The Winnipeg Thrashjets will have to make some decisions on unrestricted free agents Freddy Meyer, Eric Boulton, and Radek Dvorak; they’ll also have to lock up Blake Wheeler, Zach Bogosian, Rob Schremp, Anthony Stewart, Ben Maxwell, and Brett Festerling who are all restricted free agents this offseason. But the most important situation to watch is restricted free agent Andrew Ladd.
The two-time Stanley Cup champion Ladd, brought some much needed leadership to the locker room last season, after Don Waddell acquired him with Dustin Byfuglien during the Blackhawk’s fire sale last June. In addition to the leadership and earning the captaincy, he led the team with 29 goals, 9 power play goals and 59 points. By just about every measure, he was the most important player on the entire team. He had been in negotiations for a new contract, but were unable to nail down the final details. Bob McKenzie agrees re-signing Ladd could prove to be a bellwether moment in the franchise’s development.
“His deal with Atlanta came very close to getting done, but they couldn’t agree on some final terms,” McKenzie said. “Now that becomes the responsibility of Winnipeg’s front office. Ladd is an interesting case. He’s one year away from unrestricted free agency, and is currently a restricted free agent. He’s got a great arbitration case if he decides to go that route, and could do very well there.
“He can essentially decide if he wants to make a long-term commitment to the team now that it is in Winnipeg, and if he does that, it will be a wonderful way to pave the future. But if he decides he would rather play somewhere else, then that sets it off in the other direction.”
When the Jets were in Winnipeg the first time around, one of the major problems they had was that it was so difficult to attract top-tier free agents to Manitoba—and a problem Edmonton’s front office will tell you includes Alberta. Fans were reminded of the 15-year-old problem when Ilya Bryzgalov made his comments about Winnipeg; it looked like the Coyotes could possibly be moving back to the Peg. The strengthened Canadian dollar will help the franchise compete fiscally—but they’ll still need to find players who are willing to play in Winnipeg for the duration contract. No doubt there would be a culture shock for anyone coming from a market like Philadelphia, New York, or even Vancouver.
For his part, Ladd is saying all of the right things about the market, the fans, and the ongoing negotiations. Here’s what he told The Canadian Press in anticipation of the move to Winnipeg:
“It’s probably going to be bigger than most guys think. I think not having (NHL) hockey there for 15 years, it’s kind of built up and built up to the point where I’m sure (fans) are ready to blow the doors off the hinges and get this thing going.”
“I think everyone wants to be able to play in Canada where they just have that passion for the game. There’s a little extra pressure and attention, but for me I like that part of it. You can definitely thrive on it and use it to your advantage.”
(Ladd) doesn’t expect the move to have a major impact on contract negotiations.
In fact, he hopes agent J.P. Barry will be able to get back to the bargaining table, now that the relocation has been made official.
“It’s kind of been in limbo because we were negotiating towards the end of the year for a couple months and then with the ownership situation it’s kind of been stalled. As players, you’re not sure with new ownership coming in what they’re going to want to do and where you fit in or that sort of thing.
“We’re just kind of waiting to see what happens and get some answers on what’s going on.”
The first step for the NHL to be successful in Winnipeg is for the fans to put their money where their mouth is. The publicly stated goal of 13,000 season tickets (with 3-5 year commitments) will insure the team will be stable during the infancy of its rebirth. But once those initial commitments expire, it will be imperative for True North to ice a contender.
Market after market has proven that over time, attendance is invariably tied to the quality of the team on the ice. The Minnesota Wild sold games out for nearly a decade before the fans realized the quality of the product wasn’t top quality. Fans in Denver supported the Avalanche when they arrived from Quebec City and won a few Stanley Cups. But when the novelty wore off and the teams started to struggle in recent years, so have the numbers at the box office.
Locking up a player like Andrew Ladd, would be the first step towards putting a good team on the ice for years to come. For fans in Winnipeg, hopefully he’ll be the first of many players who choose to bring their talents to Manitoba.