The Winnipeg Jets haven’t officially hit the ice, but their 2021 season is already off to an inauspicious start. A big, fat, self-inflicted inauspicious start.
Patrik Laine should be the very first player paraded in front of the virtual cameras today, either by choice or by force, to address the elephant in the room. Specifically, the bomb his agent dropped a few months ago by claiming a one-way ticket out of town would be "mutually beneficial" for all parties.
Does he agree with what Mike Liut said at the time? Why does he feel that way? Has his opinion changed? Is he upset general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff hasn’t pulled the trigger on a trade? Does he feel this is going to be a distraction for the coming campaign? Has he spoken with the organization or his teammates about it?
All valid questions for the 22-year-old Finnish sniper, who laid low during the off-season and wasn’t available for interviews, despite numerous attempts. Which was his right.
But now that training camp is underway and all players are required to speak with media as part of their contractual obligations, we should finally get some long-awaited answers, right? Not so fast. We’ve been told Laine is off-limits until later in camp, for reasons not disclosed.
Along with coach Paul Maurice, the Jets will be making one prominent player of their choosing available each day on Zoom, along with honouring a couple other requests from scribes of skaters who won’t be assigned designated days to talk. With the caveat that they not be Laine until a time of his, or their, choosing.
I’m not sure exactly whose decision this is, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s the wrong one, and unless it’s reversed at the last-minute it’s going to allow this situation to hover over the coming days like a dark cloud, while also putting Laine’s teammates in a tough spot.
Why should Blake Wheeler, for example, be required to speculate what Laine might be thinking and feeling, when the star attraction is perfectly capable of doing it himself? He shouldn’t, but I guarantee you those kinds of queries are coming for the Jets captain following today’s first on-ice session. I’m sure Wheeler is going to be absolutely thrilled — NOT — and I don’t blame him one bit.
But I wouldn’t be doing my job by pretending this isn’t a major storyline swirling around the club right now. And for those who believe it’s a media-created scandal, I’ll remind you once again just who got the fire going by speaking publicly about wanting a change of scenery. At this point, we’re just following the smoke.
Is this a case of the team being worried about what Laine is going to say when he finally gets the chance? Perhaps. He largely does his own thing and is notorious for speaking candidly and without direction from PR staff. But again, what good does kicking the problem down the road a few days accomplish?
Is it Laine balking at talking? That seems unlikely. But if he was, he just needs to be reminded that it’s a required part of being a well-compensated professional athlete. And don’t the fans of the team helping to pay his US$6.75 million annual freight, the ones who buy and sport his jersey in spades, deserve to know if he still thinks "Winnipeg Is Good?"
Some of you might be thinking there’s nothing to see here, that this whole situation is being handled in a perfectly normal way. To which I would point you south to Columbus, where news emerged in recent days about Pierre-Luc Dubois apparently requesting a trade during recent contract talks with the Blue Jackets.
Guess who spoke publicly on Sunday? That would be Dubois, who gave a lengthy, well-thought out answer about the issue. As did coach John Tortorella, who said the organization will confront the situation as a group and "deal with it out in the open."
Which is how it should be done. I guarantee you it’s not going to be near the same firestorm in coming days than it would have been if Dubois was kept hidden.
Across the NHL on Sunday as players were going through medicals and off-ice testing, teams were rolling out a slew of stars and coaches for interviews. In Toronto, for example, GM Kyle Dubas, coach Sheldon Keefe and stars Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, Morgan Rielly and Frederik Andersen all spoke about camp and the coming season. Many of those same people will speak multiple times in the coming week.
There were no media availabilities in Winnipeg, where Laine may be the biggest distraction, but not the only one. There’s also the matter of restricted free agent Jack Roslovic, who remains at his off-season home in Columbus hoping Cheveldayoff will also honour his trade request.
As a player currently without a contract and not in camp, Roslovic is under no obligation to talk. Unlike Laine.
You wonder, at some point, if Cheveldayoff picks up the phone to get Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekäläinen on the other end. Might there be a deal to be made involving Laine and Dubois? The No. 2 pick from the 2016 NHL draft for the No. 3 selection. Maybe throw in Roslovic, to play for his hometown club, and call it a day? Dubois wouldn’t need to be sold on the merits of Winnipeg, since his father, Eric, has been an assistant coach with the Manitoba Moose for the past three years.
It’s fun to play armchair GM and speculate. But it would be a lot better if we had some meaningful insight from the man at the centre of it all. Yes, he will eventually have to face the music. But allowing L’Affair Laine to linger does nobody any good.
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.