Following a career-best 44-goal, 70-point campaign, a brush with the Rocket Richard Trophy and the conclusion of a three-round playoff run that saw him score five goals and 12 points in 17 games, Jets sniper Patrik Laine spoke Tuesday for the final time this campaign as Winnipeg held its exit meetings. And amid questions about what this post-season run meant, what the experience can teach him and how the acquisition of Paul Stastny benefited his play, Laine answered the one question on everyone’s mind.
“The woman who cuts my hair, she’s going to cut my beard on Friday at 2 p.m.,” Laine said, his answer met with a mock cheer from teammate Nikolaj Ehlers. “So, a couple more days.”
Of course, we jest that facial follicles are the most pressing issue for the Finnish winger as he enters the final summer of his entry-level contract. Because even if Laine’s scruff was one of his defining features this past season, it’s not his beard that’s bringing Jets fans and armchair GMs to Winnipeg’s CapFriendly page. Rather, it’s his upcoming contact extension, a pact which the Jets and Laine’s camp can hammer out as soon as July 1 strikes and he heads towards his final season before restricted free agency.
Laine’s not being coy about his interest in returning and remaining with the Jets, however. In fact, just as he was open about something as silly and ultimately meaningless as when he’ll get his beard trimmed, Laine was direct about his willingness to sign with Winnipeg this summer and ensure that he remains a Jet for the foreseeable future. “If that’s something that the team wants,” Laine said when asked if he’d like to sign long term and get the deal out of the way sooner rather than later. “I love this place. I want to be here as long they want. This place feels like a home to me, so why not? If they want it, then we got to negotiate.”
And those negotiations, despite Laine’s clear desire to remain in Winnipeg, are where things are going to get tricky for Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff and his staff.
As Winnipeg prepares to enter this off-season, they do so with a considerable amount of work to get done ahead of the 2018-19 campaign. Among Winnipeg's unrestricted free are deadline addition Stastny, Matt Hendricks, Shawn Matthias, Toby Enstrom and Michael Hutchinson. Chances are all five are gone come next season, possibly with the exception of Stastny if Cheveldayoff can find a way to shuffle enough salary to keep the veteran pivot in place. But there are also a boatload of RFAs who will need new deals. Included in that group are Brandon Tanev, Joel Armia, Adam Lowry, Marko Dano, Jacob Trouba, Josh Morrissey, Tucker Poolman, Joe Morrow and goaltender Connor Hellebuyck. That’s only to limit the list to those who saw time with the team during the post-season, too.
This is to say nothing, either, of the other skaters who, like Laine, could be staring down a contract extension this summer. Captain Blake Wheeler and leading rookie goal scorer Kyle Connor, whose current deals are up following next season, are also eligible to ink extensions at the same time as Laine. The same goes for Andrew Copp, Tyler Myers, Ben Chiarot and Steve Mason. And, again, that’s only to limit it to the playoff roster.
Ignoring for a second all the work Winnipeg has to get done, though, and focusing solely on Laine’s extension, it’s become evident that locking up a sophomore skater who is already flirting with superstardom to an eight-year, max-term deal costs a pretty penny. True as it may be that there’s only one Connor McDavid, his eight-year, $100-million deal was a game-changer in terms of second contracts for young stars, and it has had a trickle-down effect. Proof of that can especially be seen in the eight-year, $68-million deal Leon Draisaitl signed with the Edmonton Oilers. Similarly, Jack Eichel earned an eight-year, $80-million extension with the Buffalo Sabres. This is the climate within which Cheveldayoff will have to work.
No doubt, despite all that Laine has to offer, no one is going to mistake him with McDavid. But for Laine to draw a salary comparable to Draisaitl or Eichel is nowhere near out of the question. Truth be told, a fairly good comparable can be drawn between the three players. Draisaitl signed his new pact with its $8.5-million cap hit after two full NHL campaigns in which he scored 48 goals and 128 points in 154 games. Eichel, meanwhile, had scored 48 goals and 113 points in 142 games when he inked his deal that pays him an average of $10-million per season. So, given Laine has scored 80 goals and 134 points in 155 games — a significantly better goals per game but fairly similar points per game mark — a safe bet would suggest he has a case for $9 million-plus per season.
That seems fair, too, but the problem for Cheveldayoff and Co. is that Winnipeg’s success and its wealth of talent means the Jets no longer have the good fortune of seemingly unlimited cap space. Entering this summer, the Jets have roughly $20.6 million with which to work and current projections give Winnipeg about $40.6 million to play with when a potential Laine extension would kick in ahead of the 2019-20 campaign.
So, with that in mind, let’s do a rough sketch of the future.
Let’s generously estimate the cap jumps up $5 million this off-season and then rises another $2.5 million next summer. That’s an additional $7.5 million for Cheveldayoff to utilize and leaves the Jets about $48 million in room ahead of the 2019-20 campaign. Let’s say then that Laine gets $10 million per season. That brings Winnipeg to $38 million, of which a Wheeler extension will probably eat somewhere in the neighborhood of $8 million per year, if not more. Then let’s throw some more estimated numbers out there, such as Hellebuyck at $6 million per season on a long-term extension, with others such as Trouba (who, it should be noted, said Tuesday that he would like to get his contract situation ironed out sooner rather than later, noteworthy given the tumultuous talks last time around between he and the Jets), Morrissey and Connor averaging about $6 million each per season. That’s $24 million for four players, and $32 million when Laine and Wheeler are included. That kind of salary structure would leave Winnipeg with about $6 million in space ahead of the 2019-20 campaign without any mention of secondary skaters and bottom-six talent.
This is to say, though, that signing Laine and keeping him in Winnipeg long term is within the realm of possibility even if the cap hit does float into an eighth figure. Ideally, though, the Jets would be able to get Laine under wraps on a more team-friendly deal. Maybe there’s even a way to come to terms on something similar — in discount, not dollars — to what Mark Scheifele signed, even if that was a contract inked before the Jets’ top-line pivot flourished. No matter what it costs, though, the Jets front office will likely see signing Laine as one of this summer’s priorities.
“There’s lots of business to be done here,” Cheveldayoff said. “First and foremost, we have to figure out what the cap is going to be. That will eventually get set and we’ll find out what our working parameters are. And then we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.”
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