As the old adage goes, “talk is cheap, but actions are priceless.” So, take Kyle Connor’s comments this week with a huge grain (or block) of salt. Before teeing off at The Players Cup golf tournament at Southwood Golf & Country Club in Winnipeg on Wednesday, questions about when he would ink a new contract — and if he’d sign in time for training camp — inevitably arose.
“Yeah, that’s definitely the goal for sure,” the 22-year-old restricted free agent said, in reference to getting a deal done before camp opens. “The player never wants to miss time in training camp. It’s tough not getting that preparation and time with teammates in practice.”
If you asked Patrik Laine — the Jets’ other unsigned RFA — the same question, you can bet he’d give a similar answer.
Fool Me Once, Shame on You…
But fool me twice, shame on me.
Connor’s comments are pretty boilerplate — standard stuff agents coach their players to parrot to keep their cards close to the chest while looking committed to the teams that pay their salaries. However, when big figures and negotiating them are involved, it’s best not to believe the same old lines.
The situation with Connor and Laine is identical to Josh Morrissey’s a year ago. Last summer, the defenseman was what Connor and Laine are now — an RFA at the end of his entry-level contract deserving of a big raise.
By this time a year ago, Morrissey hadn’t still hadn’t signed and many were getting antsy — especially in the wake of the Jacob Trouba arbitration situation — for the heady blueliner to ink a new deal. Some, including yours truly, feared a holdout akin to Trouba’s in 2016.
Related: Jets’ Options with a Morrissey Holdout
“There’s no reason for panic yet,” now-retired Winnipeg Free Press columnist Paul Wiecek wrote last summer. “There’s lots of players every year in Morrissey’s situation who have headed into September unsigned, only to get a deal done in the days leading up to training camp.” (from “No More Mr. Nice Morrissey,” Winnipeg Free Press, 08/07/18.)
Early last September, Morrissey said, “from my standpoint as a player, my agent, and from our conversations with the team, everything’s been going great. Everyone’s confident it will be handled and done, definitely in time for the season.” General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff echoed similar sentiments. (From “GM expects Morrissey to be signed by training camp,” Winnipeg Free Press, 09/04/18).
Despite all these guarantees, The deal was not done in time for training camp. Morrissey ended up not signing a new deal until Sept. 16.
Wiecek even warned in advance Morrissey might hold out, writing “he does not seem the holding-out type, but he also didn’t seem a cross-check-you-in-the-face kind of guy either — until, of course, he was.” (That referred to Morrisey’s check on Eric Staal in the first round of the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs.)
Morrissey didn’t end up holding out, but it got awfully close. Connor and Laine do not seem like the type of guys to hold out either — unlike Trouba, they seem to enjoy playing in Winnipeg. However…
…Don’t Expect Contracts to Come Easily
Given what’s currently going on, league-wide, concerning RFAs, it’s time to seriously consider the possibility Connor, Laine, or both, will remain unsigned by the time camp opens, and perhaps into the 2019-20 as well.
Massive contracts for players coming off their ELCs are the norm now; gone is the era where players felt they had to prove themselves over longer periods.
The Jets are far from the only team struggling to sign their young stars: the current list of unsigned RFAs reads like War and Peace. It’s clear none of them will accept a dollar less than they think they’re worth and want to dictate term as well. For example, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Mitch Marner — the NHL’s highest-profile RFA — reportedly rejected GM Kyle Dubas’ offer worth $11 million per season over eight years, wanting a shorter term.
“According to a handful of hockey agents I spoke to,” the Winnipeg Free Press’ Mike McIntyre wrote recently, “don’t hold your breath waiting for deals to get done. There appears to be a giant, league-wide game of chicken going on between high-profile RFAs and their respective general managers, with neither side wanting to be the first to blink.” (from ‘Laine, Connor contract talks a high-price game of chicken, Winnipeg Free Press, 08/07/19.)
McIntyre went on to explain that nobody — neither players or GMs — “wants to be the first to take the plunge and essentially set the market for their colleagues.”
To be clear, players aren’t bad for trying to get the most they can from their respective teams. Hockey is a business and players want to earn as much as possible while they’re hot commodities to ensure comfortable post-hockey lives.
Prepare for the Worst
The Jets desperately need their two young guns — the team is coming off a season in which they limped into the playoffs, were bounced out in Round 1, and profoundly failed to live up to expectations.
There are already huge question marks regarding the Jets’ 2019-20 squad’s capacity to succeed; without the American and Finn for even a game — the pair combined for a huge chunk of the Jets’ offence last season, with 64 goals and 116 points — those question marks become even bigger.
Although Connor said the right things to try and assuage Jets’ brass and fans — and McIntyre recommends “(saving) the worrying until after Labour Day” — it’s obvious from the landscape that signing an RFA is now exceedingly complicated and the worrying should start now.
It’s telling Connor let it slip that even he’s not even sure when he’ll sign a new contract, saying “but things happen, so we’ll see. I’ll be prepared if it (‘it’ referring to not getting a deal done in time for training camp) happens.”
Again, talk is cheap; neither Connor or Laine have signed on the dotted line and neither appear close to picking up a pen. Things — league wide, not just in Winnipeg — are at a virtual standstill.
You’d be best to mentally prepare yourself for the very real possibility Connor and/or Laine will be absent from Jets’ training camp, and perhaps even absent from their season opener less than two months away.