As we both crammed inside the elevator from the Enterprise Center press box to the arena basement Saturday night, I couldn’t help but glance at Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff.

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This article was published 25/11/2018 (1102 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

As we both crammed inside the elevator from the Enterprise Center press box to the arena basement Saturday night, I couldn’t help but glance at Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff.

There was no sign he had one of those large novelty cheques on his person. Nor was he holding the keys to a Brinks truck in his hands. But I’m guessing the subject of money was definitely on his mind, especially after what he’d just witnessed.

Patrik Laine, who will earn a US$925,000 salary this season, had just made the St. Louis Blues look like a bantam team as he scored five goals, becoming the first NHLer in seven years to accomplish such a feat. It capped off an incredible road trip in which he scored 11 goals in four games over six nights in three time zones and two countries. That’s a solid season for many players.

The number of players now with more goals than Laine this season? Zero. The number of players with more goals than Laine since he broke into the league for the 2016-17 season? That would also be zero. (Alex Ovechkin has the identical number, 99).

Linemate Kyle Connor, who earns the same US$925,000 base salary, set up four of Laine’s goals Saturday, all at even strength. That was his second four-point game of the week, as he had a goal and three helpers in Vancouver on Monday night.

Was this just the most costly road trip in Jets history?

Laine, 20, and Connor, 21, are both finishing up their entry-level deals this season, essentially playing for peanuts by NHL standards. There will be no such bargain to be had on their second contract. Both pending restricted free agents are going to get paid next summer. Big time.

And their recent performances likely drove up the price substantially.

What’s the combined salary-cap hit going to look like? US$14 million? Good luck with that. US$16 million? Now you’re probably in the range. US$18 million, perhaps? Especially if they have a few more nights like Saturday up their sleeves.

Remember when hockey was hard for Laine after he scored just three times in 12 October games, bouncing all over the lineup and looking somewhat lost and even uninterested?

Winnipeg Jets' Patrik Laine (29), of Finland, is congratulated by Brendan Lemieux after scoring during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the St. Louis Blues, Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018, in St. Louis.

JEFF ROBERTSON / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Winnipeg Jets' Patrik Laine (29), of Finland, is congratulated by Brendan Lemieux after scoring during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the St. Louis Blues, Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018, in St. Louis.

Then, Helsinki happened. And since beginning this month in his native Finland, no NHL player has been hotter. Suddenly, a guy who looked like he was costing himself major money with each lacklustre game was back to his usual ways, and maybe even more lethal than ever.

Laine does the thing that’s supposed to be hard and makes it look easy: he scores goals. More than anyone else. Regardless of what you might think of the rest of his game, which is pretty darn good right now, lighting the lamp is the best money-maker.

His annual salary is likely going to start somewhere near US$10 million.

Connor is an even more fascinating study. No doubt, some believed last year’s 31-goal, 57-point rookie campaign may have been the product of riding the coattails of Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler on the top line, or that he couldn’t hold his own weight if taken away from the dynamic duo.

Well, you can quickly put that theory to bed. Connor is the driving force on his own line, with Laine and veteran centre Bryan Little, who looks rejuvenated. Connor is on pace for 37 goals and 89 points while giving the Jets another scoring line that is even more threatening than the top unit. He’s become the ultimate set-up man for hockey’s best pure scorer, a true two-way player who makes everyone around him better.

And he is going to get richly rewarded. US$6 million a season? At least. Do I hear seven? Eight?

How this fits into the grand salary-cap structure is likely keeping Cheveldayoff and assistant GM Larry Simmons up at night. But I’m guessing 30 fellow NHL executives would gladly take this kind of "problem" in a heartbeat.


A few other thoughts from the road trip:

• What a difference a day makes. After blowing a 2-0, third-period lead and losing 4-2 in Minnesota on Friday, the Jets locker room was as surly as I’ve seen it. Yet just over 24 hours later in St. Louis, it was comedy hour after the 8-4 win.

• There was Wheeler announcing Brendan Lemieux was available for interviews as a media horde descended on the man of the hour, Laine. "He wants to talk about his goal," Wheeler cracked.

Winnipeg Jets' Patrik Laine, of Finland, is congratulated by Josh Morrissey (44) and Kyle Connor (81) after scoring during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the St. Louis Blues, Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018, in St. Louis.</p>

JEFF ROBERTSON / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Winnipeg Jets' Patrik Laine, of Finland, is congratulated by Josh Morrissey (44) and Kyle Connor (81) after scoring during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the St. Louis Blues, Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018, in St. Louis.

And there was Little playing the role of straight man, playfully asking a large gathering of scribes "so what do you guys want to talk about?" Little then added of Laine "He almost has any many hat tricks as I have goals." It’s close. Laine has three hatties this year, all in November. Little has four goals.

• As the goals kept coming Saturday night, Laine said the only thought going through his mind was "try not to celly so hard." He was also pleased to hear his big night meant Winnipeg’s Christopher Haley had won $1 million as part of the five-goal Safeway Score & Win promotion. "Hopefully, I made somebody pretty happy," Laine said.

• You see some strange things while flying, and last week was no exception. There was the wiener dog in the Vancouver airport who was wearing a "support dog" vest. It tried to attack another traveller, barking and growling. There was the guy behind me on the way from Calgary to Minneapolis who must have sneezed at least 50 times. Pretty sure all of us within range now have the plague. And there was the couple sharing a massive grapefruit in the waiting area in Minneapolis, dripping juice all over the floor.

• Speaking of produce, Calgary coach Bill Peters had a great line about the frailties of the coaching profession, after Edmonton and St. Louis sacked their bench bosses earlier in the week. "That’s why we don’t buy the green bananas," he said.

• The Calgary Saddledome, bless its aging heart, is a dump. If I never again have to walk the blasted catwalk that connects the press boxes, I’ll be a happy man. That city needs a new barn.

• Love the third jerseys the Blues wore Saturday night in St. Louis, a throwback to their past. They put the Jets Aviator jerseys to shame.

• Airline quibble: What’s with people who immediately jump out of their seat and stand in the aisle as soon as the plane hits the gate? Where do they think they’re going?

• Condolences to the family of former referee Mick McGeough, who was a fixture in recent years in the Bell MTS Place press box. After retiring from his on-ice duties a decade ago, McGeough went to work as an NHL supervisor of officials. The Saskatchewan native often drew assignments in Winnipeg, most recently on Nov. 14 when the Jets played Washington. McGeough suffered a fatal stroke just a few days later.

"Mick could go from being real surly and in command to a big smile on his face the next time he passed your bench. Jets head coach Paul Maurice said Saturday.

"But he was really easy to deal with. Very direct. He’d tell you what he thought about what you thought about his calls. But the whistle would go at the end of the game and he was fine. A wonderful personality for the game."

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

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.