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This article was published 8/1/2019 (286 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Bryan Little knew the answer well before the question was finished. Then, just as the last words exited the reporter’s mouth, he jumped right in — helmet first.
Are the expectations too high for Patrik Laine?
"Absolutely. He’s one of those guys that if he doesn’t score in a few games, he’s really down on himself," the veteran Winnipeg Jets centreman said. "He feels like he should be scoring every night."
For a team facing high expectations, both from inside the locker room and from fans that follow the Jets’ every move, perhaps no one is expected to do more than Laine. Little knows it and is quick to defend his teammate.
"He kind of put it on himself with how good he was and how much he scored right off the bat and now people expect multiple five-goal games, which is super unrealistic," said Little. "But that’s what people expect."
Laine, a 20-year-old winger with a deadly shot, has produced some of the franchise’s most jaw-dropping highlights. Moments like on Nov. 24 against the St. Louis Blues, when Laine scored five goals on five shots, in what was his third hat trick in as many weeks.
Postion: RW, shoots R
Hometown: Tampere, Finland
Drafted: 2016, 1st round, 2nd overall, Winnipeg Jets
(Season/games played/goals-assists-points/SH %/plus-minus/TOI)
In 196 career NHL games, Laine has 104 goals. Only Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals has scored more over the last 2.5 seasons, with 112. Laine led the Jets in goals in each of his first two seasons in the NHL and his 24 goals in 41 games leads the team again, two more than Mark Scheifele.
Still, there are fans who have grown frustrated with the young winger. Not for his ability to fill the net, which has also dipped of late, with just one goal in his last nine games adding fuel to the frustration, but for what he lacks on the defensive side of the game. Laine is a team-worst minus-11, and has struggled in his own end. Despite his 6-5, 206-pound frame, there are times when he is easily muscled off the puck.
It’s an area of the game Laine said he’s working hard to improve. Little was quick to vouch for his young teammate's dedication to the defensive zone, though Laine admitted it remains a work in progress. After all, it’s not only changing how you play the game, but how you view it, too.
"Everybody would like to play offence all the time but that’s just not possible," Laine said. "You can win a lot of games with a good offence but you’re going to win championships with good defence."
Laine saw first-hand the importance of a defence-first mindset while back home playing with Tappara Tampere of the men’s Finnish SM-liiga, where he played parts of two seasons before jumping to the NHL. In his first season with Tappara, in 2015-16, a majority of the team's focus centred on playing better defence. That commitment would lead to the franchise’s first championship in 13 years.
"Defence is still the most important thing we need to do on the ice," Laine said.
Still, there remains a part of Laine that views offence as a cure-all and he’s not shy to admit work on the defensive side requires more energy and focus.
It’s something every young player goes through, said Jets forward Mathieu Perreault. While Perreault and others have provided support and encouragement, there is a natural transition at play. And, in some ways, it just needs time to play itself out.
"He’s still a young player with a lot of offence to his game, so all he’s thinking about is scoring goals, which is fine," said Perreault. "As he gets older he’s going to learn that the defensive part of the game is just as important. It sucks to defend and it takes a lot of work, so you have to dig in and put in the work that needs to be done."
Perreault isn’t surprised some fans want more from Laine. After all, he inched close to 40 goals, scoring 36, in his first season as an 18-year-old, only to reach the milestone the following year, with 44. Laine, who is almost on pace to hit 50 this year, is aware of the outside noise. But like most professional athletes, that pressure pales in comparison to what he expects from himself.
"I’m my worst enemy. I’m expecting myself to be the best player on the ice every night and obviously you can’t be," Laine said. "You just got to stay focused and not lose your shit."
Jets head coach Paul Maurice admitted he, too, often falls into the trap of wanting too much from a young player still developing. Having a front-row seat to what Laine has accomplished so far in his career, the coach is sometimes dazed by the special things his rising star can do.
"The (word) that popped into my head is 'intoxicated' by that shot," said Maurice. "When he crosses the blue line and he's still four feet from the top of the circle and you know he's going to shoot, I think there's a chance this thing's going in. How many guys in the league do you feel that way?"
He added: "Patty's scored so many goals from places most guys don't that you are lulled into an expectation possibly that he should score every time he touches the puck, and that's clearly not realistic."
Maurice was careful not to admit that players with Laine’s scoring prowess are given more leniency in the defensive zone, but ask around and those politics exist. There is some give and take, of course, and Maurice believes there will be a notable improvement as Laine continues to develop under the tutelage of team leaders such as Scheifele and captain Blake Wheeler.
"You're constantly working his game to get more out of him. Like a lot of these kids that we've brought in, he's been able to produce while learning the game," said Maurice.
"He's getting better. A much, much better five-on-five hockey player than he was a year ago at this time. And as he gets physically stronger, he'll be a little faster, the reads will come more natural to him and eventually more zone time. I don't know what his ceiling is. I wouldn't be foolish enough to put one on him at this age. Great player and he's going to get a lot better."
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.
Updated on Tuesday, January 8, 2019 at 11:55 PM CST: Fixes typos