November 11, 2019

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Laine's lukewarm relationship with the Winnipeg Jets just got a lot more complicated

Opinion

Like a marriage on the rocks, the Winnipeg Jets and Patrik Laine don't seem very long for each other, do they?

It's not just the fact they're currently separated by distance – 7,042 kilometres, to be exact, between Bell MTS Iceplex, where Jets training camp is underway, and Bern, Switzerland, where restricted free agent Laine is working out with a pro team while contract talks remain stalled.

No, it's more than that. A complicated relationship that can be described as lukewarm at best over recent months took another dramatic turn, seemingly putting even more space between the parties. Words were said. Feelings were likely hurt. And you wonder just how many episodes of this soap opera are left before what is starting to seem like an inevitable breakup occurs.

Is it possible this really isn't a match made in hockey heaven, as it first appeared when the Jets hit the jackpot in the draft lottery and selected the Finnish sniper second overall in 2016? Now three seasons and 110 goals later and all is not well.

"When you’re having contract negotiations, one thing always is who are you playing with. With the merits I have, somewhere else I’d have an opportunity to play with the best players. Everybody who understands hockey knows that." – Patrik Laine during an interview with Finnish journalist Pekka Jalonen

Laine, 21, took his biggest shot of the pre-season during an interview with a Finnish newspaper, Iltalehti, in which he made a number of comments that appear to paint both the club, and some teammates, in a negative light. His words quickly travelled across the pond and resulted in some interesting responses from Jets' personnel.

"When you’re having contract negotiations, one thing always is who are you playing with. With the merits I have, somewhere else I’d have an opportunity to play with the best players. Everybody who understands hockey knows that," Laine told journalist Pekka Jalonen, who provided an English translation to the Free Press.

Everyone, the comment implies, but his veteran head coach.

"I can handle the shade. That part's not going to bother me a whole hell of a lot," Paul Maurice said Tuesday.

Winnipeg Jets' Patrik Laine is in Bern, Switzerland, where he's working out with a pro team while talks remain stalled on his new contract.

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Winnipeg Jets' Patrik Laine is in Bern, Switzerland, where he's working out with a pro team while talks remain stalled on his new contract.

Laine told Jalonen how that trio was often used as a third line, behind Mark Scheifele's top group and the Adam Lowry-Andrew Copp-Brandon Tanev checking unit.

"There are top lines and then there is our line. But I play with the guys I’m told to play," said Laine.

Jalonen then remarked to Laine that Maurice seemed to have an affinity for Bryan Little.

"It has been noticed," Laine replied.

It's true Laine was rarely used on the top line with Scheifele and Blake Wheeler last season, spending the bulk of his time with Little despite a lack of sustained success. Of course, the Jets didn't exactly believe in Little, either, when they tried to replace him as second-line centre at the last two trade deadlines, acquiring both Paul Stastny and then Kevin Hayes in consecutive years. Stastny had great success with Laine, while Hayes did not.

"There are top lines and then there is our line. But I play with the guys I’m told to play." – Patrik Laine

Laine isn't going to simply be given what he wants, no matter how much he pouts. Maurice even used what he called his "driver's licence analogy: Nobody gets the keys at 14," to describe his handling of Laine and other young wingers on the Jets. He said requests to play with Scheifele and Wheeler are frequent.

"And that's understandable. Everybody wants it. They want more minutes, they want to play with the team's best, for sure," said Maurice, who flew to Finland this past summer to meet one-on-one with Laine in an attempt to try and get everything back on track after a frustrating end to last season.

And yet it feels like we've quickly derailed once again.

In Laine's case, he clearly believes the lack of opportunity played a role in a career-low 30 goals and 20 assists last season which, along with major inconsistency in his overall two-way game, is likely being used against him by the Jets in contract talks.

Winnipeg Jets' Bryan Little, left, and Patrik Laine during practice in Winnipeg.

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Winnipeg Jets' Bryan Little, left, and Patrik Laine during practice in Winnipeg.

"I’m not privy to any contracts but at no point I’m sure in the Kyle Connor negotiation will they say, ‘Hey, we’ll take a little less because we understand he played with Scheif and Wheels and that’s going to get me 30,’" Maurice said of the other unsigned RFA in Connor, who has been a staple on that line the last two season.

"I don’t think they’re saying, ‘Hey, I’ll sign a contract if I get used this way.’ I think they’re saying, ‘Hey, if I get used this way, I might have scored a bit more, maybe you could pay me more.’ It’s an assumption. I don’t know. I’m not part of it. That’s what I’d argue."

Maurice rattled off a list of star players who don't always play with other stars, including Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Sidney Crosby often being on different lines in Pittsburgh and Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews on different lines in Chicago.

"Nobody brings their contract out to the bench and says, ‘Hey, I probably should be playing there," said Maurice, who paused and added "yet."

“I think he’s certainly one of our best players. He spends a good deal of time on that top unit on the power play. We’re top five in the league last couple years, a big part because of what Patty does. I think he’s a young kid that’s certainly had a lot of success in three years. He’s definitely not doing it by himself, I can guarantee you that." – Jets captain Blake Wheeler

As for Wheeler, he quickly noted he spent ample time on the top power play unit with him and Scheifele last season.

"I think he’s certainly one of our best players. He spends a good deal of time on that top unit on the power play. We’re top five in the league last couple years, a big part because of what Patty does. I think he’s a young kid that’s certainly had a lot of success in three years. He’s definitely not doing it by himself, I can guarantee you that," Wheeler said Tuesday.

The captain also referenced Laine's age, saying "he's still a young kid, still growing up on and off the ice." He was specifically asked whether Laine should have gone public, as he's done.

"I don’t know. I’m not him. I’m not in his shoes. I don’t know exactly how he’s feeling. I haven’t spoken on the phone with him for a couple weeks. He’s a guy that has certainly had a huge part in what we’ve done here and help get us to the point where we can be talked about as Stanley Cup contenders. I think maybe there’s some frustration in that, I can’t speak for him. I don’t know," said Wheeler, who has no issue with Laine being vocal about wanting to play a bigger role.

"It’s a great trait to have, to want more, to want more ice time, more playing time. So I would say those are all good things, man. You want guys that are hungry for more and not content with where he’s at," he said.

Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler, right, is on the top unit power play with Laine.

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler, right, is on the top unit power play with Laine.

Lowry, another centre who has spent some time on a line with Laine, believes all of this may be tied to ongoing negotiations and will quickly blow over.

"Everyone's entitled to their own opinion. He's a premier goal scorer, so maybe he's just trying to use that as some leverage for his contract. I wouldn't put too much weight into those comments," Lowry said.

"Stuff like this, you look at even the (Mitch) Marner contract negotiations, people were pissed off at him for not signing earlier. And then he signs and all is good in the world. So I would expect something similar to happen with Patty. The contract gets resolved and we're going to welcome him back with open arms. We're excited to get him and K.C. back. Hopefully it's sooner rather than later."

Jalonen told me he believes Laine still wants to remain with the Jets, but is getting increasingly frustrated by the situation.

Despite the current state of affairs, perhaps these are not irreconcilable differences and the parties can ultimately find a way to live happily ever after together. But it's hard to see that right now for a Jets team already dealing with a number of distractions, including the mysterious, indefinite leave of absence for Dustin Byfuglien.

"What’s that quote about rough seas making a good sailor? Something like that. But I haven’t felt it in the room. It’s been good, guys are working their asses off. Player’s got a little bit of turbulence, maybe, outside the jet, but inside the jet it’s good," said Maurice.

A view through rose-coloured glasses, perhaps.

I've long maintained trading Laine would be a foolish move, so getting the Jets and Laine on the same page should be a top priority if they want to avoid another Jacob Trouba "get me out of here" situation on their hands and have him ready to walk in unrestricted free agency four years from now.

Assuming it's not already too late for that.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Reporter

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.

Read full biography

History

Updated on Tuesday, September 17, 2019 at 7:04 PM CDT: Updates headline

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