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Patrik Laine Might Just Play His Way Out Of Winnipeg

BUFFALO, NY - FEBRUARY 23: Patrik Laine #29 of the Winnipeg Jets during a game against the Buffalo Sabres at KeyBank Center on February 23, 2020 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)
Note: Photo is from last February. Getty tends not to bother sending its photographers to Winnipeg.
Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

When the James Harden trade broke earlier this week, I hurried, as I do seemingly every six months, to smash the retweet button on The Juris Skrastins Tweet. I’ve largely made peace with the fact that the NHL is never going to have blockbuster trades and free agent extravaganzas as the default background temperature. The natures and incentives of the sport and the league are such to reduce superstar hockey players’ informal agency compared to their basketball counterparts, and to dampen player movement at the highest levels. It’s not inherently worse, or better, but it’s a fact. Which is why the hockey world gets fired up on the rare occasions a star might want out, and his team might be willing to accommodate his wishes. And so all eyes are on Winnipeg. (I checked, that’s the first time that sentence has ever been written.)

Patrik Laine is a fantastic representative of the Jets in that he’s wildly talented and undeniably flawed, his very real success coming with a tinge of disappointment because it seems like it could or should be so much more. But he is a 40-goal scorer in a league with not very many of those, and still just 22 years old to boot. Could the Finnish winger stand to fill out the rest of us game, well, just about everywhere, but especially on the defensive end? Sure. Would a contending team blow up future drafts to get him on their roster right this second? Without a second thought, if they knew they could keep him. Laine isn’t happy in Winnipeg, for reasons not fully articulated by either side, but this abbreviated offseason saw Laine’s agent making comments suggesting it’d be better for everyone if he were traded, and Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff “taking calls” to see what’s on offer.

A key part of the equation, and the thing that promises to make this a season-long drama, is the question of Laine’s engagement on the ice. He has, in past bouts of disgruntlement, occasionally gone on autopilot. He’s also got an expiring bridge contract and will be arbitration-eligible next summer. A pedestrian season would mean a lower arbitration award, and could make the Jets more willing to hang on to him for now, and to wait until next year to seriously explore trading him. Thus, and counterintuitively, if Laine has a hot start, the Jets could be more motivated to move him sooner, before his salary creeps toward eight figures.

He’s what Laine did seven minutes and change into the season-opener against the Flames:

It’s stupid to think you can state anything about a player’s mindset from a single game, let alone a single shot. However. It takes a silly amount of confidence for a player on a breakaway to take his shot from the top of the circles, as Laine did, rather than skate in and open up the angles. If we can say nothing else, we can say Laine was already feeling his shot and trusting his vision. It’s a good start.

And it was indeed just the start. As if trying to bust his one-dimensional reputation, Laine did a couple of things he’s been dinged for not doing: namely, facilitate, and get mean. He more or less ran point on a second-period power play, and set up Kyle Connor to tie the game with a brisk cross-ice pass through a tiny window. And then, later in the period, he dropped the gloves for the very first time in his NHL career, hurrying over to seek retribution for a nasty Noah Hanifin hit on Connor. He ended up trading punches with noted pest Matthew Tkachuk, though Laine was disappointed that he merely got two for roughing instead of five for fighting.

“I was pissed off because that would have been a Gordie Howe hat trick. That one time when I drop my gloves I get a two-minute penalty so that’s kind of embarrassing. I’m not a guy who likes to fight much. I’d rather stay on the ice and help the team that way.”

Patrik Laine, via Sportsnet

The Jets were indeed thankful Laine was on the ice in overtime, when he quarterbacked a 2-on-1 by taking the puck the whole way himself for the winner.

There’s the conundrum for the Jets, in microcosm and on full display. A player who plays like that is going to command a big fat arbitration award and then a big fat long-term contract, neither of which the Jets may be inclined to pay for. At the same time, how do you not do everything in your power to make sure a player who plays like that is doing it for your team? Just six NHL players have more goals than Laine since he entered the league, and that’s with his learning curve and the occasional checking-out. One game does not a locked-in Laine make, but a locked-in Laine would make things very, very difficult for the Jets even as he makes them contenders.