Jets find themselves at crossroads over Patrik Laine’s future

Elliotte Friedman joined Sportsnet Central to look at the NHL draft and touched on some big names swirling around the rumour mill, like Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Johnny Gaudreau and Patrik Laine.

WINNIPEG — The next move in this Patrik Laine saga is critical.

You know it and you can be sure that Kevin Cheveldayoff knows it.

The arrival of the Finnish forward was supposed to transform the Winnipeg Jets franchise and in some ways, it has (see: the 2017-18 season, when the organization reached new heights).

When the lottery balls bounced the Jets way, what landed in their collective lap was a pure goal scorer and a guy with true superstar potential.

Because of the nature of his passport, the comparisons to Finnish Flash Teemu Selanne began immediately — even if the style of play was nowhere near the same – outside of the ability to put the puck in the net.

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At the ripe age of 18, Laine was already a rockstar in his homeland. He exuded confidence and wasn’t intimidated by the big stage or the jump to the NHL.

From the time he met with the media in Buffalo after being selected second overall, Laine showed belief in himself but he was also very polite and respectful.

He holds himself accountable when things aren’t going well and he isn’t afraid to enjoy his success.

Throughout the course of his four seasons with the Jets, Laine has delivered when it comes to goal-scoring, notching 138 in 305 games — that’s tied with Chicago Blackhawks star Patrick Kane for the seventh-highest total in the NHL since the 2016-17 campaign.

Yes, there were times when Laine needed to work on his puck management and all-around game, but he’s done that in spades.

When a potentially career-threatening injury to Bryan Little moved Blake Wheeler down to the second line, Laine flourished after his promotion to the top line with Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor.

But when Cody Eakin was acquired to fill the second-line centre role, Laine was bumped back down with his familiar linemate Nikolaj Ehlers.

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For a guy who wants to be one of the best goal scorers of all time and win multiple Rocket Richard trophies, that would have been disappointing to a degree and you can understand why.

Elite players want more responsibility, not less.

So while it was a bit of a surprise to hear Laine’s name circulating in trade rumours during the past several months, there didn’t seem to be any real urgency to the matter.

Much like the summer before, when Ehlers’ name was floating around in the days leading up to the 2019 NHL Draft, it’s not uncommon for a GM to try and get a feel for the marketplace.

There’s a reason players like Laine don’t generally become available, but when there could be concern about finding common ground on a new contract after next season, this can be filed under doing your due diligence.

When a team like the Jets is looking to fill multiple holes on the roster, you want to see if a team is going to blow you away with an offer.

It’s safe to assume that hasn’t happened yet, otherwise, Laine probably would have been on the move — given the circumstances.

It’s been said in this space that this isn’t what the point of no return looks like (though that object in the mirror may be closer than it appears).

A recent report regarding Thursday’s passive-aggressive non-trade request from Laine’s representatives suggesting that exploring a move could be mutually beneficial likely pushed things another step closer to an ugly eventual divorce.

For the record, mutually beneficial is certainly open for debate. Sportsnet also reached out to Laine’s representation for comment and did not hear back.

The Jets prefer to keep their business out of the public and most often, the same is true for agents — except when trying to turn the heat up a bit.

It definitely wasn’t a coincidence the leak occurred a couple of days after the agent for Brendan Gallagher let it be known that talks about an extension with the Montreal Canadiens had broken off — only to see a deal signed one day later.

Having said that, even if Laine’s representatives were trying to move a potential deal along, using public pressure isn’t a tactic that has forced Cheveldayoff to capitulate in the past.

Sure, Jacob Trouba revealed his trade request publicly in 2016, but he wasn’t moved until the summer of 2019.

And yes, Evander Kane let it be known on multiple occasions that he would prefer to play elsewhere before he was dealt — even if most of his dissatisfaction was shared behind closed doors.

The end result was that both guys ended up getting moved and most signs are pointing to that happening with Laine as well.

But the Jets can’t afford to trade Laine for pennies on the dollar, that won’t fly.

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To go a step further, it could hurt the franchise for years to come, since players like Laine are usually only available in the lottery and don’t come around very often.

The organization still has three years of team control and Laine is under contract with an AAV of $6.75 million next season (though the salary is actually $7.5 million).

Keeping Laine in the fold remains an option — and it’s one that can’t be discounted by the Jets.

If that’s the case, some important steps will need to be taken.

In the summer of 2019, Jets head coach Paul Maurice flew to Finland for a meeting with Laine.

By all accounts, that action was appreciated and the results on the ice were there for all to see as Laine enjoyed what was arguably his best season as a pro.

Laine’s best days are still ahead of him and he’s one of the few players in the NHL with the potential to score 50 goals.

Maurice can’t travel to Finland during this pandemic, but maybe he could reassure Laine during a Zoom call of his value to the Jets and his intended role for next season?

That certainly seems like a better option than the alternative of simply accepting that the relationship could be over.

Historically speaking, Cheveldayoff doesn’t discuss potential deals or contract negotiations publicly but some eyebrows were raised when he didn’t pour water on the Laine rumours when asked about them on multiple occasions this month.

After Paul Stastny was traded to Winnipeg, most folks (including yours truly) figured this would quiet things on the Laine front — given the past success playing together.

This looked like an obvious olive branch, the assumption being that things would be tabled until at least after next season, when Laine is in need of a new contract and would have arbitration rights.

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When talking to reporters last week, Cheveldayoff was asked once again if the Stastny deal could have changed things on the Laine front and his answer was a tad curious.

“As a manager here it’s my job to continue to look at all things,” said Cheveldayoff. “Addressing individual player speculation with respect to trades is just something I don’t do. If there’s opportunities to make our team better, it’s my obligation to continue to look at them.”

In some ways, Cheveldayoff was staying true to his mantra, since he’s not in the business of discussing rumours.

But by not dismissing the speculation as it relates to Laine, the message to other managers seemed to be that offers were still being accepted — even if there was no for sale sign sitting out on the front lawn.

With that in mind, here are six teams with the assets required to acquire Laine and probable interest (please don’t confuse these suggestions with actual trade proposals and remember the Jets could also be looking at draft picks and prospects in a potential):

Florida Panthers

Potential targets: D Aaron Ekblad, LW Jonathan Huberdeau, D MacKenzie Weegar, C Noel Acciari, C Henrik Borgstrom

Why it makes sense: New GM Bill Zito is looking to put his stamp on the team and with top centre Aleksander Barkov two years away from unrestricted free agency, what better way to entice him to stick around than acquire his close friend Laine? Ekblad is a rock on defence, but the Panthers have more than $25 million invested on the back end and still need to sign Weegar. Ekblad played with Jets centre Mark Scheifele on the Barrie Colts in the OHL, his full no-movement clause doesn’t kick in until the 2021 off-season and he’s under contract for five more seasons — bringing cost certainty. Huberdeau is a highly productive player with three years left but has a full no-movement clause until next off-season.

Buffalo Sabres

Potential targets: RW Sam Reinhart, D Rasmus Ristolainen, D Brandon Montour, D Henri Jokiharu, RW Jack Quinn

Why it makes sense: New GM Kevyn Adams made a one-year commitment to left-winger Taylor Hall in an effort to enhance the talent around captain Jack Eichel. Can you imagine a top line with Laine on the right side and the type of damage that trio might be able to inflict? Signing Hall and Laine both to long-term deals could be problematic, but the Sabres have inquired about both Ehlers and Laine before, so it would surprise no one if they took another swing here.

Carolina Hurricanes

Potential targets: D Brett Pesce, D Jake Gardiner, LW/RW Teuvo Teravainen, C Martin Necas, RW Seth Jarvis

Why it makes sense: The Hurricanes are a team on the rise and feature plenty of young talent. Top centre Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov are emerging superstars and pairing them with someone like Laine could put this group over the top. They’ve already got more than $25 million invested on the blue line (not including a new deal required for Haydn Fleury) and prospect Jake Bean is probably ready to graduate to the NHL).

Philadelphia Flyers

Potential targets: RW Travis Konecny, D Travis Sanheim, C Nolan Patrick, C Morgan Frost, D Samuel Morin

Why it makes sense: Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher saw plenty of Laine during his time running the Minnesota Wild and you can be sure he would enjoy seeing him alongside Sean Couturier on the top line and providing a shooting weapon for the power play. The Jets were high on Konecny during his draft year and he could help offset the loss of Laine’s offence.

Anaheim Ducks

Potential targets: D Hampus Lindholm D Josh Manson, RW Rikard Rakell, C Trevor Zegras, D Jamie Drysdale

Why it makes sense: The thought of the Jets shipping another Finnish star to the Ducks rips the Band-Aid of the Selanne wound that never healed for some fans. The Ducks have a bunch of young talent in the organization, but would benefit from a consistent scorer like Laine who would help expedite the rebuild. Lindholm and Manson are under contract for two more seasons and would provide some cost certainty, though Manson has a modified no-trade clause.

New York Islanders

Potential targets: C Brock Nelson, LW Josh Bailey, D Ryan Pulock, D Adam Pelech, D Noah Dobson

Why it makes sense: The Islanders are already facing some cap concerns and need to get top centre Mathew Barzal (among other RFAs) signed, but it would be a full stealth move by Lou Lamoriello to find a way to get Barzal an elite sniper to play with him and captain Anders Lee. Nelson is the only player on the list that has trade protection currently.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Potential targets: D Zach Werenski, RW Oliver Bjorkstrand, RW Cam Atkinson, C Liam Foudy

Why it makes sense: Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen made several moves to clear up cap space leading into free agency and didn’t land any of the big fish. While a good chunk of that money will go to a new long-term deal for Pierre-Luc Dubois, you can bet the Blue Jackets would love to have Laine riding shotgun with him for years to come. Of course, the Jets would prefer to get Seth Jones in a deal for Laine and that’s the quality of player they would be aiming for, but it’s more likely Werenski would be considered by the Blue Jackets — even if they would prefer not to part with him either.

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