Laine, Connor in focus as Winnipeg Jets’ salary cap picture becomes clear

Jets reporter for The Athletic Murat Ates joined Good Show with George Rusic and Justin Bourne to discuss why RFA forward Patrik Laine has yet to sign a contract and if the Jets should sign him to a long term deal.

With the signing of Neal Pionk and Andrew Copp’s arbitration decision rendered, you can ring the bell to begin the main event of the Winnipeg Jets‘ off-season.

Frustrated fans who don’t understand why one established Jet after another left the team this summer should know those decisions came down to one thing: leaving enough money on the table to re-sign restricted free agents Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor. Both players are set for massive pay raises so allowing the likes of Tyler Myers, Brandon Tanev, Ben Chiarot and Jacob Trouba to leave was a must to free up the kind of money it will take to lock those two players down.

So with Connor and Laine now the last two Jets remaining at the bargaining table, the waters surrounding Winnipeg’s cap space have become quite clear. Unfortunately for the Jets there are sharks circling in those waters, threatening to turn this situation into a feeding frenzy.

We know other teams have contacted Connor’s agent with interest in his client. Those calls started on the opening day of the RFA speaking period back on June 26 and Sportsnet has learned that contact has continued past July 1. Those teams interested in Connor now have a solid handle on the financial constraints Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff is facing and how that situation could be used against him.

It’s bad enough having one highly attractive RFA left to sign with defined cap space. Having two is double trouble.

Let’s use Connor as the example. Should a rival GM produce an offer sheet, every dollar it takes to keep Connor is a dollar taken away from re-signing Laine. So overpaying for one through an offer sheet simply makes it easier to follow up with an offer sheet on the other (should the Jets match).

Call it the San Jose Sharks blueprint. Back in 2010 the Chicago Blackhawks came off winning the Stanley Cup only to be greeted with an off-season cap crunch that included RFAs Niklas Hjalmarsson and Antti Niemi. The San Jose Sharks recognized the pinch Chicago was in and extended an offer sheet to Hjalmarsson. The Hawks matched and it looked like Sharks GM Doug Wilson’s strategy had failed.

But it didn’t.

The Hjalmarsson contract Wilson orchestrated ran the Hawks out of the money they needed to re-sign Niemi. So when Niemi was awarded a one-year, $2.75 million contract in arbitration that the Hawks couldn’t fit under the cap, they walked away from the ruling and made Niemi a UFA. Shortly after, the goalie signed with San Jose.

Fast forward to the present and any GM looking to add a high-powered scorer could use a similar blueprint against the Jets. Neither Laine or Connor are heading to arbitration this summer, but a big offer sheet on either could force Winnipeg’s hand and put them in a one-or-the-other position.

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BY THE NUMBERS
With the potential for that strategy hanging in the air, the numbers become vitally important.

After Copp’s arbitration award the Jets now find themselves with $17,592,503 remaining in cap space, accounting for 10 forwards, seven defencemen and two goalies, per CapFriendly. Should they fill out their roster with 13 forwards (and they don’t have to, which gives them some cap flexibility) the three players the Jets would use to do that would probably cost roughly $750,000 per man. That leaves about $15.25 million to re-sign both Connor and Laine.

That’s not a small number, but it does leave rival GMs with plenty of room to apply the San Jose Sharks blueprint.

A WAY OUT
While the numbers do make the Jets look vulnerable, they have options. Three days following the resolution of Copp’s arbitration a 48-hour buyout window will open which would allow the Jets an opportunity to increase their cap space in 2019-20.

Common wisdom suggests defenceman Dmitry Kulikov could be a candidate for a buyout, should it come to that. With one year left on his contract at $4.33 million, Kulikov hasn’t provided good value in the third pairing role he’s occupied. Buying him out would save the Jets some cash, but more importantly free up an extra $2.88 million in cap space.

If that’s still not enough, Cheveldayoff could also shed salary via trade, although making moves while backed into a corner hardly allows him to deal from a position of strength.

In all it means the Jets still have some flexibility in this situation, though probably not as much as Cheveldayoff would like. Allowing other GMs to do your negotiating for you is a good way to lose control over salary structure and that issue would be compounded should an offer sheet walk Laine or Connor to early unrestricted free agency.

One thing is certain: if a team is searching for a dynamic young talent with the ability to fill the net, Winnipeg is a good place to look right now.

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