What should the Winnipeg Jets do with Patrik Laine?

The Winnipeg Jets have two big contracts pending this summer, both for RFAs: One is Kyle Connor, about whom we’ve heard relatively little this summer. The other is Patrik Laine, the former No. 2 overall pick who now says he’s heard basically nothing from Winnipeg this summer.

That’s odd, considering he was once viewed as the heir apparent to Alex Ovechkin as the league’s leading candidate to win the Rocket Richard every year forever. One would think that Kevin Cheveldayoff would scramble to lock down that kind of player and then figure out the rest later.

But this all comes following a season in which there was almost universal disappointment in Laine’s 30-goal campaign. He got a lot more responsibility, more ice time at 5-on-5 and on the power play, and did shockingly little with it. Effectively, despite his 30-goal season — in which he scored a huge chunk of those goals in just a handful of games around mid-season — he was a replacement-level guy. It was long acknowledged that he had holes in his game, but even if he’s shooting the puck a ton and has an electrifying release, he maybe didn’t have the support to truly succeed in his third season in the NHL.

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There’s more to the game than scoring and if Laine made the Jets only slightly better than an AHL call-up when he was on the ice, that should set off a lot of alarm bells. The Jets are in a tough position here because they have to ask what comes next, and what that means Laine should get. He had a down year, but it was one in which he was one of only a small percentage of NHLers to crack 30 goals, let alone do so for the third straight season.

What, then, are all those goals worth? How much of the underperformance was his fault? How much was a kind of weird fluke thing, rather than a forecast of things to come? Should the Jets weigh his last 82 games more heavily than the previous 150-plus?

I would say the answer to those questions is, “Not nothing,” “Most,” “Some,” and, “Not as much as they probably think.” But even still, this is a player with a lot of growing to do to follow through on the promise he showed early on and that comes with his draft position. It’s not really fair to compare any teenager to Alex Ovechkin, probably the greatest goalscorer of all time. But even if he “only” becomes Steven Stamkos as a goalscorer, well, you’re still talking about an All-Star type player for years to come, right?

Of course, Stamkos struggled as a rookie where Laine did not. Then he registered two straight 90-point seasons, which Laine fell well short of. I know this is the summer of the big RFA signing, but there’s not really a universe in which Laine can ask for anything resembling what Stamkos got on his second contract. Certainly that doesn’t mean the 11.66 percent of the cap Stamkos got (equivalent to about a $9.5-million AAV in 2019-20 dollars), but I’d even argue the $7.5-million AAV he pulled starting in 2011-12 should be out of Laine’s reach.

Winnipeg Jets forward Patrik Laine (29) skates during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Buffalo Sabres, Sunday, Feb. 10, 2019, in Buffalo N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)
The Jets have to figure out what they want to do with one of their best players. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

Because the thing is, even when Laine was scoring like everyone expected, he wasn’t delivering as much value as you’d think. The WAR he put up in 2017-18 was comparable to players like Ondrej Palat and David Pastrnak, good players both but also not guys who are making an absolute insane amount of money (though you can certainly argue Pastrnak should be).

For the entirety of his career to date, Laine has been a clear top-line winger, in the top 75 forwards in the league in terms of his overall contributions, fueled in part by his shooting percentage of 18 (compared with 12 percent last season; he would have had an additional 15 goals if he shot 18 percent). The 75th-highest-paid forward in the league makes a shade under $6 million against the cap. That might work for all involved as a show-me bridge contract — and this is one of the very few times I’d advocate a bridge deal.

Laine’s coming off a bad year and his team would love to use that against him to get his number down. Put together a year (or two, if you must) of the kind of hockey showed as a rookie and sophomore, and then you’re talking about someone who’s more of a top-50 forward. The price difference there is almost $750,000.

There’s a risk to that, obviously. If Laine doesn’t play well, hoo boy the deal coming out of that bridge contract would be bad. He might be wise to go a little longer-term at a discount. Or maybe just wait for an offer sheet.

One thing I’d imagine Winnipeg has no interest in is trading the player. He has a diminished value and an incredible ceiling. The odds you’d end up with your pants around your ankles if you traded him for a first and a B-plus prospect seem pretty good.

Everyone involved has to tread carefully here, because there’s a lot at stake for a player with Laine’s ability. It’s tough to see a scenario where he doesn’t rebound at least in part, if not altogether. The Jets don’t want to bet too low, and Laine probably shouldn’t push for a super-high number either.

But the point is they have to resolve this amicably. Given what’s going to happen to the Jets’ core in the next three, four, five years, they’re going to need all the mid-20s talent they can get. If Laine’s not part of that replacement group, it could be dark times ahead.

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here. All stats/salary info via Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference, CapFriendly and Corsica unless noted.

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