WINNIPEG — Listening to Winnipeg Jets players speak about restricted free agents Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine, it almost sounds as if they’re describing an early season losing skid: There’s no reason to panic yet, but things need to change in the near future.
While the start of training camp later this week represents a soft deadline of sorts, it’s clear the real demarcation point in the minds of Jets players is Oct. 3, when Winnipeg opens the regular season at Madison Square Garden versus the New York Rangers. If Laine and Connor — both of whom need new contracts with the club — are still nowhere to be seen, anxiety levels are going to spike.
“(We’re) not worried yet, just because it’s pretty early,” said veteran centre Bryan Little. “If we start getting into the regular season and playing games that matter, those are a couple of guys you want in your lineup.”
Another Jets forward, Mathieu Perreault, couldn’t agree more.
“We need them on the ice with us once the season starts,” he said. “I’m really hoping they can figure it out with the team and get something done. We need Kyle and Patty on the ice to give ourselves the best chance (to win games).”
Surely nobody involved wanted the summer-long subplot to drag even this far into September. As it stands, though, Connor and Laine remain two of a few ultra-talented youngsters around the NHL who haven’t been able to hammer out new terms with their club following the expiration of their entry-level deals. And while the Jets — who’ve been gathering in Winnipeg for informal skates for a number of days now — would love to have their teammates twirling around the ice with them, everyone understands the reality of the situation.
“We’re professionals, we know it’s a business, we know that’s just the way it goes sometimes,” said left winger Nikolaj Ehlers.
A couple Jets, in particular, have had their own trying experience with the dollars-and-cents side of the game. Defenceman Josh Morrissey missed the early part of training camp one year ago before he and the team were able to agree on a new two-year pact. And just this past July, Andrew Copp went through a seven-hour arbitration hearing that ultimately resulted in the left winger getting a two-year deal worth $2.28 million annually. He, perhaps as well as anyone, understands players sometimes have to take hard action in pursuit of what they feel are their best interests.
“I don’t think there’s any resentment whatsoever,” Copp said in reference to Connor and Laine being absent from the squad. “Everyone has their own reasons for what they’re doing. I went to arbitration, so it’s not like I’m (going to pass judgement).
“Guys are going to fight for what they believe in and what they think they deserve. I don’t think it’s a lack of loyalty by any means. It’s a tough business and you don’t want to (leave money) on the table. Hopefully, these guys get signed, but there’s zero resentment for those guys in the room.”
It’s hard to know exactly what the feeling is on the other side of the fence, though Laine and Connor are certainly in touch with their teammates. It’s just that those conversations don’t necessarily delve directly into the biggest issue of the day. Morrissey said most of the back and forth he had with the two players over the summer revolved around the state of everybody’s golf game. Ehlers, who is quite close with Laine, actively avoids the subject of new contracts, but is pretty sure he knows where his buddy’s head is at.
“He wants to play,” Ehlers said. “Kyle as well. I’ve talked to both. I haven’t talked to them about the situation because that’s not something I feel I have a right (to ask them about). It’s between them and the bosses. I know they want to get back and play some hockey, that’s what we (as players) want, that’s what we work for all summer. So sitting at home right now is probably not the most fun for them.”
How long that will stay the case remains to be seen. Morrissey — who acknowledged his ordeal last September was extremely tough — noted the hockey calendar has these designated pressure points for transactions sprinkled throughout. Whether it’s the trade deadline in February, July 1 when guys hit the open market or a looming arbitration date, players and teams often need a nudge to finally sort things out.
“Whenever there’s a deadline on things, it seems to get stuff done,” he said.
The next big one in Winnipeg hasn’t landed yet, but it’s only weeks away.