ANALYSIS: Laine leaves lasting legacy in Winnipeg

Talk about making a dramatic exit.

As the Patrik Laine era came to an end on Saturday morning with news of a blockbuster deal completed between the Winnipeg Jets and Columbus Blue Jackets, it didn’t take long to see it had struck a chord.

The reaction on social media was swift and many fans were not happy, to put it mildly.

A quick glance at my Twitter mentions revealed the type of vitriol that hasn’t been seen or heard around these parts since another Finnish star was traded by the Jets 25 years ago.

It’s a pretty safe bet that this won’t be a ‘Teemu Selanne to the Anaheim Ducks for Chad Kilger and Oleg Tverdovsky’ situation.

Read more:
Winnipeg Jets send Patrik Laine to Columbus Blue Jackets for Pierre-Luc Dubois

Pierre-Luc Dubois is already a much more established player than either of those two guys and chances are pretty good that the high-end centre won’t need much time to win Jets fans over.

But that’s a topic for another day — this is about giving Laine his due as he departs.

This wasn’t the way this story was supposed to end.

When the ping-pong ball landed the Jets’ way in the spring of 2016 at the NHL Draft Lottery, allowing the organization to move from sixth to second overall in the draft, it was a revelation.

With Auston Matthews always expected to go first overall to the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Jets knew they’d be getting a transformational player.

For a team with a roster that didn’t feature many natural goal scorers, having a chance to pick Laine literally felt like winning the lottery for Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff.

Laine brought a big personality to go with his goal-scoring talent.

He wasn’t afraid to take himself to task when he was struggling and he was quick to use humour, even if it was often in self-deprecating fashion.

The Finnish forward made an immediate impact as he entered the lineup as an 18-year-old, producing ample offence as he made the transition to the North American game.

By his second season, he was going neck-and-neck with childhood idol Alex Ovechkin for the Rocket Richard Trophy, finishing with 44 goals to the 49 scored by the Washington Capitals captain.

The sky was the limit and to project Laine could reach 50 goals the following season was not unreasonable.

Laine remained mostly on the second line and his production dipped to 30 goals and 50 points — still impressive raw numbers for most NHLers, but they represented a dramatic drop-off.

And the troubling thing was that Laine went through several lengthy dry spells, with 18 of his goals coming during the month of November, including a memorable hat trick in Helsinki during a Global Series trip to his homeland.

Last season, Laine took considerable strides when it came to his all-around game, raising his engagement level considerably while producing a career high in assists.

The only reason he didn’t hit 30 goals for a fourth consecutive time was due to the shortened season — and a dip to eight goals with the man-advantage.

Laine’s growth as a player was on display for all to see, but his place on the depth chart on the right side didn’t look like it was going to change as he prepared for his fifth season.

After getting the change of scenery he desired, hockey is the only thing on Pierre-Luc Dubois' mind as he prepares to join the Winnipeg Jets.

After getting the change of scenery he desired, hockey is the only thing on Pierre-Luc Dubois' mind as he prepares to join the Winnipeg Jets.

Associated Press / Jay LaPrete

News of his apparent discontent hit a new level during the off-season when Laine’s representatives went public with the declaration that it would be mutually beneficial for both parties for a change of scenery to be provided sooner than later.

What looked like it should be a lasting marriage was heading for divorce, it was only a matter of time –and for the Jets to find a return that was going to be palatable for them.

Laine arrived at training camp looking like a man on a mission.

He addressed the off-season chatter, didn’t deny the reports and made it abundantly clear he wasn’t going to be a distraction.

Laine backed up those words with action, delivering a dominant performance in the season opener against the Calgary Flames, chipping in a pair of impressive goals (including the overtime winner) and an assist in a 4-3 triumph.

Little did we know that it would be the last game Laine would play for the Jets, with an upper-body injury knocking him out of the next three contests before the trade was made.

This wasn’t the first time a high-profile Jets player had asked for a trade and it won’t be the last.

The NHL top three draft picks, left to right, Patrik Laine of the Winnipeg Jets, Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Pierre-Luc Dubois of the Columbus Blue Jackets pose for a photo at the NHL draft in Buffalo, N.Y., on Friday, June 24, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

The NHL top three draft picks, left to right, Patrik Laine of the Winnipeg Jets, Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Pierre-Luc Dubois of the Columbus Blue Jackets pose for a photo at the NHL draft in Buffalo, N.Y., on Friday, June 24, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

But it still raises the question: why didn’t things work out long-term between Laine and the Jets?

“I think that’s a tough one. It’s a tough question. I don’t really know,” said Laine. “Right now, I don’t even want to think about it. Just going to leave it behind me and take all the great memories I had with this team and my teammates with me and move on. I just think maybe that it wasn’t the right fit for me and the team.

“They have a lot of depth and a lot of great players, so I think it was just the team’s time and my time to move on. They’ve got a hell of a player in return, too, which he will be a good player for the Jets. I just think it was time for us to move on.”

Usage was at the heart of the issue, as Laine was looking for first-line minutes that haven’t been as readily available during his time in Winnipeg.

There were also whispers of personality conflicts, but it came as little surprise that Laine took the high road on his way out of town.

This is a place where he spent his formative years, growing as both a player and a person.

He leaves with positive memories, even if things went public and got a bit messy when it came to his departure.

The Blue Jackets are getting a talented and hard-working individual who is much closer to a finished product, but there is still some room to grow as he continues to work to reach his full potential as a power forward that fills the net on a frequent basis.

“Well, obviously, drafted by Winnipeg and spent just over four years here. It was a great place to play hockey,” said Laine. “Everyone knows how passionate the fans are and how loud the building gets. It was an awesome place to play hockey.

“Coming here four-and-a-half years ago as an 18-year-old, I think my game is night and day, the difference nowadays. Now, I’m 22 and I’ve been learning so much about the game, how to play the game and how to be a guy who wins his own battles.

“There’s a lot of things I still need to improve, but I think I’m on a good path. I had a good first game of the season, obviously missed the last three but I will be ready to take the next step with Columbus and it will be a big one.”

Read more:
Pierre-Luc Dubois not looking back after trade to Winnipeg Jets

Although Laine had prepared for the possibility he would be moving on, there were plenty of emotions to deal with as the news became official.

“You never know what to expect. There are always rumours going around the league,” said Laine. “But now finally when they let me know it was kind of a shock. I didn’t know what to do. I just had to say hi to everybody and some goodbyes, but I’ll see them in the corners next year, and hopefully in the playoffs.”

Laine wasn’t the only person taken aback by the news, judging by the emotion shown by Jets players that appeared on the Zoom calls after the trade went down.

“I found out like the other guys in there,” Nikolaj Ehlers said when asked what his initial reaction to the news was. “Me and (Laine) are ones that we always joke around. You guys know that. We always chirp each other. So there’s a little bit of joking, but we also know that we were roommates for three years.

“We’ve been really good friends for the last five years, so this is tough. This is not much fun. He’s a guy that I’m for sure going to miss a lot.”

There are plenty of people that are going to miss Laine, whether it’s for the highlight-reel moments he provided or the notebooks he filled with his quotes.

The Winnipeg Jets' Nikolaj Ehlers (27) and Patrik Laine (29) celebrate Laine's game-winning goal and hat trick during overtime against the Toronto Maple Leafs in NHL action in Winnipeg on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016.

The Winnipeg Jets' Nikolaj Ehlers (27) and Patrik Laine (29) celebrate Laine's game-winning goal and hat trick during overtime against the Toronto Maple Leafs in NHL action in Winnipeg on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016.

THE CANADIAN PRESS / John Woods

His tenure with the Jets ends up being much shorter than it should have been, but his time with the team is going to be celebrated for years to come.

In addition to the tribute video that will be played upon his return, Laine is going to find himself in rare company.

Unlike the other high-profile players who demanded trades, Laine isn’t in any danger of hearing a chorus of boos rain down on him.

He’s basically universally loved and has a better chance of receiving the Selanne treatment the next time the Blue Jackets come to town.

On Saturday’s Zoom session, Laine had this response when I asked him how he’d like to be remembered by Jets fans.

“Well, hopefully as a good guy. I’ve always tried to be myself and if somebody doesn’t like it, well, it’s too bad,” said Laine. “Just being myself, I was always myself with the media, with the fans, on the ice. So hopefully, they will have good things to say about me.

“I always tried to be a good guy and a good teammate. So, hopefully they’ll have some good memories of No. 29.”

 

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