There was a noticeable wince as soon as I mentioned Andrew Ladd's name. The concern for his former captain was written all over Paul Maurice's face.
Ladd, you may have heard, won't be in the lineup Thursday night when his New York Islanders take on the Winnipeg Jets at Bell MTS Place. Ladd won't be skating any time soon, for that matter. The veteran winger tore an ACL on Sunday and is done for the season. He's facing at least five months of recovery, and, at 33, it's fair to wonder what this means for the future of a player who was already showing major signs of decline.
Some long, lonely days ahead, no doubt.
"There’s a mental cost. Those big injuries, when you see them, there’s almost a depression (players go through) when they suffer them, because they know what lies ahead for them," Jets head coach Maurice told me Wednesday.
It's difficult to age gracefully in the world of professional sports, especially in a young man's game such as hockey where the overall speed and skill seem to get better with every passing year. Ladd appears to be just the latest in a long list of athletes to be betrayed by their bodies.
Which is why it's also fair to wonder what the Jets' future may have looked like if Ladd was still part of the picture. Don't forget, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff tried to re-sign Ladd prior to the 2015-16 season, offering him a reported six-year extension in the range of US$6 million per season. That's otherwise known around these parts as Mark Scheifele money.
Ladd declined, opting to test the free agent market. And that may have ultimately been one of the most important things that has happened to this organization to get it where it is today — on top of the Central Division and a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
Sometimes, the moves you don't make end up being as big as the ones you do. And Cheveldayoff should be thankful he dodged this one.
After sending him to the Chicago Blackhawks at the trade deadline to salvage something for a player who was going to walk away for nothing — Marko Dano and a draft pick that turned out to be Logan Stanley came the other way — Ladd signed a seven-year, US$38.5 million contract on Long Island that summer.
It's not so much what the Jets got in return for Ladd, as Dano and Stanley both suit up for the Manitoba Moose, but what they avoided in moving on from him. Addition by subtraction, if you will.
Winnipeg's already precarious salary cap position would have been much worse if Ladd's contract was on the books through the 2022-23 season, especially given his lack of production. That would be the kind of proverbial anchor that can drag teams down. Just look at the Milan Lucic situation in Edmonton. Or Corey Perry in Anaheim. Or Jason Spezza in Dallas. Or Dion Phaneuf in Los Angeles. The list goes on.
Of course, that's always the risk when signing older players, especially ones such as Ladd where respect and loyalty run deep. He won a Stanley Cup with Chicago in 2010, with Cheveldayoff as the assistant general manager, then was the face of the NHL's return to Winnipeg in the fall of 2011 after one season in Atlanta. It was at least understandable why you might look at locking him up, even if the brain had a different opinion than the heart.
'There’s a mental cost. Those big injuries, when you see them, there’s almost a depression (players go through) when they suffer them, because they know what lies ahead for them' – Jets head coach Paul Maurice
We've seen similar concerns expressed around these parts in recent years with players who did re-up, such as Bryan Little, Dustin Byfuglien — who now battling a spate of injuries this season — and even Blake Wheeler when he signed his extension last fall.
But turning the page on Ladd helped usher in a much-needed youth movement in Winnipeg after just one playoff appearance in the first five seasons. Other veterans were ultimately shown the door as well, including Mark Stuart, Chris Thorburn, Drew Stafford and Toby Enstrom. That opened up opportunities for young, emerging stars such as Josh Morrissey, Jacob Trouba, Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor to make an impact.
It also paved the way for a new leadership group to emerge, led by his good friend, Wheeler, who seems to be defying Father Time and getting better with age. The other half of the team's dynamic duo is Scheifele.
The importance of that can't be overlooked, now three years later and with a second straight playoff appearance about to happen. It was a necessarily albeit somewhat painful changing of the guard and a passing of the torch, so to speak.
"You most definitely learn from the people around you. Where Andrew excelled was in the room with players. He was a quiet guy and he wasn’t somebody that was racing out to talk to the media to make sure people say nice things about him. He was in the room and did a really good job of working that around and you see that in Blake, too. He does a real nice job with the outreach program in the room, to help those guys that are struggling and still maintain a real high level for yourself and what you expect from yourself on the ice," said Maurice.
"It’s a challenge in a Canadian market. It is different here, with the pressures that you face when your team is not playing well. You’re the guy that is the face (of the franchise) and Andrew handled that really well."
Unfortunately, Ladd hasn't fared well in his new home. He put up just 35 goals and 25 assists in his first two seasons combined. He was no doubt hoping to silence some critics this season, under new coach Barry Trotz, and got off to a decent start in a more sheltered, bottom-six role with seven points in his first 14 games.
But then came a serious ankle injury in November that cost him almost three months. He returned to action in late February, only to now suffer a major knee injury. All told, he appeared in just 26 games this season, with three goals and eight assists.
"The advantage that veteran players have is that they’ve been through these things before, but it’s a challenge when you have those long-term (injuries), especially because Andrew would work exceptionally hard to come back. There are guys who that when they got hurt, they wouldn’t have that courage, and that’s what it is, to push through the pain, especially when you’re not getting better in a week. You’re talking about months of that," said Maurice.
Ladd is now stuck at 946 career regular-season games, and you just wonder how many more he might have left. That's no longer the concern of the Jets, even if the concern from his old team is evident.
"The most important thing I would say is that he’s got the kind of character that he’s going to push through it. He can drive through this and be a player. He’s had back-to-back really tough injuries. He came back to play and be a really good player and then it happened so quickly to him again," said Maurice.
"I feel for him."
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.