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 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck.