clear he could no longer keep a spot there screams “favoritism.” The locker room was split, and his contract extension that lasted until he is 37 became an albatross when his defensive play fell off.
The fact that the Jets won just three playoff series and did not make the Stanley Cup Final with Wheeler falls partially on his shoulders. It’s the people’s decision on whether the negatives outweigh the positives, and while the recency bias leans towards the negatives, there is no doubt that his number will be hoisted on the rafters of Canada Life Centre when he retires.
The Matt Duchene Buyout
Whereas the buyouts of Wheeler, Mike Reilly and Kailer Yamamoto weren’t that surprising, the buyout of Duchene is a big surprise, considering he was a 43-goal, 86-point scorer in 2021-22. His production declined to 22 goals and 56 points in 71 games this past season, which is still good second line production, but not worth the $8 million cap hit. Still, it’s nothing to scoff at.
Nashville will take up $2.56 million of dead cap this coming season, $5.56 million the next season, and $6.56 million the season after before that number drops to $1.56 million for each of the final three seasons.
The Predators were hoping for top line center production from him, but shortly after the signing, it was clear he was most effective playing on the wing. The center core of him, Ryan Johansen and Kyle Turris lasted all of one season before Turris got bought out. Duchene is the final center from that core to be gone, after Johansen got traded to the Colorado Avalanche.
Predators Continue Emphasizing Cap Space in Retool
General manager Barry Trotz is creating room for some of Nashville’s younger guys for an offense that ranked at the bottom half of the league in the 2022-23 season. Johansen and Duchene had nice seasons, but they were rather inconsistent after seeing their production decline from 2021-22.
Trotz now has $24.214 million in cap space to reshape the roster, and what he is emphasizing is creating a new culture in the locker room. Johansen and Duchene were not the same, but the real surprise was them trying to trade top goaltender prospect Yaroslav Askarov along with picks no. 15 and no. 24 to the Montreal Canadiens for pick no. 5, especially considering Askarov was drafted 11th overall by Nashville in 2020.
The focus for the Predators is the development of their young and young-ish players, which include forwards Tommy Novak, Cody Glass, Juuso Pärssinen and Luke Evangelista, who came in during the 2022-23 season and put up nice stats when they all entered. Askarov, alongside forward prospects Reid Schaefer, Fedor Svechkov, and Zachary L’Heureux are also on the horizon.
Written by Alec Nava
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