Kyle Connor settled for immediate financial security by taking a long-term extension. Patrik Laine decided to bet on himself by taking a short-term bridge deal.
At the time both new contracts were inked, a few days into Winnipeg Jets training camp last fall, they appeared to make plenty of dollars, and sense, for two of the brightest young stars on the team. Connor was the more consistent performer, so seven years at US$50 million seemed like good value. Laine was the streakier player, coming off a down year by his standards, so two years at US$13.5 million bought everyone a bit more time to evaluate his true worth.
But now? I’d suggest Connor should be laughing all the way to the bank, while Laine has plenty of cause for concern about what may be lurking around the corner.
In this scary new COVID-19 world, where the NHL is on indefinite pause and there are projections for as much as US$1 billion in lost revenue, players such as Laine who were expecting to cash in on their next contract may be in for a rude awakening.
The league’s salary cap ceiling, which was US$81.5 million per team this season and projected to rise sharply over the next two years, likely isn’t going anywhere but down if the global pandemic quashes the rest of this regular season and the subsequent Stanley Cup playoffs.
And that bleak bottom line is going to have a significant trickle-down effect.
Good luck passing the buck to Joe and Jane Fan, who are dealing with their own personal hardships. The eventual all-clear from health officials and government isn’t going to magically return everything back to normal. No, they’ll be in absolutely no position to take a bigger monetary hit than they already have. And any attempt at that will quickly backfire and result in even greater losses.
And so the owners and players will have to bear the brunt, a hot topic no doubt in ongoing negotiations about the next collective bargaining agreement. At this point, a “flat” salary cap for a number of years seems to be the best-case scenario being discussed. Which, for a player such as Laine, is very bad news despite improving his overall game this season and still putting up 28 goals and a career-high 35 assists.
Short of some league-wide solution that sees already existing contracts somehow downsized, all that money that is already spoken for isn’t going to leave a whole lot for those who were planning to get a significant piece of the pie.
“To roll back contracts is impossible,” one player agent told me Friday.
Take the Toronto Maple Leafs, of example. They have US$60 million per season tied up on nine players under multi-year contracts, including an eye-popping US$33 million invested on just Auston Matthews, John Tavares and Mitch Marner. Imagine the salary cap taking a tumble from US$81.5 million? Now imagine trying to fill out a 23-man roster that can compete for a Stanley Cup with what you’re going to have left to spend on your other 14 players.
Hey Brendan Shanahan and Kyle Dubas, how you guys sleeping these days?
Closer to home, the Jets aren’t in the same dire straits as long as Dustin Byfuglien’s contract and the remaining US$7.6-million cap hit is mutually terminated, as is expected to happen. But general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff has reason to be nervous as well.
Winnipeg still has US$66 million spoken for next season for 14 players who were on the active roster at the time this season was paused. Cheveldayoff was no doubt counting on an increased cap to help pay for upcoming restricted free agents Jack Roslovic, Mason Appleton, Jansen Harkins and Sami Niku, while using the rest of the available space to take a run at a number of unrestricted free agents (either internal or external) to surround his core with and keep the championship window open.
And, of course, ensuring there’s enough room to get Laine, along with key players such as Neal Pionk, Andrew Copp and Adam Lowry re-signed the following summer.
Which takes me back to Connor, who acquitted himself rather nicely in the first year of his new deal. At the time the season was halted, Connor led the Jets with a career-high 38 goals, including eight in his last seven games. Only five players in the NHL had lit the lamp more than him.
“I think that’s what separates a lot of good players from the great players, is just the consistency of showing that high level of compete, and it shows every single night,” Connor said during Friday’s Zoom conference call with a handful of reporters. “That’s something I’ve learned and I think I’ve grown my game. I showed glimpses my first couple of years of how great I can be. Moreso now it’s just more consistency and bringing that every single night.”
There’s no question the Jets were thrilled by what they were getting from their new US$7-million man. Connor definitely didn’t fall into the trap of getting comfortable. And, at just 23, there’s still room for improvement.
Any thought he might have left some money on the table in negotiations has quickly been negated by what is sure to be a dramatically different NHL landscape, one nobody could have envisioned just a few short months ago when he put pen to paper.
As for those who have contract negotiations on the horizon, might I suggest they buckle up. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.
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