Drafting, developing....and departing? What the heck is going on with the Winnipeg Jets and contract talks with young players, including several seemingly looking for greener pastures in the form of a one-way ticket out of town?
It’s bad enough when the San Jose Sharks make fun of our weather and WiFi, or when prized free agents decide to take a pass on our little burg. Our fragile egos certainly can’t handle another homegrown athlete deciding they’ve had enough.
Jack Roslovic is the latest example. The 23-year-old restricted free agent winger has been out of sight, and out of mind, during training camp and remains home in Ohio without a contract, hoping for a fresh start with another NHL team.
Unlike bigger names in recent years who missed time due to contract disputes — Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor last season, Josh Morrissey the one before, Jacob Trouba before that — there’s been little said about Roslovic’s absence by players or coaches. Or by his agent, Claude Lemieux, who has gone silent after previously having plenty to say to me, and other writers.
Roslovic’s spot on the roster has quickly been filled — Mason Appleton isn’t shedding any tears over getting to play on the third-line with Adam Lowry and Andrew Copp, nor are other depth forwards who have all moved up a notch on the depth chart — and the Jets believe they have all the tools to be a legitimate contender when the puck drops on a new season later this week.
'With Jack not in camp, obviously that opens up a door for someone, and I'm going to jump into that role, hopefully'‐ Mason Appleton
"With Jack not in camp, obviously that opens up a door for someone, and I’m going to jump into that role, hopefully, and play well," Appleton told me Sunday. And so Roslovic, at least for now, is gone and pretty much forgotten. He didn’t have much leverage to begin with, and I’d suggest he has even less with each passing day. End of story, right?
Not quite. The fact the Jets are once engaged in a game of contract chicken, complete with a trade demand, is cause for concern.
First it was Trouba, who ultimately got his wish. Then came Laine and now Roslovic, who both remain in the fold, at least for the time being. Add that to the well-publicized situation involving Evander Kane, plus lesser-heralded players such as Nic Petan and Alexander Burmistrov, and questions must be asked.
Is Winnipeg an organization that has trouble convincing its stars to stick around? Does the management and coaching staff deprive players of getting their fair shake? Is there something in the water?
I’ve heard all of those theories floated recently, both in this market and beyond. And they would all be various shades of wrong.
If this were a court of law, and I was making my case, it would be at this point that I parade a whole pile of witnesses before the jury. Leading scorer Connor and his seven-year, US$50 million contract. No. 1 defenceman Morrissey and his eight years at US$50 million. Top centre Mark Scheifele, eight years for US$49 million. Flashy winger Nikolaj Ehlers, seven years and $42 million. And Vezina Trophy winner Connor Hellebuyck, at six years and $37 million.
Five drafted players by the Jets. Five lengthy contract extensions, for 36 combined years, once their entry-level deals expired. And US$228 million paid out in total, which debunks any notion they are a frivolous bunch not willing to shell out big bucks, along with the fact they’ll once again be at or near the salary cap ceiling for the coming season. (As they should be, in a hockey-mad market with one of the richest men in the world, David Thomson, as a co-owner),
If you don’t find that convincing enough, they’ve also retained core players who didn’t start their careers here, but opted to end them. Dustin Byfuglien (five-year, US$38-million extension) along with fellow former Thrashers in captain Blake Wheeler (five years, US$41.25 million) and Bryan Little (six years, US$31.746 million) all chose to re-up rather than go to unrestricted free agency.
Which brings me to the real issue with Winnipeg — they’ve boxed themselves into a financial corner at times due to the extreme loyalty shown to many players by handing out contracts which have come back to bite them, combined with their solid track record at the draft which has come with a hefty price.
Some of the long-term extensions handed out haven’t aged well, such as the four-year, US$16.5 million deal given to winger Mathieu Perreault in 2016. The veteran, oft-injured winger initially signed for three years, US$9 million in 2014. Now in his final year, he continues to occupy a spot, not to mention valuable financial space that can’t be used elsewhere.
Prior to that, it was costly deals to players such as Dmitry Kulikov, Steve Mason (which they had to trade Joel Armia to get rid of) and Mark Stuart (which they bought out).
Byfuglien and Little’s deals were likely going to fall into this boat anchor category as well, but the surprise retirement of Byfuglien and career-ending injury to Little ultimately gave the Jets some unexpected breathing room that may have staved off other moves. Wheeler’s contract, in which he’s currently the highest-paid player at US$8.25 million per for the next four years, is likely to become a big issue if the salary cap remains flat.
This is especially problematic when all these rising stars expect to cash in, and many of their contracts have come up around the same time, such as Laine and Connor last year. In a cap world, some hard decisions have to be made. Trouba wasn’t given the long-term extension he initially wanted and deserved, and so he got his nose out of joint and ultimately decided to take his talents elsewhere.
Where they play is proving to be an even bigger problem. For Trouba, there was a bottle-neck on the blue-line that delayed him from the No. 1 role he desired. For Laine, it’s not being able to play top-line minutes next to Scheifele, a spot typically occupied by Wheeler. For Roslovic, who wants to play centre but has mostly been relegated to the wing, it’s been difficult to secure much of a top-six role that helps boost his stats, and ultimately the numbers on his next contract.
Petan and Burmistrov had similar issues, even though changes of scenery for them didn’t prove to be any more productive.
"The league has changed over the years I’ve been in the league so it’s a little different now. Some of these younger guys are looking to get their ice time and stuff and get their career moving forward and I understand that," Perreault told me on Sunday.
And so for a player like Roslovic, it’s about opportunity. And the one he ultimately desires is likely not going to happen here. Just as it was for Kane and Trouba and maybe even Laine eventually, the grass may prove to be greener somewhere else.
Don’t take it personally, Winnipeg. The Jets certainly aren’t.
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.