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This article was published 23/9/2019 (315 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Zach Werenski, Pavel Zacha, Kevin Fiala, Ivan Provorov, Mitch Marner, Charlie McAvoy, Travis Konecny, Brock Boeser, Brayden Point.
One by one, a large group of high-profile restricted free agents (RFAs) has been whittled down over the past couple weeks. A game of chicken between NHL general managers and an unprecedented number of young star players coming out of their entry-level deals appears to be coming to an end, with participants on both sides finding ways to work through their differences and get deals done.
Funny how deadlines and the pressure of missing a paycheque or two work, isn’t it?
Just four big names remain, with two of them right here in Winnipeg in the form of goal-scoring forwards Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor, who accounted for about 25 per cent of the Jets’ goals last season. Along with the Colorado Avalanche’s Mikko Rantanen and Matthew Tkachuk of the Calgary Flames, time is running out to get these stalemates settled in time for the start of the regular season next week. That’s when everybody will really start to feel the sting.
While there might not be a lot of optimism right now among the Jets faithful, I suggest the path to new deals for the two young wingers has never been clearer.
Let’s start with Laine. I don’t imagine he or his agent, Mike Liut, were doing cartwheels Monday when news broke that Point had signed a three-year deal that will pay the Tampa Bay Lightning centre an average of US$6.75 million per season. Whether they like it or not, there’s no question it should provide a general outline for what a Laine deal would look like.
Point, 23, is coming off his third pro season, where he scored 41 goals and adding 51 assists in 79 games while also playing on a deep, talented Tampa team that won the President’s Trophy. Laine, a 21-year-old winger, is also coming off his third pro season. In 2019-19 he scored 30 goals and added 20 assists, which represented career lows.
Point has 198 points in 229 career games, including 91 goals. Laine has 184 points in 237 games, including 110 goals. They’re very different players playing different positions, of course, but with comparable offensive outputs over their careers so far, despite a wide disparity last season.
The structure of Point’s deal is important. Like other recent bridge contracts, the third year includes a significant jump in salary that guarantees a raise on the next contract, as other teams have to make a qualifying offer that is 100 per cent of the final year. Point will make US$5.25 million in his first year, US$6 million in his second and US$9 million in the third. Almost US$8 million of his US$20.25- million contract is in signing bonuses.
The Jets haven’t traditionally been big on signing bonuses, preferring the standard type of contract in which the majority of the money is paid in yearly salary. But they may have no choice in this matter but to adapt to the way the business has evolved. Same goes for that third-year bump, which I expect Laine’s camp is seeking. Fair enough.
But when it comes to the average annual value, Laine will have a hard time convincing anyone he should be paid a penny more than Point. If he truly believes he should, well, don’t expect him back any time soon. Laine can complain all he wants about how he’s used at five-on-five and which line he plays on, but the numbers don’t lie.
If Point’s deal represents a ceiling for Laine, than Boeser’s would be the floor. The Vancouver Canucks winger signed for an AAV of US$5.875 million, with his pay increasing each year, from US$4 million to US$6.125 million to US$7.5 million. That includes more than US$6 million in signing bonuses.
Boeser, 22, has two full seasons under his belt, with 111 points in 131 games, including 55 goals. Laine is certainly the more accomplished player at this point, and his salary should fairly reflect that.
Some have suggested the Marner contract is holding all this up. But that deal, which pays the Toronto Male Leafs winger an AAV of US$10.893 million, is a bit of an apples-to-oranges situation.
For one thing, it’s a six-year contract, which buys up a couple of unrestricted free agent years that the three-year bridge deals do not. That instantly drives the price up. Secondly, the Maple Leafs created their own in-house cap issues by also overpaying Auston Mathews and especially William Nylander before him, which compounded their financial troubles. In that sense, the Marner deal is a bit of an outlier, rather than a precedent-setter.
As for Connor, there's a widespread belief he'd prefer a long-term extension. He said as much last month when I chatted with him at the Player's Cup golf tournament, where he played with a sponsor's exemption. Unlike Laine, we haven't heard a peep from him or his camp since then. Connor, 22, is working out in Michigan and laying low.
You'll note there haven't been many long-term deals signed by RFA forwards, so it's a bit harder to find a recent comparable. The closest might be the extension signed earlier this month by Arizona's Clayton Keller, which will pay him an AAV of US$7.15 million over eight seasons.
Keller, 21, has two full NHL seasons on his resumé, with 114 points in 167 games, including 37 goals. After a promising rookie year of 23 goals, he regressed to just 14 last year. All of which must have Connor and his camp licking their lips. Connor, 22, has 128 points in 178 games, including 67 goals. He's clearly a much more accomplished scorer, at least so far.
Of course, it's fair to note Connor is a winger who has primarily played with Winnipeg's top two point producers in Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler, while Keller is a centre who hasn't had a whole lot of offensive help on his wings on a much-less talented Coyotes squad.
That said, I suspect the Jets would happily lock Connor up for eight years at a similar AAV to Keller. And that would seem like entirely fair compensation to Connor, given some of the variables mentioned above. Should he decide he'd actually prefer a bridge deal, the Boeser contract provides a blueprint on how that could play out.
All of this is easier said than done, sure. But there's no reason both the Laine and Connor matters can't be resolved quickly, given all the related business that's recently gone down. A little give and take, along with a dose of common sense and an increasing sense of urgency ought to be enough.
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.
Updated on Monday, September 23, 2019 at 9:06 PM CDT: Final version
September 24, 2019 at 8:44 AM: Removes repeated word
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