Rejuvenated Laine just what Jets need
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 02/11/2018 (1557 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
You couldn’t blame Patrik Laine if he never wanted to leave Finland.
The Winnipeg Jets winger appeared to rediscover what makes him one of the most dangerous players in the game during the two-game NHL Global Series homecoming in Helsinki. It wasn’t just the four goals he scored against the Florida Panthers in front of a raucous crowd, but the supreme confidence that was evident on pretty much every shift he played.
There were crisp passes. Toe-drags and dangles with the puck. Determined backchecking and aggressive forechecking. All kinds of giddy-up in his step. He looked like an entirely different player, especially compared to what we’d seen so far this season.
It was the type of performance that leaves you wondering just what the third-year winger’s ceiling might be.
Yet there are nights, like last weekend in Detroit and Toronto, that leave you shaking your head about Laine in bewilderment rather than amazement. The 20-year-old can appear lost, overwhelmed and even disinterested. Forget being an elite NHL goal scorer. A new observer to the sport might question what he’s doing playing in the league at all.
He can be Dr. Jekyll for a week or two, followed by Mr. Hyde.
The game at Scotiabank Arena against the Maple Leafs might have been the low point of Laine’s career. Banished to the fourth line, he took a foolish interference penalty early in the second period and was a complete non-factor while playing against Auston Matthews, the man selected one position ahead of him in the 2016 draft.
It was Laine’s fifth straight game without a point. It also capped off a wild week that saw Laine play on five different lines. He began on the second line with Bryan Little and Nikolaj Ehlers, got bumped up to the top unit with Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler, back down to the second unit with Little and Kyle Connor, down to the fourth line with Jack Roslovic and Brendan Lemieux and then up to the third line with Adam Lowry and Brandon Tanev.
He needed a program every night just to figure out who he was playing with.
Jets head coach Paul Maurice and his staff were clearly trying every trick in the book to get Laine going. It was a mix of tough love and coddling. And nothing seemed to be working.
As the Jets headed overseas, there were legitimate reasons to worry about Laine. Not only the on-ice product, but how this was impacting him away from the rink. Especially with the kind of pressure that comes with being the face of this international hockey event.
What would another couple no-shows under this kind of spotlight lead to? An outright benching and banishment to the press box for a night?
Laine may not only be one of the more intriguing talents and personalities in the NHL, he might also be one of the biggest enigmas. In many ways, his game is very simple. But Laine himself is a fairly complex individual.
He is his own harshest critic, to the point that he comes across at times sounding like Eeyore on skates. When Laine says “hockey is hard,” as he famously did last year during a slump, you also expect him to follow that up with an “Oh bother,” as a dark raincloud suddenly appears over his head.
Laine wears his emotions on his sleeve, which can be both a blessing and a curse.
To be clear, Laine is hardly alone in being a young player who is fighting inconsistency. Mark Scheifele had many ups and downs early in his career. Laine’s good buddy, Nikolaj Ehlers, is going through some of that.
Heck, the entire Jets team right now seems to be all over the map, unable to string together prolonged stretches of solid play.
But Laine seemed immune to that, especially after he followed up his impressive rookie campaign with a 44-goal sophomore season, leaving him second to Washington Capitals sniper Alexander Ovechkin for NHL goal scoring. The sky, it seemed, was the limit.
But the sky appeared to be falling as the new season began.
You watch Laine for an extended period of time and wonder just how his agent and Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff are going to find a number to mutually agree upon for his next contract, what with the extreme peaks and deep valleys.
The pending restricted free agent could have signed a long-term extension by now. But his play early in this season raised questions about whether he might be costing himself some major cash with each mediocre game that passed.
He arrived in Finland with just three goals and two assists through a dozen games while looking practically invisible during five-on-five play. But then he performs like he did in Finland and suddenly looks like a $10-million per year player once again.
A short-term bridge deal, giving both sides a bigger body of work to study, might end up being the compromise.
Following his hat-trick performance in Thursday’s 4-2 victory, Laine was his usual candid self when he told a huge media gathering “I don’t think you can imagine how good that feels.” Truer words have probably never been spoken by him.
Somehow, in between scores of international media interviews asking him what’s wrong with his game and Finnish sightseeing tours and commitments to family and friends and chicken wing-eating promotions and all kinds of other distractions and built-in excuses, Laine was able to settle things down and get focused on the most important task at hand this past week.
Perhaps the looming Finland trip, along with the heightened expectations for both himself and the team, had been weighing heavy on Laine. And coming up big on such a grand stage will serve as an exorcism of sorts and allow him to focus on what he truly does best.
There truly was no place like home for Laine this week. Now we’ll see if he can bring that game back with him on the Jets’ charter that was set to land in Winnipeg early Saturday afternoon.
Both the team, and Laine, are banking on it.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.