The Winnipeg Jets must find a way to mend what appears to be an increasingly fractured relationship with Patrik Laine. Failing to do so would not only leave a huge hole in the lineup, but a smoking crater in an organization that should be building around him rather than trying to move him.
Laine, the 22-year-old winger who already has 138 goals on his NHL resumé, is the type of rare talent franchises yearn for. The 2016 second-overall pick is an elite, game-changing sniper who helps you win, sells tickets and merchandise, brings eyeballs to your product and whose name and number will eventually hang from the rafters when his playing career is over.
Throw in the fact the Finnish fan favourite is refreshingly frank and funny and genuinely seems to like it here — who can forget the "Winnipeg Is Good" love letter he penned a couple years ago for the Players' Tribune? — and I can't think of a single good reason you would want to trade him at this stage of his young career.
And yet, here we are, with his agents, Mike Liut and Andy Scott, telling TSN's Pierre LeBrun last week they believe it would be "mutually beneficial" for Laine to find a new hockey home, citing his inconsistent role as a top-line right-winger as the primary reason.
Is that run-of-the-mill rhetoric aimed at boosting the bargaining position for a client who will soon need a new contract? Or is it the latest saga in an ongoing soap opera that seems destined to have a very sad ending around here? I reached out to Liut and Scott, asking for some clarity regarding Laine's concerns, but neither replied to messages.
There are alarming similarities here to the Jacob Trouba situation. Like Laine, the defenceman was a first-round draft pick who was supposed to be a cornerstone at his position for years to come. Like Laine, his initial complaints with the Jets were about his usage, specifically not playing top-pairing minutes on the right side.
After repeatedly failing to get his name on a lengthy extension, the Jets shipped Trouba to the New York Rangers for Neal Pionk and a first-round draft pick that turned into Ville Heinola. He was one year removed from walking as an unrestricted free agent when the move was made.
The Jets can't allow Laine to get to that stage. He has one year left on his current deal, which pays him US$6.75 million for the 2020-21 season. He will then be a restricted free agent, under team control for two more years and with arbitration rights next summer. Either a long-term deal happens by then, or you have to move him. In that sense, there is still a bit of time to figure this out, but the longer it drags on without a resolution, the more Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff's hands get tied.
To borrow a line from Jerry Maguire, it's time to show Laine the money. Figure out what fair market value is for a player of his ilk — an increasingly difficult task given the uncertain economic times — and take your best shot to get his name on the dotted line, just as other key pieces of the core such as Mark Scheifele, Connor Hellebuyck, Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers and Josh Morrissey have done. Make him an offer he can't refuse. If he does, find out why. Then fix it.
Although the global pandemic means an emergency visit to Laine's home in Finland is likely out of the question right now — and head coach Paul Maurice already went down that road during the summer of 2019 in an attempt to unruffle some feathers — the Jets should be exhausting all options when it comes to addressing Laine's concerns, financial or otherwise.
Start with Maurice, who absolutely should be playing him on the top line with Scheifele. Laine was moved into that role for a spell last season, but only after veteran centre Bryan Little went down with a major injury and Blake Wheeler was shifted to centre to take his spot. Playing with Scheifele and Connor, Laine responded with the best two-way hockey of his career.
But when the team acquired Cody Eakin prior to the trade deadline, the 34-year-old Wheeler was returned to his usual spot as Scheifele's right-hand man, and Laine was back in a familiar second-line role. That can't continue to happen. Laine, who has scored more goals since his NHL debut than all but six other players in the league, is the Jets' best right-winger and he should be playing with Scheifele, the team's best centre.
No, Laine isn't perfect. There are flaws in his game, even if he's made significant strides over the past year. He can be streaky, and moody, and still has plenty of professional and personal growth to go through. But show me a player with his skill set who was a complete, developed package at his age.
Much has been made of other young players who have been cycled through the organization, including Alex Burmistrov, Marko Dano and Nic Petan. None of them had the pedigree of Trouba or Laine, and none went on to find any kind of sustained success with other clubs. In that sense, it's a real apples-to-oranges comparison to lump them all together as evidence of some kind of toxic culture within the organization.
Same goes with Evander Kane and Dustin Byfuglien, who also hit the road for vastly different reasons. Kane never really found a fit in Winnipeg (or Buffalo), and Byfuglien absolutely loved the city but decided he no longer wanted to play hockey as his body began breaking down.
However, there's no denying the draft-and-develop Jets, who already face an uphill climb attracting top-tier free agents to town, can't afford to let good players such as Trouba and Laine get away if they want to remain competitive.
Maurice has admitted he can be tough on young players, and his stubbornness and loyalty when it comes to playing veterans can be frustrating. Another first-rounder, Jack Roslovic, is also on the trade block these days, looking for a change of scenery. Once again, his usage is being cited. Inside the room, captain Wheeler can be extremely demanding as a leader. For someone such as Laine, who marches to his own beat, that has led to conflict in the past.
Some introspection and perhaps a touch of humility from the coach and the captain, specifically as to their dealings with a unique star such as Laine, should be a priority.
The ultimate goal here is winning, and everyone must recognize a team with Laine has a much better shot than one without. The club that gets the best player in a trade typically makes out best, so any scenario that involves Laine going the other way has the potential to backfire.
Time is running out to find a solution, and recent developments should increase the urgency because if Laine is traded those within the organization who allowed the situation to reach a breaking point should also be sent packing.
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.