June 25, 2019

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Planes, trains and contract pains

Opinion

TORONTO — As a journalist covering an NHL team, you always hope for travel days that are as silky smooth as a Blake Wheeler saucer pass. Short lines, friendly people, an empty seat beside you on the plane and maybe, just maybe, cookies AND pretzels.

Wednesday was not one of those days. Which is why this column is coming to you from Toronto, and not Montreal, where the Winnipeg Jets will kick off a three-game road trip tonight.

Let’s just say Mother Nature brought her “A” game.

A lengthy morning flight delay in Winnipeg at the de-icing station. A cancelled connection in the blustery centre of the hockey universe. A re-booked last flight of the day to La Belle Province that was further delayed and at risk of being scrapped. A glimpse at the VIA Rail schedule as a potential backup plan to avoid being stranded overnight.

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TORONTO — As a journalist covering an NHL team, you always hope for travel days that are as silky smooth as a Blake Wheeler saucer pass. Short lines, friendly people, an empty seat beside you on the plane and maybe, just maybe, cookies AND pretzels.

Wednesday was not one of those days. Which is why this column is coming to you from Toronto, and not Montreal, where the Winnipeg Jets will kick off a three-game road trip tonight.

Let’s just say Mother Nature brought her "A" game.

A lengthy morning flight delay in Winnipeg at the de-icing station. A cancelled connection in the blustery centre of the hockey universe. A re-booked last flight of the day to La Belle Province that was further delayed and at risk of being scrapped. A glimpse at the VIA Rail schedule as a potential backup plan to avoid being stranded overnight.

(No, we don’t travel with the Jets on their charter. Only team staff and broadcasters do. And yes, I like it that way)

With plenty of unexpected time on my hands, here’s some random thoughts going through my head as I sit at Pearson International Airport watching the snow and freezing rain come down outside while cursing winter.


The scene was set for Patrik Laine to play the role of hero.

An overtime power play, courtesy of the San Jose Sharks taking a too many men on the ice penalty, gave the Jets a perfect chance to wrap up a homestand with a hard-fought victory over a top-tier opponent on Tuesday night.

Laine, the slumping goal scorer who had several good scoring opportunities earlier in the game, was primed to take centre stage.

I had my fingers ready to whip up the redemption story, about how the Finnish phenom had finally broken through by firing the game-winner.

Yeah, about that.

Laine was involved in the final goal of the night. But he played the role of goat as he was easily stripped of the puck in the offensive zone by Brent Burns, who then fed Joe Pavelski on a subsequent two-on-one rush for the short-handed winner.

Ouch.

Winnipeg Jets' Patrik Laine fired 12 shots at the San Jose Sharks net Tuesday, but none of them found the mark.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/TREVOR HAGAN

Winnipeg Jets' Patrik Laine fired 12 shots at the San Jose Sharks net Tuesday, but none of them found the mark.

So now what? With Laine’s confidence seemingly at an all-time low, the overtime blunder was pretty much the last thing he needs. Almost instantly, my Twitter feed filled up with people calling for him to be benched, to be sent to the Manitoba Moose, to be traded.

Spoiler alert: none of those things is going to happen. Laine is simply going to have to find a way out of the wilderness.

And there are signs a breakthrough might be just around the corner, even if his night ended with a thud.

He fired off a whopping 12 shot attempts Tuesday, although his radar is clearly off as six of them missed and another two were blocked. He was much more mobile on the power play to open up passing seams and shooting lanes. He made a handful of nice plays in his own end to break the puck out and get his team out of trouble.

Laine has set an incredibly high bar for himself, one he’s struggling to even come close to. Right now, it seems every step forward is followed by two steps back.

The mental battle may be tougher than the physical one. Laine just has to keep his head in the game, keep working hard and eventually his fortunes will change.


Toronto Maple Leafs' Auston Matthews, right, with teammate Mitch Marner.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/GRAHAM HUGHES

Toronto Maple Leafs' Auston Matthews, right, with teammate Mitch Marner.

Forget the term, or the money. The most interesting thing about Auston Matthews’ shiny new five-year contract is the structure, with about 93 per cent of his US$58.17-million pact being paid in signing bonuses.

That seems to be a growing trend in the NHL, and it’s something worth watching around these parts with Winnipeg’s three big restricted free agents in Laine, Kyle Connor and Jacob Trouba all needing new deals this summer.

Player agents are obviously pushing for these front-loaded deals that are essentially lockout-proof, given how puny the actual yearly salary is.

Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff's job may have gotten a whole lot more difficult thanks to Toronto's front-loaded deal with Auston Matthews.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff's job may have gotten a whole lot more difficult thanks to Toronto's front-loaded deal with Auston Matthews.

Who cares if an entire season is washed away by future labour strife if you’ve already got the majority in the bank?

An organization such as Toronto that has a licence to print money has no issue paying big bucks off the hop. (Matthews will receive just over US$31 million — more than half of the entire haul — by July 1, 2020, even though the contract runs through the summer of 2024).

But this is a foreign concept to small-market clubs including Winnipeg, and apparently there’s plenty of internal grumbling around the league about how these contracts are being worked and what it means in the big picture — especially with a new collective bargaining agreement on the horizon where this could well be a hot topic.

Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff didn’t do business this way on long-term deals done with the likes of Blake Wheeler, Connor Hellebuyck, Mark Scheifele and Nikolaj Ehlers.

It will be interesting to see if this becomes an issue with any or all of Laine, Connor and Trouba. If so, expect difficult contract talks to get bogged down even more.


You know what I heard a lot of Tuesday at Bell MTS Place?

Silence.

Despite the fact the home team began the night having won seven straight games in their own barn, it’s safe to say the atmosphere has been rather subdued lately.

In fact, at a time when the Jets are giving their fans more reasons to cheer than ever, it’s noteworthy just how quiet the rink is on many nights this season. Sure, there’s the usual burst after a goal, or even a nice moment like the tribute to head coach Paul Maurice’s 1,500th game. But it’s not the same.

Heck, even the booing is muted. Sure, old friend Evander Kane got a few cat-calls when he touched the puck the first few times, but it was nothing like the hostile reception previously given to targeted opponents.

Winnipeg Jets fans celebrate during a game against the Vegas Golden Knights in January. The usually vociferous home crowds at Jets games have been oddly quiet this season.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/TREVOR HAGAN

Winnipeg Jets fans celebrate during a game against the Vegas Golden Knights in January. The usually vociferous home crowds at Jets games have been oddly quiet this season.

What was once considered the loudest building in the NHL has gone a bit hoarse. Even Jets centre Andrew Copp mentioned it to me the other day. Not as a criticism. Just an observation. About how it was nice to score nine goals on Saturday against the Anaheim Ducks because it helped break up the "lull" and give folks something to cheer about throughout the night.

So what’s the cause? Perhaps fans are still experiencing a bit of a playoff hangover from last spring. That’s understandable given the passion and intensity of those games, which you simply can’t recapture in the middle of winter.

Or maybe expectations have been raised so high now that it’s tough for anyone to get too excited about a routine regular-season game, especially when it’s not exactly a mystery whether the Jets will make the playoffs.

In essence, people are resting their vocal cords for April. Whatever the case, it’s clear the crowd has been going mild lately.


Maybe the only thing moving slower than my travel day is the Western Conference playoff race.

Talk about a turtle derby. Have you looked at some of these slugs lately?

Vancouver, Colorado, Arizona, Edmonton and Anaheim all appear to be vying to see who can string the most losses together while still staying in the hunt.

Meanwhile, a pair of squads in St. Louis and Chicago that were on life support a couple weeks ago are somehow right back in the thick of things, simply by being slightly less lethargic than the rest.

The seven teams mentioned above are likely all competing — and I use that term loosely give their collective play — for the final wild-card spot. Or maybe both wild-card spots, if Minnesota doesn’t snap out of its slumber.

Only lowly Los Angeles is truly out of the picture.

Meanwhile, the Jets along with Calgary, Nashville, San Jose, Vegas and even Dallas are sitting pretty, looking down on everyone else and saying "Catch us if you can."

(They won’t).


Perhaps my luck is changing. Because as I finish up this column, I’ve just rolled up the rim for the first time and won myself a free coffee.

Score!

Unless someone proves otherwise, I’m going to say this good fortune contributed to the nasty weather improving enough so that my much-delayed flight to Montreal is going to happen after all, albeit nearly five hours later than originally scheduled.

Guess it will just be planes and automobiles for this leg of the trip. No trains. At least until Friday when I head to Ottawa via VIA.

Here’s an idea: maybe Laine should grab himself a double-double before hitting the ice against the Habs.

If it helped finally get my plane in the air, perhaps it can help Laine’s game take off.

 

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Reporter

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.

Read full biography

History

Updated on Wednesday, February 6, 2019 at 8:22 PM CST: Fixes typo.

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