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After this upcoming season, the Winnipeg Jets could find themselves in an uncomfortable predicament: Do the Jets re-sign Andrew Ladd, their die-hard captain capable of timely goals, or will they re-sign Dustin Byfuglien, the versatile big man that strikes fear in opposing forwards?There's likely only room for one. The Jets are a budget team, pushing the upper limits of the salary cap. With several other key players becoming free agents next year, Ladd or Byfuglien might end up being the odd man out.But who would the Jets choose?It's important to look at three things: The salary demands of Ladd and Byfuglien, the likely production of both in their next contracts and the depth of the Jets' forward and defensemen units.What could Ladd and Byfuglien command on an open market? Ladd, who set career highs in assists and points last season with 38 and 62, respectively, could command a hefty pay raise over his current $4.5 million per year deal he signed in 2011. Gary Lawless, sports columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press, believes Ladd could land a contract north of six years at more than $6 million per year.That's a hefty sum, but Byfuglien could command even more. Byfuglien is already making $6 million this upcoming season, the highest salary on the Jets. With such a high demand for right-handed defensemen around the NHL, Byfuglien's right-handed stick brings an extra boost of value. With 18 goals and 45 points last year, making Byfuglien the third-highest goal scoring defenseman last season, his value is through the roof. Ken Wiebe of the Winnipeg Sun believes Byfuglien could command a long-term deal at $7 million per year.That is a lot of money to pour into one player. But the Jets really need to figure out if it is worth the money to lock themselves in a long-term deal with either one of these players at that cost.If Ladd, who will be 30 in December, does get that six-year deal, he'll be 36 by the time the contract comes to an end. If Byfuglien, who is already 30, was to get a long-term deal, say, at six years, he'll also be 36 at the end of his deal.That's a key factor to point out. Despite both putting up impressive offensive numbers this past season, the two players are at the tail end of their peak offensive production. According to Eric Tlusky of SB Nation (since hired by the Carolina Hurricanes as a hockey analyst), NHL forwards retain about 80 percent of their original peak production (usually beginning at around 24-25 and lasting until 29-30) at the age of 31. By 32 to 33, that number drops down to 70 percent, and by 35, the production to 60 percent. It's likely that by the end of Ladd's long-term contract, he will not be producing offensive numbers at a $6 million value. FIRE & ICE
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Nothing melts the ice and our hearts like the hard-working Ice Girls of the NHL. From coast to coast, here are the season's best shots.The same can be said for NHL defenseman. A University of British Columbia study found that while defensemen decline at a slower rate than forwards, they are still only producing at a 90 percent rate by the time they are 34. So that actually means that Byfuglien could potentially perform at a 90 percent rate of his current form when he has just two years remaining in his imaginative six-year deal.But is Byfuglien really even performing well as a defenseman? Sure, his offensive production was impressive, but he also had an uncharacteristic shooting percentage at even strength five on five. According to War On Ice, his 9.0 shooting percentage at even strength five on five this season was the highest he ever recorded as a Jet, nearly two percent higher than the previous season. His 52.68 Corsi-For percentage (used to get an idea on how often the player possesses the puck, anything above 50 percent being good, below bad) ranked 49th in the league among defensemen who played 600 minutes or more, tying him with Dan Boyle of the New York Rangers (Byfuglien's defenseman teammate, Jacob Trouba, ranked 16th). Last season, according to War On Ice, Byfuglien played against some of the easiest competition of his Jets career this past season. In fact, Byfuglien ranked behind Trouba, Tyler Myers, Tobias Enstrom, Mark Stuart and Ben Chiarot in time on ice against strong competition. Byfuglien isn't relied on by the Jets to play strong defense at all.
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The final important factor to look at is easier to simply speculate than to come up with a definitive answer: Can the player easily be replaced?There are several young forwards on the Jets roster who could potentially step up and replace the offensive production of Ladd. Mark Scheifele, who becomes a restricted free agent next offseason and will be the Jets' top offseason priority, finished fourth on the team in scoring at just 22. But Scheifele is a right-handed center. In fact, outside of Ladd, the Jets are relatively weak at the left-wing position, especially after the departure of Evander Kane. Now, the Jets have taken pride in building a tremendously strong prospect pool. Between forwards Nikolaj Ehlers (selected ninth overall in 2014), Nic Petan (43rd in 2013), Joel Armia and Brendan Lemieux (acquired in trade with Buffalo), Kyle Connor (17th in 2015) and Jack Roslovic (25th in 2015), the Jets are absolutely loaded with talent in the forward unit. Ehlers will play for the Jets this upcoming season, and even Armia could see a bit of time. With so many forwards in waiting, is it worth it to lock up Ladd to a long-term deal at such a high price?As for Byfuglien, he has a bit of value, but can be replaced. Right now, he stands out as the right-handed offensive defenseman, and even plays the point on the power play. But Trouba, who also becomes a restricted free agent next offseason, could do the same. So could right-handed arrival Tyler Myers. If Byfuglien is the odd man out, Trouba and Myers would fill out the top-four spots on the right side of the defensive unit. It would also allow right-handed shot Paul Postma a full-time position on the team.Until it officially happens, it's impossible to know who the Jets will keep between Ladd and Byfuglien. But all signs point to the team keeping Ladd. While there are a lot of players in waiting for the Jets at the forward unit, not many will be ready until three or four years down the road. There aren't too many options to replace Ladd in the 2016-17 season, while there are several current options to replace Byfuglien. Ladd will also be the cheaper option, and the team gets to keep their team captain. It may be difficult to say goodbye to their big defenseman, but it may ultimately be the right thing to do.