Decisions on Byfuglien and Ladd can make or break Jets’ future

Elliotte Friedman and Damien Cox discuss all the rumors around the NHL, including where the Lightning are with Steve Stamkos and Jonathan Drouin and if Jaromir Jagr will be in Nashville for the All-Star Game.

Everything has gone wrong in Winnipeg this season, and this astute observation comes from a scribe who labelled the Jets, “the best of the seven Canadian teams” before the season began.

But here’s the bad news: the Jets aren’t out of the proverbial soup yet. Not by a long shot.

As Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported over the weekend, the Jets have turned their attention to signing unrestricted free agent defenceman Dustin Byfuglien ahead of UFA winger Andrew Ladd. As such, Ladd moves to the top of the list of Deadline Day acquisitions, as the Jets — unwilling to invest somewhere in the neighbourhood of $36 million and six years into Ladd — will look to recoup something for their departing captain in a trade.

“Listen, there are a lot of guys going through the exact same thing. It’s part of the game,” Ladd told the Winnipeg media on Monday. “If you asked both sides, both sides would have hoped to have something (a contract) done by now. It’s part of the business.”

If Ladd — who said he is still hopeful of a deal — indeed moves, then the Jets can kiss goodbye any remaining leverage they had with Byfuglien. Here is why that’s a scary thought:

The Jets were originally loathe to give more than about three years worth of term to Byfuglien, who turns 31 on March 27. Why is that? Because even though the feeling on Byfuglien is that he cares and wants to win in Winnipeg, nobody trusts him to stay in proper physical shape, a reputation he has earned by spending an entire career at various stages of overweight.

That goes to show what a prodigal hockey player Byfuglien is, that he could play at such a high level with a lax training regime, against a league full of players in tip-top condition. The fear is, however, that will change as a player hits his early- to mid-30s, when players tend to slow down and incur more injuries.

As much as I’ve always admired Ladd as a leader and a winner, there’s no arguing that a stud defenceman like Byfuglien holds higher value in today’s NHL. But if Byfuglien signs in the neighbourhood of five or six years at $9 million per season, how much time on IR do you foresee a 34-, or 35-year-old Byfuglien spending a few seasons from now?

In short, Byfuglien is a more impactful player, but Ladd is a more trustworthy one. And if your answer to this conundrum is, “Why don’t they just sign Byfuglien to a three-year deal?” I’ve got news for you: UFAs with Byfuglien’s resume don’t sign three-year deals.

If that’s all the Jets offer, he’ll go to July 1 and get the deal he wants elsewhere, because someone always pays.

Another issue here is perception. Ladd and Byfuglien are the first two star UFAs to render a decision on life in Winnipeg. The Jets lost UFA Michael Frolik last year, and have signed a few restricted free agents along the way, but this is the first chance for two elite players to say “Yea” or “Nay” to basically finishing their careers in the Manitoba city.

Byfuglien is willing to stay in Winnipeg, and Ladd says he is too. And I have no reason not to believe either of them.

However the reality is, if the rest of that Jets roster sees their captain and their best player jump to greener pastures the moment they get a chance, the Jets will be seen like the Oilers of the late 90s: A place to play until you earn the right to leave.

If the Jets lose Ladd because they don’t think he’s worth an AAV of $6 million, then fine. Trade him at the deadline for some draft picks, and move on.

But they can’t lose Byfuglien too, or be seen as low-balling restricted free agent Jacob Trouba this summer. Players talk, and they have to believe that ownership wants to spend what it will take to win. That’s especially important in a less desirable market like Winnipeg.

Winnipeg is already the 29th highest salary team in a 30-team league. With the dollar plunging, and the smallest arena in the NHL, does the reality become a team that simply can’t afford to spend enough to be a winner?

If that sentiment wafts through the NHLPA, July 1 will become a very lonely time for GM Kevin Cheveldayoff. As well as the Jets draft and develop, that model still requires two more elements: Players like Mark Scheifele and Trouba staying with the program long-term, and the odd addition of a complimentary UFA to put your team over the top.

And when you’re a budget team, if you pick the wrong veteran to throw your money at — like, Byfuglien over Ladd, possibly — the repercussions are devastating.

Tough times in Winnipeg. And we haven’t even mentioned the part about being 14th in the West…