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Examining different contract routes for Jets, Patrik Laine

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Outside of Winnipeg, it’s Mitch Marner’s contract stalemate with the Toronto Maple Leafs that is all the rage.

But inside Winnipeg’s city limits, where thoughts of the Maple Leafs account for more squeamish faces than anything else, it’s Patrik Laine’s name that reigns supreme.

In a perfect Winnipeg world, the Leafs would either lose Marner or sign him to something so ridiculous that Toronto suffers until global warming makes it impossible to play hockey.

Really, though, Winnipeg is good.

At least Laine once said so, maybe, as it appeared in The Players’ Tribune story Laine couldn’t fully remember telling.

Nevertheless, it spawned an affectionate relationship between the fanbase and the 21-year-old who’s scored more goals than anyone not named Alex Ovechkin and Nikita Kucherov since entering the NHL in 2016.

One might be the greatest goal scorer the league has ever seen and the other just won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s MVP. Fair to say Laine is keeping some damn good company atop the goal-scoring pantheon.

Laine is good, too. And the man who once grew a goat beard because Finnish players can do what they want these days in the NHL, just so happens to be up for a mammoth raise.

Ah yes, another superstar about to cash in. It happens every offseason in the NHL, and sometimes during the season, too.

Big names need big pay. Laine’s about to make it rain. How long cash will pour from the Jets’ coffers, however, is still to be determined.

The number of years and how many zeroes will come after that first comma is the most fascinating thing in Winnipeg these days.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Winnipeg will be good when Laine’s future is decided, but what does said future hold? Let’s take a look at three scenarios that could come to pass for Winnipeg’s future richest 21-year-old.

A bridge too far

This is highly unfavorable for the Jets. Let’s clear that bit up.

Sure, the Jets would save money for a minute. And some may even think that this would be best because the risk wouldn’t be so high. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. Laine scores goals in droves. And while he had a down year in this third season in the NHL, one can’t discredit the 100-plus he’s banked in three short years.

Laine’s agent isn’t at the negotiating table with last seasons statistics as his only ammunition. Laine’s an elite goal scorer whose shooting percentage was down six percent than the year before, his 44-goal season, and five percent lower than his 36-goal rookie campaign.

If anything, Laine’s set to rebound (perhaps off some rebounds? I’ll see myself out).

Look, If cap relief came in pill form,Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff would be in a self-induced coma at this moment. But as cash-strapped as Winnipeg might be this summer, if Laine returns to his 40-plus goal self from two seasons ago, he’s bound to score a good 80 or 90, maybe even 100 during those bridge deal years.

Guess where that AAV goes? And it goes there faster than a Laine one-timer.

Laine dealt with a bad back, a bad groin and a lack of confidence last season and still scored 30. He scored 18 in one month, which no one else does. And he took real, tangible steps late in the season and into the playoffs where he looked like an imposing power forward who could play at both ends of the ice.

It’s not Russian roulette, but giving Laine a bridge and thinking, ‘This is fine’ (you know, that meme the dog and the fire all around him) is pretty close. Laine didn’t lose his skill. He didn’t misplace his deadly accuracy or wicked shot.

And if the Jets ever find him a center, the goal-scoring ceiling becomes unknown.

Simply put, the risk is too high. The only thing bridging him will do is make him cost more in two year’s time when they have to buy more unrestricted free agent years on top of whatever the market dictates what a 50-goal scorer should make. Hint: it’s more than seven figures.

The five-year plan

Auston Matthews really created something interesting when he decided against an eight-year deal to take three fewer seasons and leaving some money on the table.

Superstars taking less term and lightly less money while having the world at their feet vying for their services in five years could turn into somewhat of the norm. If Laine doesn’t hit his prime until his mid-20s, a deal of this length would allow him to really maximize his earning potential while shooting him into unrestricted free agency at the end of it.

And that has to have Laine thinking, ‘Why not try that?’ He’s 21, about to get stinkin’ rich now, then again at 26 and perhaps one more time in his early 30s? The stinkin’ rich hat trick, as it were.

For the Jets, it might be a happy medium. It’s not ideal for Cheveldayoff. The full eight years is like where he wants to be. But if Laine’s back problems are a legitimate concern within the organization (nothing has suggested this), or if they legitimately feel Laine played beyond his abilities a year ago and regressed to his normal self this year, then perhaps it makes sense.

The Jets save money on AAV as they don’t have to purchase those UFA years and they retain the services of a guy who could lead them to a Stanley Cup. The downside is they could lose him three years earlier.

The deal doesn’t have to be five years, necessarily. The Matthews deal could be a one-off, a shrewd move by that player’s agent. Or it could become the new standard for stud franchise players looking to extract everything they can from the pockets of their owners.

Whatever it is, this middle option seems to keep both sides of the balance scale somewhat even.

The Jets get some degree of extended term and the player receives a nice cache of greenbacks direct-deposited into their bank about every couple of weeks.

The maximum

The full monty.

Eight years. The maximum term Laine can be offered and only Winnipeg can offer it. The AVV will be higher but the player will be in their possession for longer, well into his prime years. The Jets, of course, would have to pay for those UFA years and they assume some risk as stated above, more on the side of Laine most recent season being the norm and not the exception.

Still, this is the best deal for Winnipeg in the long run. Assuming he’s healthy and he develops measures to manage his confidence from dipping too far, the deal could look like a steal halfway through its life.

And at the end of the day, it’s a risk worth taking for a player that all the right stars had to align just to be able to draft him. Laine’s addition sped up Winnipeg’s re-tooling efforts. They found a power play maestro and a player that could use his large frame one day to become a dominant power forward.

Yes, this deal likely hits the cap for the most. While Evolving Wild’s model has him in the seven-year, $49 million range, I believe this is too low. If the Jets can lock up Laine at anything under $10 million on an eight-year pact, they’re dancing. And they’re still in good shape if not.

And while one can argue that Laine isn’t the best player on the team, nor the second or third best, he’s one of the best pure goal scorers in the NHL. In my mind, it can’t be stressed enough. And I don’t think it’s something slipping the mind of Laine’s agent at the moment either.

Cheveldayoff has his most important and challenging offseason to date. Laine’s contract aside, he still has to sign Kyle Connor to a deal that’s going to be up there in terms of AAV, as well. And then he has to find the right pieces to still keep the team highly competitive after the loss of Jacob Trouba and likely some other pieces, including Tyler Myers and Brandon Tanev (the latter two, I believe, are easily replaceable).

But the first order of business should be not betting against Laine. The odds (and the statistical information that backs them) are just too compelling to not throw down big money on the table.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck.

PHT Morning Skate: Winners, losers of NHL Olympic return; Training camp battles

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from the NHL and around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit for the PHT Morning Skate? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Training camp battles, NHL playoff previews, and other return-to-play links

• Jackets Cannon looks at Columbus’ biggest strength: defense. In particular, Rachel Bules looks at how the pandemic pause will allow the Blue Jackets to have some serious training camp competition for spots. The Blue Jackets will need to be sharp, too, because the Maple Leafs’ firepower presents a real challenge for any defense corps. [Jackets Cannon]

• Speaking of the Maple Leafs — and training camp previews — Emily Sadler put together a thorough breakdown for Toronto. Can Frederik Andersen go the distance? Tyson Barrie ranks as a player to watch. Plus much more. [Sportsnet]

• George Richards takes a look at the Panthers’ “2.0” roster for training camp. If I had to single out a most interesting item, it’s that Anton Stralman has been involved. You may remember him airing some concerns about an NHL return. [Florida Hockey Now]

• What various analytics say about how the Wild’s lines match up with the Canucks. [Zone Coverage]

• It’s one thing for the Coyotes to say that they want to “get a little more juice” out of their offense. It’s another thing to actually lay out how it might work. Craig Morgan rolls out a detailed approach of how that might happen, including activating weakside defensemen. [AZ Coyotes Insider]

• The pandemic pause ranks as the biggest curveball Carter Hart‘s seen in the NHL so far. That said, it’s far from the only one. If he keeps passing these tests, it might all be to the benefit of Hart’s career. [NBC Sports Philadelphia]

Other hockey links

• As a pending UFA on a team that could face a salary cap crunch, Christopher Tanev knows he might not be back with the Canucks. Tanev said he hopes that he can return, and in particular, he’d love to remain Quinn Hughes‘ defensive partner for a long time. [NHL.com]

• It’s easy to look at the NHL’s return to Olympic participation as a good thing for everyone involved. As Ryan Kennedy points out, it depends on the outlook for different countries’ national teams. Kennedy presents the winners and losers for the NHL return to the Olympics, with Germany landing in an interesting spot. [The Hockey News]

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Sabres drop lawsuit after assistant coach is granted a green card

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres dropped their lawsuit against the federal government after immigration officials reversed course by approving the team’s strength and conditioning coach’s petition for a green card.

“The matter has been resolved amicably between both parties,” with Ed Gannon receiving approval for an EB-1 visa, the Sabres announced in a text message Wednesday.

The Sabres sued U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in May by alleging officials wrongly denied the team’s visa petition for the British-born coach.

The announcement came a week after the Sabres’ lawyer notified the U.S. District Court in Buffalo that the team was voluntary dismissing the suit, with each side agreeing to bear their own costs and fees.

The Sabres accused immigration services of misstating facts and arbitrarily failing to follow its own rules in denying a green card to Gannon. They argued the decision potentially subjected the team “to substantial financial harm and disruption in developing (its) athletes.”

Gannon was hired by the Sabres in 2015 while the team was beefing up its player development staff. He previously spent 10 years as the lead strength and conditioning coach of a professional rugby club, the Leicester Tigers.

The Sabres filed the application for permanent residency on Gannon’s behalf in October. To be granted a green card, Gannon had to demonstrate that he was at the top of his field, and the Sabres argued that he proved his abilities under USCIS’ criteria.

The denial of Gannon’s petition came amid efforts by the Trump administration to limit legal immigration. A report last year by the Migration Policy Institute concluded that USCIS had become “increasingly active in immigration enforcement” and that the agency was intentionally slowing down adjudication of immigration benefits applications.

Healthy Ekman-Larsson ready to give Coyotes a playoff boost

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — Oliver Ekman-Larsson had knee surgery last summer, fully expecting it to help him have a healthy 2019-20 season.

The Arizona Coyotes captain instead played with lingering pain, never able to fully recover.

The NHL’s shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic was a huge letdown, but it at least allowed Ekman-Larsson time to get back to full strength.

”These 2 1/2 months have been really good for me,” he said during a conference call this week. ”My knee is feeling 100% and I’ve been able to get stronger and faster.”

Ekman-Larsson had another solid season in 2018-19, finishing second on the team with 44 points with 14 goals. He was named to the NHL All-Star team for the fifth time and continued to be one of the NHL’s best offensive defensemen.

Ekman-Larsson opted to have offseason knee surgery to help with another lower-body injury and never was quite right this season, his 10th in the NHL.

The break allowed him time to heal, as did a trip back to his home in Sweden.

Unlike Arizona, Sweden did not go on lockdown once the pandemic hit and Ekman-Larsson took advantage, using the time to heal physically and mentally.

”With this virus going around, I haven’t felt so good mentally,” he said. ”Going back home and being around my family really helped that situation. I benefited from the physical part of being away. For the mental part, it was nice to get away from it.”

The Coyotes returned to the ice this week to prepare for the resumption of the season.

The NHL and the NHL Players’ Association announced Monday a tentative deal on a return-to-play format. Should it be ratified, the league will resume play on Aug. 1 with 24 teams proceeding in an expanded playoff format at two hub cities in Canada.

The Coyotes, the West’s No. 11 seed, will open against Nashville in a best-of-five series in their first postseason appearance since reaching the 2012 Western Conference Finals.

”It just feels like it’s a different game,” said Ekman-Larsson, the lone remaining player from the 2012 team. ”Everybody feels faster and stronger. I don’t know how it’s even possible, but at the same time it’s another level.

”I’m glad that I’ve had the chance to be in the playoffs before. There’s so many good teams and you don’t really know when you are going to have the chance.”

The Coyotes have a chance to make a little noise once they get there.

Ekman-Larsson is healthy, as is Phil Kessel, who struggled with injuries after being traded from Pittsburgh before the season. Arizona also has one of the best goaltending tandems in Antti Raanta and Darcy Keumper, who are both healthy as well.

”For us to get a chance and show that we are good enough to be a playoff team, I think that’s huge for our group moving forward,” Ekman-Larsson said.

A healthy Ekman-Larsson gives them an opportunity to keep moving forward.

Chris Pronger leaves senior VP of hockey ops role with Panthers

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The Panthers announced on Wednesday that Chris Pronger is leaving his role as senior vice president of hockey operations and senior advisor. The Hockey Hall of Famer joined the organization in 2017 after spending three years in the NHL’s Department of Player Safety.

“I want to personally thank the Viola family, Doug Cifu, Dale Tallon and all of the staff with the Florida Panthers,” said Pronger via a team statement. “I was able to grow as an executive and more importantly as a person in my three years with the hockey club. I wish the Panthers organization nothing but the best in the upcoming playoffs and years to come.”

Pronger is moving on to focus on the company he runs with his wife, Lauren. Well Inspired Travels “caters to elite athletes, C-Level executives and business owners.”

The Panthers are currently preparing for their Stanley Cup Qualifier series against the Islanders, which is set to begin next month.

MORE:
A look at the Eastern Conference matchups
Final standings for 2019-20 NHL season, NHL draft lottery results

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.