The lines in the sand are drawn and there’s a whole lot of beach between the Winnipeg Jets and top-pairing defenceman Jacob Trouba.
Prior to Wednesday, the silence on a new Trouba contract was almost deafening, but when does anything to do with the local NHL squad generate much in the way of substantive clatter from the rumour mill? Winnipeg GM Kevin Cheveldayoff is somehow able to maintain a tight circle, and keep media and fans out of the loop about any deals he’s cooking up. (See Paul Stastny trade deadline acquisition.)
And then this tweet came from Hockey Night in Canada’s Elliotte Friedman: “Arbitration filings for Jacob Trouba: Jets are at $4M, player at $7M. Hearing is 48 hours away.”
Cue the game of chicken. But more about that later.
Trouba, 24, a restricted free agent, is coming off a two-year bridge deal that carried an annual salary-cap hit of US$3 million. He signed the contract in 2016, after requesting a trade, sitting out training camp and missing 13 games of the 2016-17 season.
An arbitration hearing is scheduled Friday in Toronto, leaving little more than a day for the Jets and the right-shooting, shutdown defenceman to come to an agreement.
A guy who averaged just under 22 minutes per game last season, usually against other teams’ most potent offensive players, deserves a major raise, somewhere in excess of $5 million a season. Just how far north is really the great unknown.
Trouba, a smooth skater and a consistent physical presence, has 34 goals and 129 points in 326 career games, all with Winnipeg. During the 2017-18 season, he missed significant time due to an ankle injury and a concussion. He fired just three goals and compiled 24 points in 55 games before appearing in all 17 playoff games, scoring a pair of goals and adding an assist.
If it goes to arbitration, the term is just one season and Trouba remains an RFA next summer but is just a year away from unrestricted status. If the two sides go down that road, a relationship that was tenuous at best in the past could be damaged beyond repair.
The process of arbitration compels the player’s side to do a major sell job, while allowing management its turn to list all the reasons why the guy isn’t worth the major hike. It’s all just business, not meant to be personal.
But a current NHLer who has witnessed first-hand the damage inflicted by arbitration on a few of his teammates over the years said it is personal.
“The team basically tells you you’re a piece of s—t and then after shakes your hand and says, ‘It’s just business and we didn’t mean it,'” says the player, who asked not to be named. “It can never be the same after that.”
The same player firmly believes the Jets and Trouba have no interest in being anywhere near downtown TO at the end of the week.
“Nobody wants to make it there. I’m sure they want a long-term deal, not another BS one- or two-year deal.”
He says right now it’s all just posturing, a point that’s tough hard to argue.
A $4-million proposal is not even close to the Jets’ best offer. They’re already paying Dmitry Kulikov $4.33 million for another two seasons and he’s a third-pairing guy with defensive shortcomings and a bad back.
Dustin Byfuglien is the team’s top-paid performer, with an average annual value of $7.6 million for the next three seasons. Tyler Myers is set to earn $5.5 million in the final year of a seven-year contract he signed in Buffalo.
Winnipeg is coming in with a lowball offer, not exactly a new tactic in labour negotiations.
On the other side, Trouba’s ask is a moonshot.
The latest revelation suggests his agent, Kurt Overhardt, is pushing hard for the kind of dough that exceeds what other top defencemen of similar age, talent and production at the NHL level are raking in.
He’s wanting Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk and Kris Letang kind of money.
His supposed demand would make him the highest-paid player on the Jets not named Byfuglien.
Trouba wants more than Vezina Trophy finalist Connor Hellebuyck, who just settled on a new six-year deal that pays him nearly $6.2 million annually. More than the $6.125 Mark Scheifele will make each year until the summer of 2024. More than captain Blake Wheeler, who heads into the last season of a six-year contract with an AAV of $5.6 million.
During a post-season chat with reporters in May, he expressed a desire to sign a long-term contract with the Jets sooner rather than later.
“Been down that road once,” he said then. “Quicker the better. You get the sense there’s a little unfinished business, I guess, here with this team. We all have such good relationships on this team, it’s fun to be part of. It’s a special team. You want to play for a contender, and that’s what we have here.”
Plenty of warm and fuzzy feelings conveyed there.
But what will his side say to beef up his stock if sitting before an outsider Friday becomes necessary?
And what kind of language will the Jets use to argue their case against paying Trouba the kind of cash that could really tighten the screws on an organization already facing a salary-cap crunch the next few seasons?
“He doesn’t produce enough offensively. He’s prone to spending time on the injured list. Some defensive gaffes proved costly in the playoffs,” they might point out.
The smart money’s on the two sides meeting somewhere slightly above the middle, with significant term in place.
For Trouba, a six-year, $36 million deal would come as no great surprise to anyone.
But if the sides must plead their cases in a Toronto board room Friday, that could be a tell-tale sign he won’t be wearing a Jets jersey for the long haul.
On July 5, 44 NHLers filed for arbitration but only 26 remained unsigned as of Wednesday morning. The list includes three other Jets — centre Adam Lowry, checking winger Brandon Tanev and little-used forward Marko Dano.
Lowry’s hearing is set for Sunday, Tanev goes before the arbitrator July 25, while Dano has a meeting scheduled July 30.
The Jets and the players are free to negotiate between now and those dates to reach an agreement on their own.
In fact, history tells us that only a few players will actually end up facing the arbitrator.
Last year, 30 RFAs filed for arbitration but only one, Vegas defenceman Nate Schmidt, had his salary determined by an arbitrator while the other 29 signed new deals before their scheduled hearings.
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).