COLUMBUS — They are separated by nearly 2,000 kilometres. But Winnipeg and Columbus have a lot more in common that you might think.
Both cities were formed by settlements on the banks of rivers — the Red and Assiniboine in Manitoba, the Scioto and Olentangy here in Ohio. They share similar pasts, including a once-bustling fur trade, and equally flat topography. Residents enjoy hot, humid summers and bundle up for cold winters. They have diverse, multi-cultural populations hovering around the 800,000 mark, with thriving industrial sectors, bustling arts communities and plenty of heritage buildings.
Winnipeg is often referred to as a big small town. Columbus is nicknamed the "Biggest Small Town in America." Believe it or not, Tim Hortons even has a presence down here, a discovery I made Tuesday while out for a stroll near my downtown hotel.
On the sports front, both are home to NHL teams which believe the best is yet to come. The Jets (9-5-4) and Blue Jackets (10-6-0) are both off to promising starts this season. And they will now forever be linked by last January's blockbuster trade of Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic for Pierre-Luc Dubois, one I dare say is starting to look like a victory for both franchises.
I know, I know, the unwritten rules of Hot Takes 101 say a winner, and a loser, must quickly be declared in deal. But it's entirely possible the change of scenery provided to all the participants will ultimately be for the best and pave the way for future success on all fronts. For that reason alone, Wednesday's meeting between the clubs at Nationwide Arena was one circled on the calender when the schedule came out last summer.
It lost a significant part of the sizzle when Laine suffered an oblique injury earlier this month that is expected to keep him out of the lineup until at least early December. The 23-year-old, drafted second-overall by Winnipeg in 2016, isn't even around the team right now, the result of his father, Harri, passing away last weekend. Both he, and the team, have requested privacy, so you won't be hearing from him for a while. Here's wishing the Laine family all the best during this tragic time.
Laine was off to a strong second season here, with 10 points through his first nine games (three goals, seven assists) and looking a lot more like his old self through the first few weeks compared to the inconsistent player who struggled to find his way during the first abbreviated campaign with the Blue Jackets (10 goals, 11 assists in 45 games). Perhaps taking away John Tortorella's bully pulpit and replacing him with the more mild-mannered Brad Larsen behind the bench was a key factor.
This will be a homecoming for Dubois, who looks and sounds like a new man these days after a nightmarish end to his Blue Jackets career, which included being benched and publicly called out by "Torts." No doubt the 23-year-old, taken one pick after Laine in 2016, will be the main media attraction following Wednesday's morning skate. He already has 10 goals and six assists in 18 games with the Winnipeg, and you know he'd love nothing more than to shine against — or dare I say stick it to — his former squad on Wednesday.
It's no secret Dubois looked lost at times last year, which can be chalked up to many factors. The two-week quarantine required to get into Canada left him a step, or two, behind. He suffered a couple of nagging injuries which never really healed. And the compressed scheduled caused by COVID-19 left little time to practise and get acclimatized to new linemates, teammates and systems. Plus, a guy who thrives on emotion had none to feed off playing every game in empty buildings north of the border.
All of that is now water under the bridge, and Dubois is playing like a true power forward and No. 1 centre that should be the foundation of Winnipeg's core for years to come. He's in the final year of a deal paying him US$5 million and will be a restricted free agent with arbitration rights next summer. With each passing game the likelihood increases he will be the first to break through the unofficial Blake Wheeler salary cap (US$8.25 million per year).
Laine, making US$7.5 million, is also a pending RFA. There have been suggestions he'd ultimately prefer to test the waters of unrestricted free agency when he'd be eligible after the 2022-23 campaign, which is why any final judgment on this trade is still likely years away. Let's wait and see exactly how the dust eventually settles.
Both Dubois and Laine have kept it close to the vest as to why they believe things didn't work out with their original teams and new hockey homes were necessary. In both cases, there have been rumblings of locker room discontent. Laine, in particular, was often butting heads with the likes of Jets captain Blake Wheeler, who admits to taking a "tough love" approach at times with young players. Regardless of the reasons, maybe both will find the grass a bit greener on the other side.
There's also the wildcard to all of this in the form of Roslovic, who was seen at the time as basically a throw-in. The 24-year-old had hit the proverbial glass ceiling in Winnipeg, believing he deserved a bigger role and opportunity that was blocked by scores of other young talent, particularly on the wings. And he appeared determined to prove that following the trade, as the Columbus-born product lit it up during his first season with the Blue Jackets, with a career-best 12 goals and 22 assists in 48 games.
With Dubois struggling to find his footing last year, Roslovic's production had many Winnipeg fans crying foul. But those voices have largely been muted now due to current events, which include Roslovic coming back down to Earth a bit. He had no goals and just four assists through his first 16 games this year, but had a huge two-goal, one-assist effort in Buffalo on Monday night to lead Columbus to a 7-4 victory.
No doubt he'd love to carry that momentum over into Wednesday's first meeting against the club that drafted him 25th-overall in 2015.
The Jets will also see another familiar face on the Blue Jackets bench in the form of assistant coach Pascal Vincent, who has helped mentor and develop many of Winnipeg's brightest current stars. Vincent guided the Manitoba Moose for the past five seasons before jumping at the chance to get back into the NHL.
Add it all up and, despite Laine's absence, there's still lots to sink our teeth into for a late November, mid-week matchup that will be no ordinary affair. Looking at the bigger picture, there's also plenty to get excited about for Jets and Blue Jackets fans as they drink their double-doubles on both sides of the border. On that, we can likely all agree.
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.