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NHL’s best referee: Wes McCauley goes by his own book

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Wes McCauley keeps his good calls close and his bad calls closer.

Any time the veteran NHL referee is feeling too good or gets down on himself, he breaks out a binder full of his missed calls and looks through it.

”It’s a humbling book,” McCauley said. ”Trust me, I’ve made a lot of mistakes. There’s times you wish you could saw your arm off.”

McCauley’s arms have signaled countless penalties, goals and no-goals since his NHL career began in 2003. Over the past 15 years, he has developed a reputation as not only the most animated referee in the game but the best in hockey based on his consistency, rapport with players and coaches and a demeanor that’s equal parts entertaining and professional.

In an NHLPA poll last spring, almost half of players chose McCauley as the league’s best referee, honoring a man in stripes who’s far more used to getting barked at than complimented.

”I don’t think I’m that good,” McCauley told The Associated Press. ”My job’s just to officiate hockey games and to do the best I can and to move on to the next game and really to stay out of the highlights.”

McCauley has his own highlight reels because he enjoys hamming it up when he makes announcements. When he reaches to his right hip to turn on the microphone, it’s must-see entertainment.

His flair for the dramatic once sent former Rangers coach Alain Vigneault into a laughing fit on the bench, and it has been the subject of mocking from veteran officials for just how demonstrative he can be when whistling a penalty or waving off a goal. McCauley knows he’s more exuberant than he has to be, but that’s part of the fun for him and players.

”He’s real,” Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon said. ”He’s obviously an animated guy and definitely calls a good game.”

McCauley earned the votes of 47.8 percent of players as the NHL’s best referee, well ahead of Kelly Sutherland (17.7 percent), Tim Peel (4.4 percent), Dan O’Halloran (2.7 percent) and Trevor Hanson (2.7 percent). The 46-year-old from Georgetown, Ontario, is the most popular and respected ref because he gets it right more often than not, apologizes when he doesn’t and knows how to explain his calls to players and coaches.

”Consistency. You kind of know what you’re getting with him,” Rangers forward Chris Kreider said. ”In any sport when you talk about refereeing, if a ref isn’t very visible and prevalent and the game is decided by the players ultimately, then that’s a good ref and that’s Wes.”

McCauley gets that. He played four seasons at Michigan State from 1989-93, had a cup of coffee in the minors and figures his relationships with players from that era bought him the benefit of the doubt, and some of that still exists.

”He’s in charge out there, and there’s really not a lot of gray area,” said Capitals coach Todd Reirden, who went to Bowling Green and played against McCauley in college. ”He stands his line and he lets the players play, but he also has a great pulse of what’s going on and I think that’s from his experiences of playing the game at a collegiate level and also some at a pro level. He relates really well with the players and with the coaches.”

McCauley vividly remembers botching a call in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final when he didn’t see that Washington’s Chandler Stephenson, not Vegas defenseman Deryk Engelland, tripped teammate Nicklas Backstrom and called a penalty. As with many other calls, he hoped it wouldn’t directly affect the result and apologized to Engelland later.

That’s a common theme during McCauley’s career.

”I still remember one time he made a bad call and he found me the next time we were playing and said: ‘Hey, I just want to let you know I know that call was really bad. I’ve been thinking about it a lot and I wanted to apologize,”’ Winnipeg center Mark Scheifele said. ”When he has the respect level for the game and for us as players, we have respect for him. And I think that’s why he’s known to be the best referee out there.”

Best referee out there? ”Now you jinxed me – now I’m going to be up and down like a toilet seat next season,” McCauley quipped. Maybe earlier in his career that was a danger, though McCauley now has 957 regular-season and 131 playoff games under his and has worked six Stanley Cup Final series.

Over that time, McCauley has developed a balance between knowing players see him as an obstacle to winning while still communicating with them to the point they know him personally. Even if players aren’t happy with his calls, they appreciate McCauley’s honesty and ability to have just as big a mouth as they do.

”You automatically sometimes snap at the refs,” Stars center Tyler Seguin said. ”Sometimes you blame the refs for things that were even out of their control. And he finds a way to take it, give it back a little and then move on pretty quickly and he’s always been very respectful to the players and I think that’s what makes him a great ref.”

McCauley’s life experiences helped make him a great ref. His dad, John McCauley, worked 15 years as an NHL referee before an eye injury took him off the ice and led to a director of officiating job before his unexpected death at age 44. His brother, Blaine, suffered an eye injury that cost him his hockey-playing career and changed Wes’ view forever.

”My biggest thing is when I step on the ice, I want the players to feel like, ‘Oh, OK we’re going to get a fair shake tonight,”’ McCauley said. ”I’ve never really taken it for granted, so I try to go out there and referee every game the best I can.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Despite their ascendance, Jets know nothing will come easy this season

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WINNIPEG — They set a franchise record in wins, won their first playoff game in the team’s existence and stamped a ticket to the Western Conference Final for good measure.

But if you ask the Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler, a man coming off a career-year with 91 points and a shiny, new five-year, big-money contract extension to show for it, it all means very little.

“We didn’t accomplish anything last year,” Wheeler said as he stood in front of his locker room stall at Winnipeg’s practice facility earlier this month. “Making the playoffs was certainly a hurdle for this group. It was something that we desperately needed to accomplish for some of that verification of what I was talking about before. When the puck drops this season, it’s not going to be Game 1 of the Western finals again. There’s a long road to get back to where we got last year and it doesn’t happen just because we want it to happen or we think we’re better than everyone else or because we had a good year last year.”

There’s a lot to unpack, particularly in that first sentence alone.

In one sense, Wheeler is right.

Ultimately, in the National Hockey League, if you’re not first, you’re last.

Banners aren’t raised for second place.

In that vein, the Jets accomplished nigh last season. They made waves but ultimately fell short of the goal, like every team that made the Stanley Cup Playoffs minus one, the Washington Capitals.

For the Vegas Golden Knights, their second-place showing will only be remembered because of its rarity (you know, the best expansion team ever stuff). Otherwise, second place gets forgotten in the annals of hockey history. No one remembers, nor cares, about who finished second.

But you can’t just brush aside what the Jets did last season — 52 wins is a lot of wins (only Nashville and Tampa had more); 114 points is a lot of points (only Nashville had more).

There’s more, too: A young goalie who re-invented himself over the summer before going on to win 44 games and finish second in Vezina voting. A captain who turned in an elite career year. A second-year sniper that had 44 goals and would have likely had more if he his stick didn’t catch a cold as the regular season drew to a close.

Winnipeg didn’t take the ultimate step but they certainly began their ascent on Lord Stanley’s mountain. They are, simply, a bona fide Cup contender in what’s often regarded as the toughest division in hockey and arguably the strongest conference in the NHL.

Wheeler is both right and wrong at the same time.

One thing is certain though: repeating success is hard.

* * *

As big as last season was in Winnipeg, and by the same token, as important as it was for the organization, the coming 2018-19 season has even more riding on it.

Expectations are undeniably higher.

The Jets showed a lot of good things last season.

When Mark Scheifele missed 16 games with an upper-body injury, instead of crumbling, Winnipeg responded with an 11-2-3 record with their No. 1 center out of the lineup. Wheeler stepped in to play Scheifele’s role and the rest of the team fell in behind him as the team thrived amid the adversity.

[Can Patrik Laine score 50?]

A young Jets team took much of what came their way last season in stride. Blemishes were few, and they have to be to win 52 games. The Jets didn’t lose three straight in regulation until the Conference Final.

But resting on their laurels would be a massive mistake.

“In our minds, we can’t rest on what we did last year,” Scheifele said. “Obviously, we had a good year, there’s going to be expectations, but at the end of the day it takes a whole lot of hard work, it takes a lot of things to go right, and we have to start here. It’s Day 1… we have to be ready for a lot of hard work, to play fast, to play our game and get ramped up for the season.”

Now, Winnipeg doesn’t have the excuse this season of being that inexperienced playoff team. They went pretty deep last season, playing (and winning) a Game 7, and also feeling the heartbreak of defeat. They know what it is to lose now and, more importantly, they caught a glimpse of what it takes to win.

* * *

The Jets set the bar last season.

And for that bar to get to where it did last season (and beyond), a lot of things needed to go in Winnipeg’s favor.

Wheeler’s monster season. Laine’s ascendance to the NHL’s goal-scoring pantheon, Kyle Connor’s emergence after leading all rookies in goal scoring. Hellebuyck’s evolution. Winnipeg’s resilience.

All important to last year, surely. But the coming season?

“All the things that went into last year are built yearly,” Jets head coach Paul Maurice said on Friday. “We have some talented players, we lost some talented players, so we start to build a season again. Even if you win the Stanley Cup, and we’ve seen it in the past, if you don’t start a training camp and build again from ground zero, you’re going to miss the playoffs in this league when you’re in our division and in our conference. All the things that went into the final two months of the season, all the good was built over the course of the year and it’s going to have to happen again.”

[Jets Day: Under PressureBreakthrough | Three Questions]

Maurice knows this all too well.

In 2002, he guided the Carolina Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup Final, eventually losing to the Detroit Red Wings in five games. The next year, the Hurricanes went from first in their division to fifth, missing the postseason.

In 2008, and back behind the bench in Raleigh, Maurice led the Hurricanes deep again, this time to the Eastern Conference Final where they were swept by the Pittsburgh Penguins. The next season, the Hurricanes missed the playoffs again with another sub .500 season.

“It changes,” Maurice said. “Every year your circumstances are different than the year prior, so for this year, specifically, [we] did not change training camp. All the things that we needed to improve on have to be [improved on] and it goes with that message. It’s not so much that we’re starting at ground zero. I know said that, I’m not sure that’s 100 percent accurate. We believe in our team, we’ve got some good players here.

“But the grind that you have to go, the price that you have to pay has to be paid every year regardless of your talent. And that’s the message.”

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

Can Patrik Laine score 50 goals this season?

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It’s tempting to look at Patrik Laine‘s 44 goals – a pretty incredible number considering how difficult it is to score in the modern NHL – and believe that everything went right for him last season.

That’s not necessarily true.

Such a thought is pretty intriguing as we consider Laine’s drive to score 50 goals in 2018-19.

“Yeah, I think that would be a great milestone and achievement,” Laine told TSN’s Darren Dreger. “But that’s something that comes when you play well. You have to do the small things for the team first. When you work hard the whole season, you’ll get rewarded at some point.”

If you feel like those are bland quotes compared to the often-candid and funny things Laine’s said in the past, you’ve got a point.

Even so, Laine’s comments actually do shed some light on a key factor: to score 50 goals, he’ll probably need to earn more of Paul Maurice’s trust.

Uneven

Puzzlingly, Laine went from averaging 17:55 minutes per game as a rookie in 2016-17 to just 16:29 per contest in 2017-18. While his power-play ice time was nearly identical (in the three-minute range each season) and his shorthanded duties remained essentially non-existent, Laine’s even-strength ice time plummeted by about 90 seconds as a sophomore.

Maurice probably deserves at least a bit of scrutiny for this, as it’s just difficult to fathom that Laine fails to be a player you’d want on the ice at least as frequently as he was as a rookie, even on a Jets team that improved substantially in 2017-18. Apologies to Bryan Little – who’s often been underrated during his NHL career – but if I were in Maurice’s shoes, I’d want Laine on the ice more often at even-strength.

Some of this revolves around Laine’s inexperience, though, as this can’t be solely chalked up to the bad coaching habit of giving younger players shorter leashes just because. There are times when Laine appears a tad bit one-dimensional (consider his so-so possession numbers), as Oilers Nation’s Kyle Buhler discussed in late June:

The other big issue with Laine’s game is his work along the boards. Laine has an extremely tough time getting the puck out of his own end which is surprising for someone with so much talent. When the puck is rimmed around the boards, it takes Laine too long to bring it to from his skate to his stick and he gets hemmed in by pinching defensemen. When Laine is able to chip the puck past the defender he can’t create odd-man rushes due to his lack of acceleration.

With the addition of another impressive forward in Kyle Connor, not to mention the dominance and chemistry generated by Mark ScheifeleBlake Wheeler, one can understand why Maurice would be a little less eager to put Laine on the ice in all situations. There are worse things Laine can be than an absolutely deadly specialist, as he was in scoring 20 of his 44 goals on the power play (his 20 PPG topped all NHL players).

(It’s also worth noting that Laine blossomed that much more when Paul Stastny came along and completed a deadly line with Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers, so that loss might be a slight detriment to the drive for 50.)

In viewing this collection of last season’s 44 tallies, you can see that Laine is keen on constructing his own version of Ovechkin’s “office.”

Looking deeper at how Laine scored his 44 goals last season, there are some compelling reasons why he will or will not hit the 50 mark:

Health, puck luck, and opportunities

Even with reduced ice time, the already-trigger-happy Laine let pucks fly to a more pronounced degree during his second season in the NHL, as you can see from listings such as those of Hockey Reference.

Over 73 games as a rookie, Laine scored 36 goals on 204 shots on goal (2.79 SOG per game), making for a 17.6 shooting percentage. Hockey Reference puts his total shot attempts at 360 during 1,308 total minutes of ice time.

Laine was healthier last season, playing all 82 games, and his high shooting percentage remained, as he bumped it to 18.3 percent. Few players can maintain such robust percentages, yet Laine’s now done so two seasons in a row, so it’s possible that he simply has rare shooting talent; witnessing his howling release doesn’t hurt that argument.

Still, injuries and/or cold shooting could represent very simple – yet formidable – obstacles in Laine’s quest for 50.

Circling back to his 2017-18 totals, Laine’s 44 goals came via 241 SOG, which translates to 2.94 SOG per game. More games played but with less ice time might skew certain numbers, so it’s worth noting that he fired 466 total shot attempts over 1,351 minutes of ice time in 2017-18.

The Ovechkin comparison

Laine’s 44 goals become extra-impressive when you consider (relatively) limited ice time, and also when you compare his opportunities versus those of Alex Ovechkin, who ultimately pulled away in the Rocket Richard race with 49 goals.

It’s eye-popping to compare Ovechkin to Laine last season when it comes to ice time (20:09 versus Laine’s 16:29) and shooting rates (355 SOG and 653(!) TSA to Laine’s 241 SOG and 466 TSA).

Comparing a shooter to Ovechkin can feel as cruel as expecting an NBA shooting guard to match Michael Jordan, yet it’s instructive that Laine came so close to matching Ovechkin’s output considering the context. This all says a lot about Laine’s shooting prowess, even if it is still fair to at least wonder if he’ll see his shooting percentage sink.

***

Overall, the biggest hurdles Laine must clear to score 50 goals stand out as: health luck, puck luck, and the luck that comes with earning his coach’s trust. One can only shudder to imagine if Laine’s actually still waiting for that extra push – or green light – to unleash shots at an even more blistering rate.

And, no doubt, Laine’s other big obstacle is himself; if he can improve his all-around game, Laine will give Maurice no choice but to put him on the ice more often. Imagine what kind of damage Laine could do if he flirted with 19-20 minutes of ice time every game for 82 contests?

Heading into 2018-19, one would wager that no one is expected to score 50 goals. Ovechkin fell just short of that mark last season with 49, Sidney Crosby won the 2017 Richard with just 44, and Ovechkin’s the only player to reach that plateau (doing so three times) since the last lockout of 2012-13.

That said, if anyone other than Ovechkin can do it, Laine is the guy.

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.

NHL Player Media Tour 2018 Notebook

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CHICAGO — After six years away, James van Riemsdyk returns to the Philadelphia Flyers after inking a five-year, $35 million contract on July 1. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2007 NHL draft spent three seasons with the team before being part a trade to the Toronto Maple Leafs that sent defenseman Luke Schenn to the Flyers.

So when it became clear that the Maple Leafs wouldn’t be re-signing the 29-year-old winger, a reunion was in the offing. In making that happen, Flyers captain Claude Giroux and fellow forward Jake Voracek put in some calls to their former teammate, hoping to lure him back.

“Didn’t really try and sell him on anything, to be honest,” said Giroux. “Was just trying to see what he thought. He had some questions about the organization and the team and the players. I was just honest with him. I told him how I really feel. I think he liked that and we were able to get him. I think he’s very excited to come back to Philly and so are we.”

van Riemsdyk scored a career high 36 goals last season and has developed into a dangerous presence in front of goal, especially on the power play He’s already comfortable playing in Philadelphia and can possibly rekindle some chemistry with Giroux depending on how head coach Dave Hakstol juggles his lines.

Coming off a season where a number of young players took steps forward and the captain had a career season, the Flyers and Giroux can’t help but be excited by the addition.

“He’s a great player in front of the net — could be on the power play or 5-on-5,” he said. “He’s a very smart hockey player. He’s a great competitor. I’ve seen him play in the playoffs and dominate a hockey game against Boston. I was very impressed. We know and he knows he has that in him and for him to come in and help us out, it’s very motivating.”

Anders Lee on extension talks, Trotz’s arrival

It’s been a bit of a busy summer for the New York Islanders. They have a new head coach, a new general manager, and lost their captain in free agency. As Lou Lamoriello took over for Garth Snow, he’s done work to try and improve upon last season’s playoff-less spring.

A number of players are entering the final year of their deals, like Anders Lee. His agent hasn’t started negotiations with Lamoriello on an extension, but the 40-goal scorer understands why talks haven’t commenced just yet.

“They’ve been in contact. They’ve worked together before,” he said. “I think everyone knows we just have other things he has to worry about right now.”

One of those ‘things’ is getting new head coach Barry Trotz settled with his new team. After being unable to come to terms on an extension after winning the Stanley Cup with the Washington Capitals, they parted ways and three days later he was hired by the Islanders. 

Trotz’s ability to develop a winning culture is something that has Lee very excited for the season.

“Barry’s resume speaks for itself,” he said. “Where he’s been with Nashville and Washington and where he’s taken his teams, obviously winning the Stanley Cup last year is the ultimate goal and he’s done that. His experiences and who is he as a person, from what I’ve been told, I think is going to be great for us.”

McDavid felt weight of the ‘C’

In Connor McDavid’s first season as captain of the Edmonton Oilers, they made the playoffs. There was a sense of a arrival and that with an elite level talent like McDavid, the good times finally returned.

But last season was a disaster. As McDavid played out of his mind, the Oilers won 11 fewer games and dipped 25 points from the 2016-17 season. It wasn’t just a step back, it was a plunge back to the bottom.

As the season quickly slipped from their grasp, McDavid felt the crushing disappointment.

“I think anytime you’ve got a team that doesn’t make the playoffs the captain always feels it. Everyone feels it,” said McDavid. “It doesn’t matter who you are on the team. That’s the point of the team. When you do wear the ‘C’ you feel a lot of responsibility. You take a lot on yourself. You think that there’s some sort of magic thing that needs to be said or some sort of magic thing that needs to be done, but ultimately it’s all about the team.”

This summer general manager Peter Chiarelli didn’t make any drastic changes to his roster. Tobias Rieder and Kyle Brodziak were brought in and defenseman Evan Bouchard was drafted No. 10 overall. The lack of change has the feeling that it’ll be another rough year in Edmonton. Just don’t tell that to McDavid.

“It’s kind of always been said if Peter could make a move he was going to and obviously nothing came up and that’s what we wanted, honestly,” he said. “I think everyone in the locker room believes in each other. We believe that we’re going to be a good team.”

Jack Eichel’s leadership lessons from Brian Gionta

It’s been two full seasons since the Buffalo Sabres have had a captain, but it’s a good bet that the 21-year-old Eichel will be donning the ‘C’ on a regular basis pretty soon. Taking on an extra responsibility like that won’t make the young center change anything about himself, however.

“It’s obviously a huge honor if that ever happened,” said Eichel. “There’s some good leaders on the team and there’s a good leadership group. There’s a lot of guys to rely on that make it easy for you to lead. 

“For me, it’s more or less just not changing. ‘C,’ no ‘C,’ ‘A,’ whatever. Try and be yourself, do what you do. That’s the mindset I try and take anywhere I go. Whatever I’ve done to get to my spot now, just try to be myself. Be the personality I have. But you get that obviously there’s more responsibility. You’ve got to continue to handle yourself the right way. [It’d be a] huge honor. There’s a lot of deserving guys, but it’d be cool.”

The Sabres last captain was Brian Gionta, who was there as Eichel entered the NHL in 2015. The way the veteran forward handled himself left an impression on the franchise’s young star — something that could be useful if he’s to succeed Gionta in the leadership role.

“The biggest thing with Gio was his professionalism,” Eichel said. “Gio’s the type of guy who was at the rink early every morning, he had his routine. He knew what he needed to do to prepare for practice, prepare for games, and he did every day, no matter what. Whether it was February or August or October, whatever it was, he was going to do his routine every day and prepare the same way. Big game, practice, morning skate, he prepared like a pro. 

“I was able to learn a lot about preparation, getting yourself ready, getting your body ready, doing the right things in order to be at your best.”

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SHORT SHIFTS

“Begrudgingly. They brought in a BC assistant coach, so it evens out.” – A joking New York Rangers forward and Boston College alum Chris Kreider on if he’ll be able to play for a Boston University product in David Quinn.

“It’s tough. It’s really intense. I think the biggest thing I never really understood was how much of a mental battle it is, how intense it is. You think about every little play after a game, what you could have done better, what you wish you would have done. The mental battle is something I learned a lot about something that I’m definitely better off for [experiencing].” – Winnipeg Jets forward Mark Scheifele on what he learned during the grind to reach the Western Conference Final last season.

“No, absolutely not. I think that’s the worst thing I can do. I just have to play my game and yeah, I’d like to score more and create more offense, but you also have to be good defensively.” – Dylan Larkin of the Detroit Red Wings on if he’ll change anything should he be given added responsibility in the absence of captain Henrik Zetterberg.

“I think our young guys are going to keep getting better and better. [Alex] Kerfoot, [Tyson] Jost, [J.T.] Compher, all those guys are just going to continue to develop. That’s kind of like adding players when those guys get better, it’s like adding scoring. The three of us — [Gabriel] Landeskog, me and [Mikko] Rantanen — are going to have to be really good this year. I think our goalies are set. We have [Philipp] Grubauer and [Semyon] Varlamov — that’s a great 1-2. We feel good. It’s going to be a tough division, the Central, but we’re ready.” – Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche on improvements for this season.

“He’s very repetitive with what he believes in and the system that he follows. He started at the beginning of the season with what he wanted us to do and what he wanted in our organization. He was very adamant on continuing to tell us what he wanted. He didn’t stray off if we didn’t listen, saying right away he would make sure he would beat it into us. Very intense, but at the same time very laid back guy. It’s tough to explain. He’s an awesome guy, easy to talk to and very serious when it comes to the game of hockey. He’s just your typical hard-nosed [coach], like he played; he’s that kind of coach. He’s extremely intense and his love for the game and his want to win and hate to lose attitude makes you want to win for him and have that same attitude.” – Vincent Trocheck on Florida Panthers head coach Bob Boughner.

MORE NHL MEDIA TOUR COVERAGE:
Kane, Toews ready to turn page on playoff-less 2017-18 season
Tavares hopes for ‘positive’ reception when Maple Leafs visit Isles
Taylor Hall not expecting complacency from Devils after playoff return
Eric Staal eager to stay with Wild, ready for Central Division battle
Tyler Seguin on extension talks, new Stars head coach

————

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.

Signing Laine and other Jets cap challenges after Wheeler extension

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The Winnipeg Jets answered a big question on Tuesday by signing captain and star winger Blake Wheeler to a five-year, $41.25 million extension. That removes a huge item from the franchise’s to-do list, yet they face plenty of challenges in keeping this talent-packed roster together for the long haul.

Much of the future worries come down to extending Patrik Laine, but there are other considerations that can make an impact on this loaded team’s ability to contend.

Winnipeg’s cap questions are pretty involved, so let’s go step by step.

(Note via Cap Friendly’s numbers: Winnipeg has about $10.24M in cap space as of this writing. They have about $52.48M committed to 11 players heading into 2019-20, which would give them a bit more than $27M to work with in the unlikely event that the cap would remain at $79.5M.)

More Morrissey

GM Kevin Cheveldayoff faces one more big obstacle for 2018-19: hashing out a contract with RFA defenseman Josh Morrissey.

Right now, the tone seems to be “don’t panic,” even though training camp is rapidly approaching.

The Jets are running some risky business when it comes to their young defensemen.

Jacob Trouba may just become hockey’s answer to Kirk Cousins: a player either forced to or willingly choosing to make short-term bets on himself with the goal of a big payday in the future. Winnipeg is lucky enough that, despite that arduous arbitration hearing, Trouba would only be considered an RFA if he makes it to next summer without a deal. Still, it’s tough to shake the impression that the situation will end with Trouba eventually playing for a different NHL team, much like Cousins ultimately left Washington.

Winnipeg must walk a fine line with two young defensemen (Trouba’s 24, Morrissey is 23). It’s easy to see why Morrissey would prefer a “bridge” contract, particularly considering the defensemen who may be forced out with the cap crunch.

Beyond the Trouba turmoil, Tyler Myers‘ contract ends after 2018-19, with both of those defensemen carrying $5.5M cap hits. Morrissey could goose his numbers by naturally earning more minutes next season, but especially so in the likely event that Myers can’t fit under the cap.

Then again, the added security of term could be quite appealing if the Jets decide that Morrissey is worthy of a Noah Hanifin-ish commitment.

(Goalie Eric Comrie is also an RFA in need of a deal.)

While Morrissey’s situation is unsettled, the Jets made substantial investments in other players, for better or worse:

Long-term commitments: the very good, and the troubling

Whether they end up being wise or imprudent investments, Cheveldayoff committed to some serious term in recent (and semi-recent) situations.

Wheeler’s cap hit goes from $5.6M next season to $8.25M starting in 2019-20. As of this writing, he’s a bargain at both rates, but the unavoidable concern is for regression, considering that the American-born forward is already 32. (He’ll be 33 right before his extension kicks in.)

The Jets also made an interesting bet on young goalie Connor Hellebuyck, handing the 25-year-old a six-year contract that carries a $6.167M AAV. It says a lot about how perception can change in a year, as the Jets signed Steve Mason to a fairly healthy two-year, $8M deal heading into 2017-18 thanks to the uncertainty they still faced in net. If Hellebuyck replicates (or at least produces work close to) his strong, steady season, then that cap hit could be a nice bargain. Goalies are risky, though, and the Jets ended up regretting Ondrej Pavelec’s rancid contract for basically its entirety. Maybe the Hellebuyck contract is “the price of doing business,” but that bill could create some buyer’s remorse if last year was a mirage.

Overall, the Jets boast eight lengthy commitments (three years or more) at significant rates* as of this writing: Wheeler, Hellebuyck, Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers, Dustin Byfuglien, Bryan Little, Mathieu Perreault, and Adam Lowry.

Scheifele’s $6.125M ranks on the shortlist of the absolute best bargains in the NHL, especially since it runs for six more seasons. If the Jets manage to wade through this jungle of cap challenges, credit that Scheifele bargain and also locking down Ehlers at an affordable (and potentially steal-worthy) $6M long-term as two key developments.

Some of the veterans might provide problems, though. Little’s been a hidden gem through even the Atlanta Thrashers days, yet the 30-year-old’s $5.292M cap hit already looks dicey, and it runs through 2023-24. Little’s contract may force out a valuable-yet-not-essential player like Perreault, who virtually always shines from an analytics standpoint, and does so at a reasonable $4.125M clip.

Winnipeg’s cap crunch could force out some combination of Little, Perreault, or Lowry, while Dmitry Kulikov may force some LTIR shenanigans.

(Hey, at least other contenders have set a template for how Winnipeg could … “bend some rules.”)

* – Sorry, Tucker Poolman, whose name will forever sound like a fake handle for someone in a fantasy league.

Aiming for raises

All of the situations above bleed into the Jets’ biggest worries: what’s next to come.

Patrik Laine’s rookie contract expires after next season, and Winnipeg can sign him to an extension at any time. Laine already scored 80 goals and 134 points in just 155 games, and it’s tough to imagine his standing in the league falling after 2018-19. The Jets essentially have to hope that Laine will fall in line with other rising stars who’ve signed for relative discounts, as his RFA status only means so much.

Laine is the biggest ticket item, but far from the only player who could rake in big bucks.

Kyle Connor represents a potentially tricky situation. After a minimal, truncated rookie season (5 points in 20 games in 2016-17), Connor broke through last year, managing 31 goals and 57 points.

If you’re Winnipeg, you probably would prefer to sign him to a reasonable extension instead of letting him flirt with even bigger totals in 2018-19, considering that only seven of his 31 goals came on the power play. (Though, to be fair, Connor received pretty healthy reps.)

With Trouba’s situation merely postponed for a year and Morrissey possibly only getting a bridge deal, the Jets could still face some big calls with key players. That’s especially true if management views re-signing Tyler Myers as a necessity rather than a luxury.

***

Overall, the Jets need to try to find value in the next deals for Laine and Connor, while making the right calls with Morrissey and Trouba.

While contenders such as the Chicago Blackhawks have shown that you can get out of a bad deal or two, they’ve also cemented the notion that you might end up regretting being loyal to the wrong players. The Jets handed out no-trade or no-movement clauses to veterans such as Wheeler, Byfuglien, Little, Kulikov and Perreault, which may only complicate matters.

For a GM who inspired puns about “taking the day off,” Kevin Cheveldayoff sure has his work cut out for him.

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.