Jets, Laine have no concerns about sniper’s lack of production

Hockey Central insider Chris Johnston joins Caroline Cameron to update the William Nylander contract saga with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the pending free agents of the Winnipeg Jets and more.

WINNIPEG – This is how you know Patrik Laine’s third tour around the NHL should be even smoother than the first two.

There is a healthy dose of perspective in how he views the early days of a new season. Laine may enter Wednesday’s much-hyped Winnipeg-Toronto game sitting seven goals behind Auston Matthews – and five back of Alex Ovechkin – but he spoke with a well-earned confidence when that topic was broached in the lead-up.

"Obviously I’m watching a lot of games so I kind of know what’s going on. But that’s something I don’t want to focus on because, well, obviously everybody knows I haven’t scored much," Laine said after Tuesday’s Jets practice. "That’s the only thing I’ve got to worry about: The way I play and not worry about whether other guys are scoring many goals. Because if I start thinking like that, it’s only going to go the wrong way, so I’ve just got to worry about my game and where it’s going."

Remember that this is coming from a sniper who is notoriously hard on himself when the puck isn’t bouncing in his favour.

Scoring is like oxygen for the 20-year-old Finn, but he seems to be breathing just fine after having only three power-play goals to show for the first nine games. Laine feels like his breakthrough is coming at even strength, especially after getting bumped up to a spot alongside Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler in the lineup.

"I would think any player that gets to play left wing on that line wakes up in a pretty good mood, right?" said Jets coach Paul Maurice.

Consider how well things went in just one period of work together on Monday: The Laine-Scheifele-Wheeler trio absolutely dominated the St. Louis Blues with a 16-2 advantage in even-strength shot attempts, 6-0 edge in shots on net and 1-0 lead in goals.

"It was awesome. Those two are [among] the best players in the league," said Laine. "It’s a great opportunity for me. If you want to play with those guys and keep up with those guys, you’ve got to push your limits every day. That’s only a good thing for me and hopefully I can stay on that line and bring something positive, maybe positive energy to that line and stay out of their way."

The Jets certainly have no concerns about his production. Only Ovechkin (90) and Matthews (84) have scored more than Laine’s 83 goals since he entered the NHL in 2016-17, and he won’t celebrate his 21st birthday until just before the playoffs.

What the coaching staff has asked the six-foot-five winger to do is focus on using his size to help his line control the puck. They’ve liked the early returns.

"He’s worked hard at that," said Maurice.

Laine has spoken openly in the past about his desire to challenge for the Rocket Richard Trophy. He’ll be in the mix if he can continue averaging four shots on goal per game – among the NHL’s best – especially once regression kicks in on his 8.3 per cent shooting percentage.

Matthews (32.3 per cent) and Ovechkin (23.5 per cent) are also due to see their luck change in a less positive way.

"I’m not going to get frustrated when I’m getting chances," said Laine. "I’m going to start worrying about it when I’m not getting any shots and not getting any chances. I know eventually when you work hard every night, every shift, you’re going to get rewarded at some point. I’m just trying to do that."

Laine is growing wiser with experience.

He seems increasingly comfortable speaking with reporters in English and no longer bristles at questions about Matthews, with whom he may never completely escape comparison since they were taken Nos. 1 and 2 in the 2016 draft.

"I think [the hype is] kind of the same, especially because we both had pretty good two first years and now playing against each other again," he said. "I think it’s going to be the same every year. It’s always exciting to play against good players and good teams."

Another big experience awaits him next week.

After the Jets visit Toronto at Scotiabank Arena on Saturday night, they’re chartering to Finland for a pair of games against Aleksander Barkov and the Florida Panthers in Helsinki.

Laine and Barkov are the biggest hockey stars in their homeland. In fact, Laine says it’s become increasingly difficult for him to walk the streets during the summer because he’s bombarded by requests for selfies and autographs.

"I just stay in," he said.

His phone is already blowing up ahead of the games at Hartwall Arena with requests for tickets and the like. But he’s found an effective strategy for focusing on the task at hand.

"I’m not answering," said Laine. "There’s a lot of stuff going on for sure, a lot of stuff we need to do from the NHL with Barkov and hopefully there’s still going to be some free time I can see friends and family.

"It’s going to be a tight schedule, for sure, but we knew that it was going to be like this and I’m just going to enjoy it."

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