The Winnipeg Jets are having a devil of a time right now as they're trying to extend two very important restricted free agents. Wingers Kyle Connor and Patrick Laine are finished with their entry-level deals and their production has placed them in the upper-levels of the salary structure. The 22 yr. old Connor is a speedy, versatile, all-around forward who's averaged 0.78 pts/game over his first two NHL seasons and increased his production year over year. Connor's 65 goals over that span is second only to Laine who scored 74 goals in the last two seasons. Laine took the league by storm as an 18 yr. old in 2016-17 scoring 36 goals in his rookie year finishing second to phenom Auston Matthews in the Calder Trophy running that year.
With the way salaries have escalated, both players are due for a significant increase and re-signing both would take up most, if not all, of the $17.5 million (according to CapFriendly) the Jets have in cap-space.
There's a huge log-jam right now in the RFA market as an impressive group of young players coming off of their ELC are waiting for someone to set the market. That someone might very well be Toronto's Mitch Marner, who some believe will command an eight-figure salary on his new deal.
Regardless of what happens, according to Sportsnet's Sean Reynolds, "time money and circumstance are all working against the Jets." Reynolds points to a possible offer-sheet by a team in need of scoring for one of their two unsigned RFA's but for the Sabres, the waiting game is putting a crimp in any attempt on their part to add top-six scoring to their team with the main piece being moved out in the form of RHD, Rasmus Ristolainen.
According to reports, the Jets and Connor have had some kind of discussions while none have been reported with Laine to this point. Using the vernacular of a latest interview where he uses the word "we" while talking about the Jets, one would suspect that Connor seems to be, and/or seems to feel as if he'll be, in Winnipeg's future. Conversely, in a recent interview, Laine indicated that he's had thoughts of being somewhere else this season.
"Well you never know," Laine told Sportsnet's Chris Johnston during an interview in Finland. "It's still a business, you've got to be prepared for anything. But, yeah, you never know where you're going to play next year so I'm just prepared for anything."
Although he's signed for the next three years (at $5.3 million/year,) similar sentiments came from fellow countryman Ristolainen, who's had a rough go of it since first hitting the ice as a Buffalo Sabre in 2013. The 24 yr. old defenseman has been in the NHL for the last five full seasons playing a big role on the Sabres blueline. Unfortunately things have not gone well for the team and it seems as if he may have had enough in Buffalo. In an translated interview with Finnish news agency MTV Sports, Ristolainen said, "The situation is open," and when it comes to how he fits into Buffalo's immediate plans he said, "I can not say anyting [other than] on the 12th of September [I'll be in] one of the NHL team's training camps."
The Two Finns have been linked in the rumor mill as a possible swap as the Jets could use a top-four, RHD while the Sabres are looking for top-six scoring up front. The parameters of a possible deal, including cap considerations, would make a swap difficult, but anything can be done.
That being said, at the Sabres fan fest yesterday, Buffalo general manger Jason Botterill said that he wasn't "surprised" or "dissappointed" in Ristolainen's words to MTV Sports telling the gathered media, "Look, there's always strories coming out when players go back, and Finland's had an amazing year" (winning gold medals in the World Juniors and World Championships.)
"Those are something we can't control. What we can control is our interaction with our player, with our group here."
Botterill said once again that he and the team are trying to set it up where they're putting their workhorse defenseman "in positions to have success."
"Yeah, he wants to win," said the GM. "We also want to put him in a situation where he plays very well. We've tried to add to our group, to ease some of the responsibility from certain players. "I've spoken to all the players and I had a very long call with Risto early on in the middle of May. All the indications there was to be behind what we're doing here as a coaching staff and that's my mandate: Take the players under contract here right now and get the best [out] of them."
The coaching staff is headed by new head coach Ralph Krueger.
What lies ahead in this rather strange off season reamains to be seen, but regardless of what ultimately happens to Ristolainen, this is the only approach Botterill and company can have at this time. For now we're waiting for one of the RFA's to set the market so teams can get to signing their own. As things shake out and teams can see where they're at cap-wise and trades that have been discussed can get serious.
Until then, we have what we have and that might include another year of Rasmus Ristolainen in a Sabres uniform.
Thx to Sportsnet, Spector's Hockey and TBN's Mike Harrington