Jets about to pay for doing things the ‘Chicago Way’

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They are the franchise upon which this franchise has been modelled.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/03/2018 (1718 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

They are the franchise upon which this franchise has been modelled.

Since that memorable day in May 2011 when Mark Chipman walked up to a podium and announced the NHL was back in Winnipeg, it has been the Chicago Blackhawks blueprint — a prototype that won three Stanley Cups in six seasons — that the Winnipeg Jets have used to build their own franchise.

It started with the hiring of former Blackhawks assistant general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff as the Jets first GM. It continued with the appointment of a former Blackhawks player in Andrew Ladd as the team’s first captain.

Rumour has it Patrik Laine’s agent wants both term and something in the order of $10 million annually, which is both insane and probably not that far off from fair market value. (Jeffrey T. Barnes / Associated Press files)

And at every critical step along the way ever since, the question the Jets have asked themselves has been, ‘What would Chicago do?’

But as the fortunes of the two teams have reversed this season, the struggling Blackhawks have suddenly ceased to be a role model for the high-flying Jets and have instead become a cautionary tale of how quickly things that once went so right can go very, very wrong.

The Chicago Tribune posed the question in a headline back in January: “Are the Blackhawks broken?”

The answer, judging by the listless and despondent effort Chicago put forth in a 6-2 loss to the Jets Thursday night at Bell MTS Place is, very definitely, yes.

And, also, quite possibly irredeemably so.

How pathetic were the Hawks on this night? Well, after scoring the game’s first goal just 11 seconds after the opening faceoff, they promptly gave up five straight to head into the first intermission down 5-1.

If it was a fight, they’d have stopped it. If it was a horse, they’d have shot it.

And if the Jets hadn’t taken their foot off the gas after that first period, this one might have gone into double digits on a night the Hawks were out-hustled, out-muscled and, yes, outclassed by a Jets team that is now doing the Blackhawks better than the Blackhawks are doing the Blackhawks.

Indeed, if you were in the process of building a new NHL team right now — hello, Seattle — and looking for a model, it’d be the Jets — not the moribund Hawks — that you’d choose.

Be patient. Draft. Develop. And then grab the thing by the throat — hello, Paul Stastny — and go all-in when the time is right.

What began as the “Chicago Way” is now the “Winnipeg Way” — and it’s working. But what’s going on in Chicago right now proves that it can only work for so long.

The ‘Hawks paid a steep price for those three Stanley Cups, a price paid in the form of some ridiculously huge contracts that are presently serving as a noose around their necks.

Jonathan Toews — $10.5 million a year through 2023. Patrick Kane — $10.5 million a year through 2023. Thirty-two-year-old Brent Seabrook — $6.8 million a year through 2024. Thirty-four-year-old Duncan Keith — $5.5 million a year through 2023.

Throw in a $6-million-a-year deal for injured goaltender Corey Crawford and just those five players alone account for more than half of a Blackhawks payroll that is the second-highest in all of hockey and pushing right up against the salary cap.

And what do the ‘Hawks have to show for it? A team that was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in each of the last two seasons and will miss the playoffs this year by a mile.

It’s the first time the team has missed the playoffs in 10 years, but it certainly won’t be the last, unless GM Stan Bowman can somehow shed what look to be some untradeable contracts.

The Hawks have won precisely nothing since those twin $10.5-million-a-year deals for Kane and Toews kicked in three years ago, and it’s now clear contracts Bowman was hoping would form the foundation of the club for years to come are instead serving as a cinder block around his neck, tying up more than a quarter of the salary cap space every year for two players who are in indisputable decline, judging by their production numbers.

So what’s this got to do with the Jets? Nothing at the moment — but absolutely everything soon.

Long-suffering sports fans in this city have finally had their patience rewarded with an electrifying Jets season that promises to be even more exciting in a month when the whites come out and hockey that actually matters makes its long-awaited return to River City.

But there will be a big price to pay for all the success this season, and the very real danger — as evidenced by what’s going on in Chicago — is that it will be too big a price.

The Jets have 15 players set to become either unrestricted or restricted free agents at the end of this season and most of them are going to be due massive raises.

The $2.8 million Jacob Trouba made this season is going to be walking-around money compared to what it’s going to take to lock him down long-term. Ditto the $2.25 million Connor Hellebuyck made this season while proving himself to be an all star-calibre NHL netminder.

Josh Morrissey? He will be cashing in after an entry-level that was paying him just $863,000 this year expires. And so too will Adam Lowry, who was making just $1.1 million on his expiring deal.

And then there’s Patrik Laine, who still has a year left on his entry-level deal, but for whom the price will only continue to rise the longer it takes the Jets to get a long-term commitment.

So what does an extension look like for a 19-year-old who has 41 goals in his second season in the NHL and has already scored more often at this point in his career than Wayne Gretzky? Well, rumour has it Laine’s agent wants both term and something in the order of $10 million annually, which is both insane and probably not that far off from fair market value.

Put it all together and the cost of keeping even a reasonable facsimile of this edition of the Jets together beyond the summer is rising now and will go through the roof if the team makes a deep playoff run which, it says here, they will.

The problem, as Chicago has shown, is that the Jets get drunk on their success this season and get trapped in a bunch of long-term unaffordable contracts that it takes the franchise years to get out from under.

Thus far, Chevy has shown himself to be a pretty shrewd negotiator. While I will never understand a deal that will pay Bryan Little $5.2 million a season through 2024, long-term deals for both Nikolaj Ehlers and Mark Scheifele at roughly $6 million a season look like relative steals.

But whether he can drive the same kind of bargains with the likes of Trouba, Hellebuyck, Morrissey, Lowry and, especially, Laine, seems doubtful.

It’s one thing negotiating with people who play for a losing team; it’s quite another negotiating with players who have made this franchise the talk of the NHL.

The alternative? It really isn’t one.

Chicago might be dysfunctional right now, but at least the franchise and their fans have three Stanley Cups to show for it.

Ask any Jets fans if they’d trade years of dysfunction down the road for three Stanley Cups in the immediate years to come and there’s not a single one that wouldn’t take that deal.

But the Jets haven’t won anything yet. And the danger heading into this coming off-season is that this flight gets weighted down in huge contracts just as it’s finally getting off the runway.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Paul Wiecek

Paul Wiecek
Reporter (retired)

Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press -- 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets -- long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.

History

Updated on Friday, March 16, 2018 12:49 PM CDT: Fixes headline

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