Their agents may be borrowing a phrase from Jerry Maguire and shouting "Show me the money" at Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff given the impressive seasons they just had.
But the cold, hard reality is that Andrew Copp and Neal Pionk are likely going to have to take ones for the team and accept less than their perceived value this summer if the current, cash-strapped group is to remain intact. Otherwise, prepare for some painfully necessary roster surgery before the puck drops on a promising new campaign this fall.
By my rough estimates (more on that later), the Jets have a maximum of US$10.2 million to get Copp and Pionk, both restricted free agents who have elected for binding arbitration later this month, under contract for 2021-22. That's going to be a tough task — perhaps downright impossible — given their current market value.
Pionk's worth is likely in the US$6-7 million per season range. Only 13 defencemen have put up more points than his 77 (in 125 games) over the past two years. A guy well behind him on that list, Zach Werenski (61 points in 98 games) just signed a six-year extension with Columbus that will pay him nearly US$9.5 million per year. Another guy in the rear-view mirror, Darnell Nurse (69 points in 127 games), is said to be working on a new deal with Edmonton for a similar salary.
Yes, the price for offensive defencemen has shot up this summer, and that sound you hear is Cheveldayoff muttering under his breath at the bloody timing of it all.
Copp's ask is believed to be in the US$5-5.5 million per season range, which also strikes me as reasonable. He's arguably Winnipeg's most versatile forward, a guy who can be a shutdown checker, a key penalty killer, a power-play producer, a winger or a centreman. He put up career highs of 15 goals and 24 assists in 55 games last year. Like Pionk, he's also a well-respected voice and locker-room leader.
He's also a homegrown drafted and developed talent, which is no small thing around here. Considering the Jets have bid farewell to a few of those in recent years, including Jacob Trouba, Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic, they definitely don't want to add Copp's name to the list.
The problem for Cheveldayoff is he can't simply hand over a blank cheque to both in this pandemic-caused flat cap era, which is why deals have yet to be reached and arbitration is now on the horizon, with hearings to be scheduled between Aug. 11-26 if new deals can't be reached by then. The good news is such a move means there will soon be finality to these matters, as they won't drag through training camp or the start of the season. The bad news is there's no guarantee of a happy ending for all parties.
The Jets will no doubt argue Pionk and Copp's numbers may dip going forward. In Pionk's case, he may see less power play time given the off-season addition of Nate Schmidt. Josh Morrissey (who makes US$6.25 million per season, with less offensive production than Pionk) will likely man the other unit. In Copp's case, cracking the top six as he often did last year is going to be a lot tougher with all of Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Paul Stastny still in the fold.
One way to keep the average annual value (AAV) down is to give more term, which we've seen already this summer with the likes of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (eight years, US$41.5 million) and Zach Hyman (seven years, US$38.5 million) both inking deals in Edmonton. Copp hasn't produced at the same offensive clip as those two players, which no doubt the Jets would use as leverage during their bargaining.
The risk, of course, is giving too much term so that it ultimately comes back to bite you as the player ultimately regresses. A bit of damned if you do, damned if you don't scenario.
While a Pionk arbitration hearing wouldn't be ideal, Copp getting to that stage would be catastrophic. He is as good as gone if that occurs. No player has ever gone through the process twice, and Copp admits doing it two summers ago left him with a chip on his shoulder a mile wide. It's not a lot of fun going to a hearing where your employer lists off all the reasons you shouldn't be paid what you think you're worth.
Additionally, Copp's arbitration award would be for one year, walking him straight into unrestricted free agency next summer. The Jets would have to move him or risk losing him for nothing in return. I suppose, given their "all-in" mentality right now, they could simply treat him as their own one-year rental, but that would still involve finding a way to make his salary fit under the US$81.5 million cap.
Any trade would have to be with the main goal of shedding salary in the process, which has become a common theme around the league these days. For proof, see reigning Vezina Trophy winner Marc-Andre Fleury essentially being given to Chicago for absolutely nothing in return, other than the necessary cap space Vegas needed.
It's worth noting the US$10.2 million figure for Pionk and Copp involves the Jets going with a 22-man roster (rather than the maximum of 23) and accounts for Bryan Little once again being placed on long-term injured reserve, which allows the Jets to essentially spend his US$5.291 million salary beyond the cap ceiling.
The number also doesn't include depth defenceman Nathan Beaulieu, who would have to be traded or buried in the minors so his US$1.25 million comes off the books. Nor does it account for Ville Heinola, Dylan Samberg, Cole Perfetti or David Gustafsson, whose entry level deals all pay slightly more (between US$817,500 and US$925,000) than the likes of Sami Niku, Jansen Harkins, Riley Nash, Dominic Toninato and Luke Johnson, who all make either US$725,000 (the league minimum) or US$750,000.
Swap in Beaulieu, any of those young players and/or a 23rd skater and there's even less money to play with. And, for those who have asked, this is why the Jets are going to go with Eric Comrie as the backup goalie to Connor Hellebuyck. They simply couldn't afford to allocate another penny to that position than the US$750,000 Comrie will make.
In a perfect world, Pionk and Copp will both continues to be key pieces on a team that is built for success, with Schmidt and Brenden Dillon acquired in big trades last week to boost the blue line, Stastny re-signed for another year to complement an already rock-solid forward core and several bright young prospects in the pipeline.
Unfortunately, showing both players the money might mean having to show someone the door.
firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg
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.