By Kristina Rutherford in Winnipeg
By Kristina Rutherford in Winnipeg
Ice-cold for months, Patrik Laine needs to get back to putting pucks in nets or he risks sinking Winnipeg’s playoff chances and his long-term future with the Jets.

This seems as good a time as any to explore Patrik Laine’s penchant for sleepwalking and -talking. He’s sitting at a high table in an otherwise empty restaurant at ice level in Bell MTS Place, dressed in grey sweatpants and brown Ugg boots, a combination that actually looks cool on him. Laine has been chatting for half an hour already, about his childhood and Finland and goal-scoring and what these Winnipeg Jets are capable of. He’s straight-faced, even when he’s being funny, like when he insists he sees a lot of his teammates on off-days, though only “in the virtual world.” But when his tendency to wander while he’s dozing comes up, he smiles and his eyebrows shoot up. “Where’d you hear that?” he wonders. His love of video games is well known; his sleeping habits, not so much.

Laine can probably guess that the information comes courtesy of his friend, teammate and former roommate on the road, Nikolaj Ehlers. Laine has woken Ehlers up more than a few times sleep-talking in Finnish, a language Ehlers doesn’t understand a lick of. Laine has no idea what he’s talking about in his sleep, either, and doesn’t remember doing it. What he does remember is when he wakes up outside his bed, like at the 2016 World Junior Championship, when the tournament’s leading scorer found himself standing in a hotel hallway wearing only his underwear. Laine wasn’t alarmed, he swears, especially since he’d taken a pillow and blanket from his room. “But I had to pee and I didn’t have a key,” he explains. “I didn’t know what time it was.” He knocked on teammates’ doors. When nobody answered, he walked down to the front desk. It turned out it was the middle of the night. In his boxers and wrapped in that blanket, he got a new key and put himself back to bed. “I’ve had a few of those,” he admits.

Hey, nobody has ever said Patrik Laine is boring. This is, after all, the 20-year-old who has been thrilling fans since he entered the NHL at age 18. That season, the second-overall pick put up 36 goals, seventh-most in the NHL and behind only No. 1 pick Auston Matthews among rookies. He bettered Matthews and his first-year mark last season; his 44 goals ranked second overall, trailing only one of his idols, Alex Ovechkin. This season, he became just the fourth player in NHL history to put up three straight 30-goal seasons before the age of 21, joining Wayne Gretzky, Dale Hawerchuk and Jimmy Carson. Only three players in history hit the 100-goal mark younger than Laine did. There is no question: he is one of the most gifted goal-scorers hockey has ever seen.

But as Jets fans know well, this third NHL season has been his toughest yet, so much so that his long-term value has been called into question. Laine hit the 30-goal mark in game No. 76, late in March, and his scoring droughts have lasted as long as 15 games at a stretch. Incredibly, 60 per cent of Laine’s regular-season goals came in the month of November. Relative to his first two years in this league, his production has been streaky and cold, and as the Jets enter the post-season, one year removed from the run that saw them ousted three wins short of a trip to the Stanley Cup Final, they need their most exciting goal-scorer to get hot again. Laine has been working this season on becoming a more well-rounded player and, really, a guy this team can rely on at both ends of the ice when it matters most. It has no doubt cost him in the goal-scoring department. But if he can catch lightning in a bottle this post-season and go on one of his offensive runs, well — look out. This is Laine’s chance to remove any doubt that he’s one of the NHL’s brightest lights.

Laine's shot stops even pros in their tracks. "He shoots the puck and they can’t believe it," says Maurice.

The team could be up 6–0, young Patrik could have three or four goals already, and it wouldn’t change a thing — he’d still be looking for more. Laine was nine years old, playing with kids a year older in the youth system in his hometown of Tampere, Finland’s second-most populated city. His coach at the time, Olli Savikko, remembers working on technical aspects of the game with Laine, but mostly shooting. “Snap shot, wrist shot, backhand shot and, of course, a little bit of slap shot,” says Savikko, who coached Laine for two seasons. “The main thing was always how he can score. He was so focused on scoring — more than anyone else I have seen.”

If Laine didn’t meet his personal objective for goal-scoring during a game, you could tell. “He was very upset and he would show it, slamming the stick,” says Savikko. “I think he expects that he could score more than any other player.”

There was a good reason for that belief: He could. By the time Laine was 12 or 13, the popular thought among coaches and scouts in Finland was that if he could channel his mental energy in the right direction, he’d crack the NHL, no problem. Still, a lot of coaches and teammates and parents didn’t exactly like his playing style. “I think coaches are more focused on individuals nowadays than when I was growing up,” Laine explains, leaned forward in his restaurant chair, elbows on the table, a grey tuque covering his very straight and very blonde hair. “It was not cool back in the day if you were a different kind of player,” he continues. “It wasn’t, maybe, the best way to play. Everybody said you’re selfish if you just want to score and not pass the puck, but I felt like I was good at it, so I was just doing it. A lot of guys and coaches and parents didn’t like that, but it’s not my issue.”

Finland’s approach to hockey was starting to change right around that time, though. In 2009, a summit was held involving nearly 300 scouts, coaches, GMs and assorted hockey people to discuss the minor programs in the country, since not a single Finnish player had been selected in the first round in three straight NHL drafts. One of the key results of the meeting was the general agreement that, going forward, systems would be secondary to coaching individual skills.

Laine was 11 years old, then. Still, by the time he was a teenager, his approach to the game wasn’t what you’d call widespread. Kimmo Vaha-Ruohola, who coached Laine for four seasons beginning when he was 15, only started to see the culture change recently. “The very elite players, they are not like the masses here. They are often kind of egotistical, they have their own ways to work, and they think of themselves as individuals — here in Finland, that’s trouble,” Vaha-Ruohola says. “We go 10 years back, Patrik would for sure have been a player that would have been kicked out from a club, and he would go to the next club and they would try for a while and then say, ‘He’s trouble, he’s difficult. We can’t have guys like that in our club.’”

Laine wasn’t getting kicked off teams, but he was putting up with a fair bit of criticism. “Selfish,” he says, was one of the “nicer” terms he heard from coaches and teammates. “I was just that kind of kid who didn’t really care.” But if Laine had an ingrained way of shouldering external criticism, it didn’t work when the criticism came from inside.

By his teen years, Laine hadn’t yet figured out how to control his emotions when he wasn’t scoring. “He was a lot of work, let’s say it like that,” says Vaha-Ruohola. “You could see the talent and his will to score goals and shoot and win games, but at the same time, because the mental will to win and score was so big, he struggled a lot in his junior years with me when he couldn’t make it happen.”

Laine would return to the bench after a missed opportunity and explode, swearing and pounding his gloves against his pants in frustration. “Patrik couldn’t keep it inside,” Vaha-Ruohola says. The biggest and most public outburst came in 2014, when the 16-year-old flashed the middle finger at his national team coach (who didn’t see it then) and was sent home in the middle of the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament. “This was just the cherry on the cake,” Vaha-Ruohola explains, since Laine’s hot temper was already well known, and controlling it was a major focus with Tappara Tampere. The club team had Laine working with a psychologist, talking after almost every game, starting to learn tools to better handle his frustration. If he lost it on the bench, Vaha-Ruohola made Laine spend the rest of the game in the dressing room. “He always understood what he was doing is not acceptable,” says the coach, who’s now Tappara’s director of sports. “We talked a lot, went through things and made a plan, what he could do the next time to handle his emotions; how he could resolve it better. It took three or four years before he found a way.”

“There’s only a handful of guys like him on the planet.”

That way is still a work in progress. Laine is quiet in the dressing room most of the time today, teammates say, with more of a witty and dry sense of humour — he’ll crack jokes here and there. But when they do hear him — speaking in both Finnish and English — Laine is often loud. “It’ll be because he’s getting mad at himself, if he had an open net or missed a chance to score,” says centreman, Adam Lowry, who sits just a few stalls over from No. 29. “He’s pretty hard on himself in that sense.”

Vaha-Ruohola can see that Laine is still working on the mental side of the game, and the pair are still in touch about the growth needed in that department. Still, Laine has come a long, long way. “It’s a cliché, but he was the diamond in the rough — the Finnish diamond in the rough,” Vaha-Ruohola says. “He needed help and coaching to become the finest diamond in hockey. He’s still not quite ready. We will see in a couple of years how he can really play.”

Laine's standout offensive skill was frowned on growing up in Finland. "A lot of guys and coaches and parents didn’t like that, but it’s not my issue," he says.

It’s mid-December in Winnipeg, and Laine has 22 goals in 31 games, again trailing only Ovechkin for the league lead. Everyone in hockey is talking about what the future holds for him, on and off the ice, what his next contract might look like. At this moment, though, the big Finn is none too pleased, because he’s mired in a six-game drought. He’ll break it tomorrow in a 7–1 win over Philadelphia, and he’ll score again the next night against Chicago — proving his current prediction right: “I can play better.”

What Laine did in November is still very much top of mind in this Jets dressing room less than a month later. Laine scored 18 times in 12 games, with a pair of hat-tricks and a five-goal night against St. Louis. “I felt like every time I touched the puck, it kind of went in somehow,” he says of his demolition of the Blues. That’s exactly how it happened: Five Laine shots, five Laine goals.

“We were all talking in here, what are the odds of playing in a game where a guy on your team scores five goals?” Lowry says, remembering the conversation in the locker room on Nov. 25, the day after Laine lit up St. Louis. “It’s pretty slim. And then that got us talking about this one goal he scored in Florida — he came down the wing and he just snapped it and we were all saying that’s probably the best wrist shot we’ve ever seen live.”

“As he grows and fills into his body, he’s going to become that much more dominant, I think. He’s still such a young kid.”

Head coach Paul Maurice notices the reactions on the bench frequently when Laine lights the lamp. “It’s how it comes off his stick, the way the goals look. The numbers on the sheet you go, ‘Wow, that’s really good.’ But standing behind the bench and watching it happen is so unique,” Maurice says. “And it’s the players’ reaction sometimes, he shoots the puck and they can’t believe it. They have an appreciation even more than coaches or fans of what greatness is, because they live it every day.”

Maurice says he’s never coached a player who elicits so much fan excitement when he gets the puck in the offensive zone: “Anywhere in that end of the ice, there’s a chance that this thing is going to beat this guy. It’s kind of a built-in excitement in the game, whether he beats the guy or not.”

No Jets player can really put his finger on what it is that makes Laine’s delivery so effective. “If I could tell you, I think we’d all be doing it,” says Kyle Connor, Laine’s sometimes linemate, who had a career-high 34 goals this season. (Laine’s description of his shot doesn’t help answer the how: “It just comes naturally, so it feels easy,” he says). “There’s only a handful of guys like him on the planet,” Lowry points out, rattling off last names that need no firsts, “Stamkos, Kucherov, Ovechkin. There’s only a certain number of guys that have that lethal shot, and they don’t need a lot of time and space. He’s a unique individual. We want him to shoot the puck as much as he can.”

You can know Laine is armed with one of the best shots in the league, and still not quite understand it until you see it up close. Earlier this season, the Jets were doing a light off-day skate, and their practice goalie was in net. Laine crossed the blue line, got a pass, and one-timed it, top corner, like a rocket. “The goalie looks at his blocker and goes, ‘F—!’” Maurice says, laughing. “And I’m thinking, ‘Nobody stops that! And not the third guy, not you. Don’t take this so personally!’”

Laine gave the Jets plenty to celebrate early in the season, scoring 18 goals in 12 November games, including a five-goal outing against St. Louis.

Without that historic November, panic in Winnipeg would be sky-high. From Dec. 1 to the end of the season, Laine had nine goals — 204 players in the NHL managed more in that timeframe. In February, Jets fans were wondering about Laine’s trade value, and his value to their franchise going forward ahead of this summer, when he becomes a restricted free agent.

You can point to a couple factors when looking at Laine’s struggle to score at the rate to which he’s accustomed. First, he doesn’t seem to have a ton of chemistry with his usual centreman, Bryan Little, on Winnipeg’s second unit. Half of Laine’s goals came on the power-play this season, and after torching November, he had just four at even-strength. No doubt that’s hit him in the confidence department, and his shooting percentage this season was 12.1 per cent, compared to 18.3 in his sophomore year.

“I think everybody will remember who scored the goal, not who maybe passed it. It’s always fun to get points, but I like goals more than apples.”

Another factor, and likely the main culprit, is he’s starting to change his game. His first two seasons in the NHL, Laine was almost entirely focused on scoring, because, as Maurice puts it, “I didn’t treat him like everybody else.” The coach showed Laine very little video, didn’t punish him for defensive mistakes. “I didn’t want to change any part of his game because he could shoot and I wanted him finding the holes on his own — let him adapt his offensive game to our league without putting him on the bench because he didn’t get a puck out [or make] the right read,” Maurice says. “I didn’t take a potential 50-goal scorer and turn him into a 10-goal guy, we ran him like a 50-goal guy.”

This season is different. “We’re showing him more video because now he’s got the confidence to shoot,” Maurice says. “We’re kind of trying to round out the rest of his game.”

In other words, Laine is more counted on to be responsible defensively. He’s no stranger to giveaways and still learning how to win battles along the boards, but teammates say they’re seeing growth from the winger. “He was an 18-year-old playing in the league, so he’s had to learn on the fly a little bit,” says Blake Wheeler, who matched a career-high 91 points this season on Winnipeg’s top line. “A lot of guys, like myself, we learned those other parts of the game at different levels and came to the NHL a little bit more prepared for those aspects.”

Maurice didn't hold Laine accountable for defensive lapses in his first two seasons, giving him time to adapt his offence to the NHL without worrying about the 200-foot game too much.

Lowry has noticed Laine’s improved play away from the puck this year, and in areas other than goal-scoring. “I think you start to see other elements of his game,” the defensive specialist points out. “You look at some of the plays he made last year in the playoffs; he’s not just a goal-scorer, he’s got great vision. As he grows and fills into his body, he’s going to become that much more dominant, I think. He’s still such a young kid.”

And just like when he was an even younger kid developing the technical aspects of his game, Laine hasn’t stopped working, but the focus these days is no longer solely on the shot that’s already one of the best on the planet. “Everybody knows about his shot,” says Connor. “But it’s the details of the game [where] he wants to get better. That’s the biggest thing: He’s always working on little things in practice.”

Laine says top of mind is continuing to improve his overall game. “If I’m a better player, I’ll take that instead of being just as good a player as last year, but having more goals,” he says. “You can always be better. You can score more, you can play better defence, you can play better without the puck. Overall, you can always be a better player and that’s my focus. I just play hockey and you’ll get the goals and points when you play hard and play good defence.”

That, of course, doesn’t mean Laine’s a completely new player. “I care more about goals than assists,” he says. “I think everybody will remember who scored the goal, not who maybe passed it. It’s always fun to get points, but I like goals more than apples.” Nobody’s ever doubted that.

It’s a funny thing, teammates admit, to still be thinking of Laine in terms of his potential when he’s already put up three straight 30-goal seasons, when he had a career-high 44 as a second-year player, when he was named MVP of the world championships at the senior level at age 18, the same season he won world junior gold. Wheeler shakes his head, thinking of Laine’s ceiling. “He wants to learn, he works hard to try to get better and he wants to know those areas he can get better,” the captain says. “He’s receptive to advice and he’s got the ability to become a real dominant player. He’s a big guy, he’s got some weight to him, he bangs when he gets mad. He can be strong on the puck, but his game’s going to be predicated on how many times he can get into scoring areas and get that shot loose.

“That’s going to be his progression, is just figuring out how he can get two or three more [shot attempts] a game — and that’s a scary thought,” Wheeler adds, eyebrows up. “Just think about that.”

And if Laine can regain his scoring touch at this time of year? Well, just think about that.

Designed by Sasha Barkans. Edited by Evan Rosser.

Photo Credits

iStock, NASA, Gerry Thomas/Getty, Trevor Hagan/CP, Jae C. Hong/AP, Darryl Dyck/CP, John Woods/CP, Sean Kilpatrick/CP, David Zalubowski/AP; John Woods/CP; Heikki Saukkomaa/Lehtikuva via AP; Darryl Dyck/CP; Jae C. Hong/AP.