Laine might skip camp, but bet on him in Jets’ opening-night lineup

Patrik Laine has “got nothing bad to say about Winnipeg,” which doesn’t exactly jump off the page as a new slogan to slap on our licence plates, erect some billboards and build a tourism campaign around, does it?

I suppose it’s better than “We were born here, what’s your excuse?” which The Simpsons famously — at least around here — asked in an episode years ago that involved Homer coming to our backyard to obtain cheap prescription drugs for residents of Springfield.

But those hoping for another love letter from Laine — like that sugary sweet “Winnipeg is good” puff piece ghostwritten on his behalf in the Players’ Tribune in early 2018 — likely felt scorned as he spoke last week from Finland with Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston.

"I know I'm going to play somewhere next year. So that's something I'm not thinking about too much," Patrik Laine said in the interview. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Free Press files)

“I know I’m going to play somewhere next year. So that’s something I’m not thinking about too much,” Patrik Laine said in the interview. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Free Press files)

Laine’s rather lukewarm comments about his hockey home for the past three seasons have seemingly poured gasoline all over the fire that was already burning when it comes to the 21 year old, who remains without a contract as the clock ticks louder towards the start of training camp next month.

“I know I’m going to play somewhere next year. So that’s something I’m not thinking about too much,” Laine said in a curious bit of phrasing that raised more than a few eyebrows around these parts. “You never know. It’s still business. You gotta be prepared for anything. But yeah, you never know where you’re going to play next year. I’m just prepared for anything.”

Laine further fanned the flames when Johnston followed up by asking if he wanted that “somewhere” to be in Winnipeg.

“Well, I’ve got nothing bad to say about Winnipeg, you know? It’s been good so far. But you never know, so that’s kind of my comments,” Laine replied.

Alrighty then. He tolerates us. He really, really tolerates us.

As a restricted free agent, there is only one place Laine can spend next season — and the three after that — if he wants to lace up his skates in the best hockey league in the world. (Mike Deal / Free Press files)

As a restricted free agent, there is only one place Laine can spend next season — and the three after that — if he wants to lace up his skates in the best hockey league in the world. (Mike Deal / Free Press files)

Laine may be a lot of things, but he’s definitely not an NHL agent or general manager. Which is why all of the above should be taken with an enormous grain of salt when trying to figure out just what this all might mean in the big picture.

As a restricted free agent, there is only one place he can spend next season — and the three after that — if he wants to lace up his skates in the best hockey league in the world. Barring a trade (unlikely), or an offer sheet coming his way that the Jets don’t match (also unlikely), Laine isn’t going anywhere for the foreseeable future. His NHL rights will remain in Winnipeg, so barring an extended stalemate in which he looks to stay sharp overseas, his options are extremely limited.

He doesn’t hold a whole lot of power right now, and both he and his camp know that. Which is why what you heard last week was probably just a bit of frustration creeping to the surface from a player who always speaks his mind, with a little bit of public posturing mixed in for good measure. No doubt there’s also some lingering hard feelings over how last season played out, both on the ice and within the dressing room.

Laine is extremely smart, more than many give him credit for. And don’t think for a second he didn’t know exactly how all of this would be received half a world away.

It’s obvious there hasn’t been a lot of progress on contract talks, with both sides playing a game of chicken with each other right now. You can’t blame Laine and his agent, former NHL goalie Mike Liut, for staying patient and trying to play the long game here and maximize the value of one of the game’s best pure goal scorers.

“I’m not stressed. I’m not worrying about that at all. I know that I’ve done my job as well as I can over these three years.” – Patrik Laine

And general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and his staff have to be extremely careful with how they proceed, with only about $15 million in available cap space to get both Laine and fellow RFA Kyle Connor signed on the dotted line, while also leaving a bit of financial wiggle room for in-season moves.

A shorter-term deal has always made the most sense for both sides, and it’s what I expect will ultimately occur.

That gives Laine a bit more time to prove his worth, especially after a season in which he struggled at both ends of the ice for long stretches and scored a career-low 30 goals and 20 assists. The Jets, can likely keep his cap hit down until a few other big-ticket contracts (Dmitry Kulikov, Mathieu Perreault and Dustin Byfuglien) come off the books, freeing up some additional funds.

However you feel about Laine — and there’s no question he’s as divisive a hockey player as we’ve seen in quite some time in Winnipeg — you can’t take away the fact he’s scored 110 goals in his first three seasons, which is sixth-best in the NHL during that span.

For the record, both Cheveldayoff and Liut aren’t commenting publicly.

Fortunately for all, Laine had a few other things to say last week that suggest there’s been some personal growth, including a reference to additional training, which has always been a fault of his.

“I’ve been kind of working on everything, especially explosiveness and being quicker on the ice. I think I’ve made some really good progress during the summer and I think I’ve been skating a lot more this year than I’ve been in the past,” Laine told Johnston.

The Jets have have only about $15 million in available cap space to get both Laine and fellow RFA Kyle Connor signed on the dotted line. (Jeff Roberson / Associated Press files)</p>
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The Jets have have only about $15 million in available cap space to get both Laine and fellow RFA Kyle Connor signed on the dotted line. (Jeff Roberson / Associated Press files)

As we saw down the stretch last season and into the playoffs, Laine seemed to grasp the concept that he can help the Jets succeed even when he isn’t lighting the lamp. Despite battling both back and groin injuries into the post-season, Laine was playing some of his best hockey and certainly can’t be blamed for the quick first-round exit at the hands of the eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues.

“I learned when I’m scoring, I’m scoring a lot. And when it’s not going well, just got to stay with it. Even though you’re not scoring, there’s so many things you can do well for your team, and I think that’s the most important thing. For me, last year, I think there were still times I wasn’t scoring where I was still playing good hockey. And the opposite as well. I wasn’t at my best and I was still scoring,” he said.

“I would still take, probably, the times I was playing well and not scoring, over the other one. So I think that’s going to help me more in the future. That I’m just playing well and staying with it, I think that’s going to help me more in the future.”

I suspect that last comment is also going to bring a big smile to the face of coach Paul Maurice. Although not as much as signing a new deal will.

Laine has plenty of company right now, with numerous other high-profile RFAs still in the same boat, including Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen (a fellow Finn who also is represented by Liut and has been training with Laine in Finland), Toronto’s Mitch Marner, Tampa’s Brayden Point and Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk.

“I’m not stressed. I’m not worrying about that at all. I know that I’ve done my job as well as I can over these three years,” Laine said.

Like a lot of what came out of Laine’s mouth, that comment is also up for some debate. But at the end of the day, just remember that when it comes to the business side of professional sports, it’s typically money that talks.

Laine likely doesn’t want to start missing paycheques, just as the Jets can’t afford to have one of their best offensive weapons out of the lineup when the puck drops on what is a very important season.

There’s no reason some common ground can’t be found. Just don’t hold your breath waiting for it to happen. I fully expect this to drag into early September, and perhaps beyond. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Laine missing in action when camp gets underway, as it may take such a development to increase the urgency on both sides. But I’d be shocked if the drama continues into October.

Both sides in this high-stakes game have too much to lose.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

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