Winnipeg has finally inked sniper Patrik Laine to a deal, but the work isn’t done yet for GM Kevin Cheveldayoff as the futures of Kyle Connor and Dustin Byfuglien remain uncertain.
Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor|Darcy Finley/NHLI via Getty Images
No, he’s not getting traded. No, he isn’t playing in Switzerland.
After months of speculation, Patrik Laine finally put pen to paper and signed a two-year deal with an AAV of $6.75 million to remain with the Winnipeg Jets. This comes after spending the past few weeks with SC Bern, a Swiss league club that also played home to Colorado Avalanche RFA Mikko Rantanen.
Since his rookie season in 2016-17, Laine’s 110 goals are good for sixth among NHLers – only Alex Ovechkin (133), Nikita Kucherov (120), John Tavares (112), Connor McDavid (112) and Auston Matthews (111) have more in that span. The 2018-19 season was a rollercoaster for Laine. He kicked off the season with 21 goals through the first two months of play before going on a 15-game goalless drought later in the season. That means 70 percent of his goals came in the first 29 percent of the season.
If Laine can hit 50 goals at his cap hit, the Jets could have managed to sign Laine to one of the best RFA deals in recent history. For a pure goal-scorer, it’s clear Laine needs help down the middle. With Blake Wheeler occupying the top right-wing spot, that leaves Laine to play with Bryan Little and either Nikolaj Ehlers, Mathieu Perreault or rookie Kristian Vesalainen on the second line. Having Wheeler and Laine as your top two right wingers is a great situation to be in, but it’s less impressive when you don’t have a second-line center to match.
The deal carries the same AAV as Brayden Point’s pact in Tampa Bay, but on a shorter term. Given how Point had 92 points last season and was miles ahead of Laine’s overall play, it’s fair to say Tampa got an absolute steal of a deal. The Jets still have $14 million in cap space, but it’s a bit misleading. Defenseman Dustin Byfuglien’s $7.6-million cap hit is currently off the books after the team suspended him for missing training camp. (He’s on personal leave as he ponders his playing future, but it gives the Jets some cap flexibility in the meantime.) If he returns to the lineup, the Jets will have around just $7 million to play with. If Laine gets a hair under $7 million after a tough season, what does RFA Kyle Connor, coming off of a 34-goal, 66-point season and with a more rounded skill set, get? If Byfuglien does indeed retire, however, this becomes a moot point, but after losing three key defensemen this summer, the Jets can’t lose their top blueliner if they want to be a top-flight Stanley Cup contender in 2019-20.
With Laine still in the picture, the Jets remain contenders in the tough Central Division, but a playoff run isn’t guaranteed. A disappointing first-round exit at the hands of St. Louis Blues left a sour taste for fans, only to have a trifecta of key defensemen depart over the summer. If the Jets can sign Connor long-term somewhere in the $7-7.5 million region, that’ll leave most of the core locked up during the team’s Cup window. The next big contract the club has to deal with, funny enough, is Laine’s when he becomes an RFA again at 23 in 2021-22. But then GM Kevin Cheveldayoff will also have to deal with the team’s defensive situation again, with four members set to become free agents next summer and very few with significant NHL experience. Ville Heinola, Logan Stanley and Dylan Samberg are still a few years away, so look for the Jets will be active in the UFA market.
It’s hard to be upset with Laine’s deal if you’re a Jets fan – at least for now before he asks for a significant increase in two years – but it doesn’t end the nervous time in Manitoba. When will the club finally sign Connor? Is Byfuglien going to return? Even with one deal in the books, there are still more questions that need answers in Winnipeg.
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