Laine, Connor contract talks a high-price game of chicken

At what point should you put down your frosty beverage, get off the pool noodle and start reaching for the panic button?

I hate to be the proverbial dark cloud, but we’re well into the dog days of summer, with the August long weekend in the rear-view mirror, and two of the Winnipeg Jets’ biggest offensive weapons are still without contracts.

Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor combined to score 64 regular-season goals last year, which amounts to just under 24 per cent of the 272 times the team lit the lamp. And they did it on the cheap, in the final year of entry-level deals that carried cap hits of just $925,000 each, not including performance bonuses.

There will be no such bargain going forward as the restricted free agents are set to deservedly cash in on their success so far. But when, and at what price, remain burning questions. And with the start of NHL training camps about a month away, you’d think the urgency would be picking up, right?

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At what point should you put down your frosty beverage, get off the pool noodle and start reaching for the panic button?

I hate to be the proverbial dark cloud, but we’re well into the dog days of summer, with the August long weekend in the rear-view mirror, and two of the Winnipeg Jets’ biggest offensive weapons are still without contracts.

 Patrik Laine

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Patrik Laine

Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor combined to score 64 regular-season goals last year, which amounts to just under 24 per cent of the 272 times the team lit the lamp. And they did it on the cheap, in the final year of entry-level deals that carried cap hits of just $925,000 each, not including performance bonuses.

There will be no such bargain going forward as the restricted free agents are set to deservedly cash in on their success so far. But when, and at what price, remain burning questions. And with the start of NHL training camps about a month away, you’d think the urgency would be picking up, right?

After all, if the Jets are to make any noise this coming season, they’re likely going to need more contributions from the likes of Laine, 21, and Connor, 22, given that internal development and growth appears to be the primary game plan. Having one or both of them unavailable due to a prolonged contract impasse would be very bad for the on-ice business.

According to a handful of hockey agents I spoke to Wednesday, don’t hold your breath waiting for deals to get done. There appears to be a giant, league-wide game of chicken going on between high-profile RFAs and their respective general managers, with neither side wanting to be the first to blink.

“It’s all about the top young players figuring out and defining what the market place is and will be moving forward. It’s also about the leverage that those young players have at least before training camp and as the season begins,” one agent told me on Wednesday.

Indeed, players such as Laine and Connor certainly have some degree of power right now, but that can change once they start missing paycheques. You’ll recall the Jets’ Josh Morrissey didn’t have a deal done when training camp began last fall, but there was a meeting of the minds just a few days later as they settled on a two-year extension that pays the talented defenceman $3.15 million per season.

Not so with Toronto’s William Nylander, who wasn’t signed until hours before the ultimate deadline of Dec. 1. That would have meant missing the entire season and not making a single penny if he didn’t put pen to paper on what was a six-year, $45-million contract, which I’m guessing the likes of Laine and Connor’s agents are bringing up in negotiations.

“As time goes on, as you know, the leverage swings (back to the team) because of the deadline in December,” the same agent added.

A similar situation with either Laine or Connor, or both, would be a nightmare for the Jets, which has already lost several key pieces from a team that failed to meet high expectations last year, stumbling down the stretch and ultimately bowing out of the playoffs in the first round to the eventual Stanley Cup champions in St. Louis.

Kyle Connor

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Kyle Connor

I would be shocked if either side lets it get to that point, especially after seeing how much Nylander struggled after missing so much time, but stranger things have happened.

Just take a look around the league right now, where it’s clear Winnipeg isn’t the only franchise involved in a worrisome waiting game. Mitch Marner of Toronto, Brayden Point of Tampa, Mikko Rantanen of Colorado, Matthew Tkachuk of Calgary, Zach Werenski of Columbus, Charlie McAvoy of Boston, Brock Boeser of Vancouver, Kevin Fiala of Minnesota and Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov of Philadelphia are among other notable RFAs who remain unsigned.

That’s an all-star roster of talent. And it appears nobody wants to be the first to take the plunge and essentially set the market for their colleagues.

“I don’t know if this is a trend or a one-off,” another agent told me of the unusual development. He believes part of the issue was the salary cap coming in at a less-than-projected $81.5 million this summer, with general managers scrambling to deal with other business first such as the draft in late June followed by July free agency.

“I think some of it may be waiting for the dollars to be allocated before getting to most of the RFAs,” he said.

That certainly appears to be the case in Winnipeg. Despite not locking up Laine or Connor yet, you can’t say general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff has simply put his feet up. There’s been a whole lot of business to get done, including trading Jacob Trouba to New York for Neal Pionk and a draft pick, signing Pionk to a new deal, going to arbitration with Andrew Copp, re-signing RFA backup goalie Laurent Brossoit, RFA defenceman Nelson Nogier and RFA forward C.J. Suess, and signing UFAs Nathan Beaulieu, Anthony Bitetto, Mark Letestu, Andrei Chibisov, Joona Luoto, J.C. Lipon, Logan Shaw, Seth Griffith and Cam Schilling.

Winnipeg Jets' Patrik Laine skates against Vancouver Canucks' Bo Horvat during the Fastest Skater portion of the NHL All-Star Skills Competition in 2017 in Los Angeles.

MARK J. TERRILL / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Winnipeg Jets’ Patrik Laine skates against Vancouver Canucks’ Bo Horvat during the Fastest Skater portion of the NHL All-Star Skills Competition in 2017 in Los Angeles.

As a result, the Jets know they have approximately $14.5 million left in salary-cap room to get Laine and Connor’s names on new deals. Whether or not that will be enough remains to be seen, which is another part of the problem. If more money is required, Cheveldayoff would have to make additional moves, with time being of the essence and potential dance partners likely very limited.

No doubt their agents are keenly aware of that as well and will be trying to squeeze every dollar they can for their clients, as they should.

Talks of potential offer sheets have mostly quieted down, with only Montreal taking a laughable run at Carolina’s Sebastian Aho only to have it backfire. It’s still possible another one could come before the season starts, but it seems more unlikely with each passing day, especially with a large number of teams still looking to shed salary to get under the cap.

Whether it’s a long-term extension or a shorter-term bridge contract, the NHL has shifted in recent years to a younger man’s game in which top-tier players coming out of their ELCs typically get paid. And Laine (110 goals in his first three seasons) and Connor (65 goals in his first two years) are now proven goal-scorers at this level.

But finding the right price point that makes everyone happy and getting those deals done has become increasingly complicated. As a result, the waiting game goes on. And on. And on.

Feel free to fill up that cup, get back in the water and return to your regularly scheduled summer programming. Save the worrying until after Labour Day.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
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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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