NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Thursday’s matchup between the Minnesota Wild and Winnipeg Jets. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.
WINNIPEG — Patrik Laine has been here before.
Mired in a scoring slump unbefitting of an elite goal scorer — one who has made a name for himself in the two-and-a-half years he’s played in the NHL with his signature release and near pin-point accuracy — Laine just hasn’t been the same player who set the league ablaze in the month of November.
It was then that Laine appeared to have the hockey equivalent of the Midas touch. Everything his stick graced ended up in the back of the net. A five-goal game, two more that ended with hat tricks, and 18 markers in 12 games had him flirting with the pantheon of some of the NHL’s best goal scorers.
Since then, Laine has only scored three times in 18 games dating back to Dec. 1. He’s gone stretches of six, five and four games without lighting the lamp and it has many concerned, questioning everything from his motivation to his morale.
Laine is a victim of his own doing in some of this. His rookie season produced 36 goals and he followed that up with a 44-goal campaign last season as he put up a fight against Alex Ovechkin in the race to the Rocket Richard Trophy. His theatrics in the month of November had people talking about him scoring 60, or more. And couple that effort with the fact that the Winnipeg Jets turned the corner last year and made their first push into the deep waters of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
In short: expectations for Laine and for the team have never been higher. Gone are the days of merely hoping to get to the playoffs and fans yearning for a pedestrian 30-goal scorer.
The mob is ravenous now. They want Laine to hit 50, at least (he’s already amassed 104 in 197 career games). They want the Jets to win the Stanley Cup. Slumps, like the one Laine is currently treading water in, isn’t a part of this year’s game plan. It simply doesn’t compute.
And it’s not just the fans who are guilty of these expectations. They’re coming from within, too, including head coach Paul Maurice
“We’re all — I’m trying to find the right word — the one that popped into my head is ‘intoxicated’ by that shot,” Maurice said on Tuesday, just hours before the Jets pumped seven past the Colorado Avalanche — with none coming from Laine. “I’m doing it, too. When he crosses the blue line and he’s still four feet from the top of the circle and you know he’s going to shoot, I think there’s a chance this thing’s going in. How many guys in the league do you feel that way?
“If I was crossing the blue line you might as well just go get a Coke, because it’s not happening for you, you’re not missing anything. And then he kind of wears that frustration: ‘I can’t believe it didn’t go in. I’m going to use some Finnish words to describe how my play is.’ Would it be any different than when Connor McDavid winds it up from the tops of the circles and even though there’s five guys he’s gotta go through you think ‘Hey, there’s a chance he could do it,’ because you’ve seen it.”
Jets forward Bryan Little didn’t hesitate when asked if he felt that the expectations of Laine are too high.
“I think absolutely,” Little said. “Him and [Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston] Matthews being drafted [high], people are always going to compare and fight over who’s better for probably most of their careers. He’s one of those guys that if he doesn’t score in a few games he’s really down on himself – he feels like he should be giving himself opportunities to score every night and should be scoring every night.
“That’s pretty unrealistic, unless you can end the season with 82 goals. But for him, he puts a lot of pressure on himself to be that player. People expect that out of him now; he kind of put it on himself with how good he was and how much he scored right off the bat and I think people expect multiple five-goal games which is super unrealistic. But that’s what people expect.”
Laine, who leads the Jets with 24 goals this season (and is on pace to surpass his 44-goal mark from last year), has remained mostly mum when it comes to his current lot in life.
In the past, he declared that “hockey was hard” and that his confidence was lacking. When an elite goal scorer isn’t scoring, you kind of expect that life is a little in the dumps. Scoring goals makes an elite goal scorer happy. Not scoring does the opposite.
“I would probably say the same things [now],” Laine said on Wednesday. “There’s been a big stretch where I haven’t scored, and so it’s kinda my specialty. It’s always frustrating when you’re not doing the right things. There’s still a lot of things you can do well for the team and that’s kinda my focus now, try to rather do those things and not worry about the goals because, eventually, they’ll come when you work hard and do small things right.
“I’m not saying these things because I want to score in the next game. I’m just saying this to you guys because this is how the thing is. I’ve had a couple of good responses in the last couple of years after I’ve said something like this, so hopefully, I can do some positive things on the ice and get over this bad stretch.”
Maurice feels Laine has made progress in the areas that a third-year pro should.
“He’s made progress in all the areas we need a 20-year-old to get better at,” Maurice said. “He’s still shooting the puck a ton. He’s had his stretches where he’s not scoring. He’s had his stretches when he’s absolutely on fire. We’ll take that. So many 20-year-olds can’t produce like he does at times. You’re constantly working his game to get more out of him. Like a lot of these kids that we’ve brought in, he’s been able to produce while they’re learning the game.
“So he’s getting better. A much, much better five-on-five hockey player than he was a year ago at this time. And as he gets physically stronger, he’ll be a little faster, the reads will come more natural to him. Eventually more zone time. I don’t know what his ceiling is. I wouldn’t be foolish enough to put one on him at this age. Great player, he’s going to get a lot better.”
What sparked Laine earlier this year was a move down the pecking order. Laine spent time a brief period on the fourth line before he was inserted on Adam Lowry‘s line as Maurice tried to stoke a fire.
It worked, with Laine finding adding some directness to his game and instilling in him the value of hard work in his own zone. From there, he was back on Little’s line, equipped with a new perspective, and it was off to the races.
Perhaps that’s what needs to happen again.
Maurice might say that Laine is getting better, but the eye test on some nights — arguably many lately — has shown a lethargic player struggling to find his way to the surface. His partnership with Little, despite some instances of brilliance, hasn’t formed the consistent chemistry wanted. One issue is the team has two other lines it would like to keep together, and the fourth line doesn’t see the minutes that Laine should be playing.
Laine hasn’t been demoted during this spell, suggesting that Maurice is OK for the moment with having his sniper working within himself to sort out his issues.
“He’s just maturing, just getting older, being able to weather the times when you’re not putting the puck in the net,” Maurice said. “One of the positives is he doesn’t have to carry the weight of the team, that if he doesn’t score we can’t win. In the stretches where he hasn’t scored a lot, recently, we’re starting to see some real good improvements in his game, five-on-five. And that’s what we’re looking to do.”
Indeed, as good as Laine is, he isn’t tasked with carrying the team — in scoring or otherwise. It’s a luxury that Winnipeg has built over the years. They’re a team that’s deep enough to find scoring from all lines and can live without one of its top goal-getters not scoring for a while.
“If you’ve got a kid that can buy the hockey team time to teach and play him, that’s a real positive,” Maurice said.
John Walton (play-by-play) and Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will call Jets-Wild from Xcel Energy Center. Tappen, Milbury and Jeremy Roenick will anchor studio coverage.