Patrik Laine may be “prepared for anything,” if his recent comments are anything to go by, but that can still include him suiting up for the Winnipeg Jets. Don’t go putting him another jersey quite yet.
Laine and Connor Speak to the Media
Recently, the 21-year-old restricted free agent candidly let out in the open what every hockey fan must be thinking: The Jets will have a hard time getting both him and Kyle Connor re-signed, not just by the start of training camp, which Connor is allegedly planning in his case, but in general.
After all, it’s hard to argue with the numbers. The salary-cap crunch is one of several significant issues the powerhouse-on-paper Jets are facing ahead of 2019-20. Their projected cap hit is just under $64 million. That leaves about $17.6 million to get both Connor and Laine re-upped (along with four other players to ice a full 23-man roster, considering their current complement of 17).
So, yes, it’s going to be tough… tough, but not impossible. Firstly, a few of those roster spots are likely going to have to go to young players on their cheap, entry-level contracts like Kristian Vesalainen and Mason Appleton, both of whom got time with the Jets last season. Even though Vesalainen ended up in the Kontinental Hockey League after struggling through five NHL games, he’s a year older and focused on making the Jets.
Jets Can Still Contend
It’s in part the model that has brought the Jets to this point, as dark-horse Stanley Cup contenders. They draft well to stay competitive, all the while benefitting from their prospects’ entry-level deals to fit under the salary cap. Connor and Laine (and Jack Roslovic to a lesser extent) are proof of that up front, just as the Jets are hoping Sami Niku will be on defense.
The Jets are nevertheless in between a rock and a hard place, because the salary cap didn’t increase as much as expected. So, for Laine and Connor to successfully get inked, more roster spots than the Jets would ideally like will have to be filled by guys on cheaper contracts. That’s if Cheveldayoff doesn’t want to entertain the notion of having to trade a guy like Nikolaj Ehlers.
As a result, because not every prospect can jump directly to the NHL, fringe players like Mark Letestu and Seth Griffith (or Logan Shaw) are likely to get a better chance to make the Jets. Letestu played two NHL games with the Columbus Blue Jackets last season. Griffith last played in the NHL with the Buffalo Sabres in 2017-18, getting in 21 games. He’s still been in the Jets’ organization since that offseason, getting re-signed by Cheveldayoff this past July. There must be at least something to like then.
It’s admittedly not what some may want to hear, but it’s a strategy that gives the Jets a good shot at getting both Laine and Connor back in Jets uniforms. It’s arguably a matter of sacrificing depth, in favor of icing a top-heavier lineup, but it’s an easy call seeing as Laine and Connor can easily represent the Jets’ future and a prosperous one at that. Going down that path would leave the Jets with approximately $15 million for both, which is a fair number, albeit one that would require some flexibility and compromise from Laine and Connor.
That’s why Connor focusing “more on [the] long term” is good news, as it implies he’d be willing to take a (slightly) lower cap hit in order to avoid going through this process again in a few years. However, it’s key to take whatever Connor says with a grain of salt. Nothing is set in stone and, at the end of the day, he’s looking out for his best interests just like Laine.
Laine Is Ready to Play, Even for Jets
In other words, it would be a mistake to read too much into anything either one says. That’s especially true with regard to Laine when he thinks aloud and implies he wouldn’t be adverse to playing for another team next season. It’s potentially just posturing to get negotiations, which he claims are at a standstill, back on track.
Instead of showing his willingness to play anywhere next season, Laine could have just been voicing his frustration at how talks haven’t progressed… because he still wants to play in Winnipeg. If you choose to read in between the lines of what an inexperienced 21-year-old just a few seasons removed from being an NHL rookie says to the media, when English isn’t even his first language, it can work both ways, can’t it?
Granted, there’s likely an element of truth involved. However, why can’t it be how Laine is ready for next season come what may? Framed that way, it’s actually a positive. Overall, Laine really didn’t say anything that was all that new or controversial, especially seeing as he was largely stating facts, like how it’s a business. Negotiations are part of it.
Remember, in spite of the fact that both Laine and Connor remain unsigned, they also remain under the Jets’ control as restricted free agents. Yes, they’re each going to get paid a lot of money, but the Jets still hold most of the cards, in spite of the salary-cap crunch and the threat of an offer sheet from another club.
Sure, it’s a possibility and the Jets may find themselves in a position where they have to choose between the two, but, even in that undesirable (but unlikely) situation, the Jets remain in the driver’s seat, able to decide which route to take. Rest assured, they’ve likely gone through every scenario and are prepared for anything themselves. Sometimes that means bracing for the worst, but the Jets aren’t quite at that stage yet. They’ve still got some runway left.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has written for such publications as the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently covers the Habs for THW as a columnist.