ST. LOUIS — Bench him. Banish him to the Manitoba Moose. Ship him out of town. Frustrated fans had all kinds of suggestions for what the Winnipeg Jets should have done with slumping sniper Patrik Laine, who seemed to take a major step back in his progression towards NHL stardom this year.
Well, the Stanley Cup playoffs are all about fresh starts, clean slates and new opportunities. And nobody in a Jets uniform has taken advantage of that more than Laine.
Goals in three-straight games. Silky-smooth passing to go with his potent shot. A distinct physical element. And some sneaky-good plays in both ends of the rink. Laine has been a force so far against the St. Louis Blues, just the latest development in what has truly been a topsy-turvy season.
There was the sluggish start. The resurgence during and after a trip to Finland. The memorable month of November, which included a five-goal game against these same Blues. Another prolonged slump. A promotion to the top line with a noticeable improvement in play. And then yet another dry spell to close things out, with just one goal in his final 19 games.
Add it all up and Laine posted career-lows in goals (30), assists (20) and points (50). Coming out of his entry-level deal, there was every reason to believe he'd cost himself considerable cash on his next contract.
But the 20-year-old Finn seemingly flipped a switch as the post-season got underway, proving himself to be a big-game player worthy of a big-time deal.
Turns out that while many of us may have had our doubts, Laine was confident about what he was going to do on a big stage.
"I feel like I’m a better player than I was last year. And that was my expectation for myself for this season. Obviously didn’t score as many goals and points as I did last year, but I feel like I’m a better player than I was last season, so that’s good," he said Monday at the Jets' optional practice at Enterprise Center in St. Louis.
"That’s the thing I was looking for. I reached my expectation for this year. But the season is still not over. So we’ll see after the season’s done."
Coach Paul Maurice said something similar, too, how there's been a marked difference in Laine's play over the past couple of months, even if the statistics haven't really shown it. How this is the best version of Laine we've seen so far.
'That’s the thing I was looking for. I reached my expectation for this year. But the season is still not over. So we’ll see after the season’s done' – Patrik Laine
It can't be a coincidence that Laine moved up to play on the top line with Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler around that time. Maurice had stubbornly refused to put the trio together earlier in the season, claiming their previous work in limited minutes left plenty to be desired.
"That was the catalyst to it," the coach admitted Monday.
"All players in your locker room are in shape and are great athletes, but there is a game shape that comes when you play a little bit more and you get into a better rhythm. So, he did that and now he’s up to speed and anybody that we’ve put with Mark and Blake understand the difference then, between playing against the (quality of opponent) and normally, it’s head to head, like we see in this series, where it’s the top two defencemen and the best line the other team has."
Nikolaj Ehlers has no doubt it made a difference for Laine, just as his own game has always ticked up when he plays on the left side with Scheifele and Wheeler.
"For sure. Because I know it helped me. You learn something from playing with Scheif and Wheels. And it’s not just the nice plays. It’s the work, too. I’m pretty sure Patty has learned something from that, too," said Ehlers.
"He’s playing the game and he’s playing it hard. He’s going out and he’s finishing hits, putting pucks deep, going down and getting the pucks and shooting, That’s his game. The way he’s playing right now is fun to watch, and he’s got to keep doing that."
A prime example was his goal in Game 3, with the Jets and Blues playing four-on-four with Dustin Byfuglien and Brayden Schenn in the box for matching roughing minors. Laine had a dominant shift, throwing a big check, forcing a turnover, sneaking in behind the Blues' defence, knocking a high pass out of the air from Jacob Trouba and then beating Jordan Binnington from in tight in one impressive, fluid motion.
"I think because most of your highlights about Patty would be him shooting the puck, (that is) probably an underappreciated skill that he has is handling it," said Maurice. "His passing and his puckhandling are strong. It will become more evident as he gets stronger because he will eventually be a powerful skater. He may not be real quick or fast but he’s going to be a powerful skater and then he’s going to buy those hands a little bit more time. He won’t need much."
Bryan Little had a pretty good view of it, as he was out on the ice at the time with Laine. He marvelled at his linemate's ability to get in behind the Blues defence,
"He's just really good at it. A lot of times when he scores he is wide-open.... He's just one of those guys that knows where to go, knows how to find those sweet spots, and for whatever reason teams have trouble finding him in those areas," said Little.
"When you're playing against someone like that, you want to stay tight on him, you want to know where he is on the ice. But that just shows how good he is at finding that space."
Laine also seems to be figuring out how to best use his 6-5 frame to his full advantage, and that's been on full display in this series as he shows increasing signs of become a true power forward that Maurice believes he will come to be.
"I think, especially in the playoffs, you want to finish every hit when you have a chance. That’s kind of been my mindset these playoffs, just try to get on the body and create loose pucks and hopefully we can get a couple of those pucks and create some offence," said Laine.
He had five goals and seven assists in 17 playoff games last season, and appears to have elevated his play this time around. He played the first two games on a line with Little and Andrew Copp, then skated Sunday night with Little and Ehlers.
Laine may have some faults, but don't ever mistake him for a selfish player. Despite all the personal success that's come his way during his first three NHL seasons, he's always presented as a team-first player.
So it was no surprise to see him shoot down suggestions that he must be thrilled with his start to the post-season.
"We’re down 2-1. That’s not the way we wanted to start these playoffs. For me it really doesn’t matter. I scored three games in a row but we’re still down 2-1. So it doesn’t make it any better," said Laine.
"But we’ll see when the series is over, where we’re at and where I’m at as a player. Like I said before, it’s fun to score, but it’s even more fun to win."
Of course, if Laine keeps playing as he is, there's a good chance both of those things will continue to happen for him and his teammates.
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.