Unburdened by contract talks, Laine excelling on Jets’ top line

Winnipeg Jets sniper Patrik Laine explains a few reasons why he’s been a better fit on the top line with Wheeler and Scheifele this season, with the contract distraction clearly behind him.

Patrik Laine made headlines last month when he expressed his desire to play on the top line with Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler.

It looks like he got his wish, and it’s working out well for the Winnipeg Jets. So far, Laine has spent almost 40 per cent of his ice time alongside Scheifele and Wheeler as head coach Paul Maurice plays around with his line combinations early in the season, and the chemistry is already looking strong.

“With those two, you’re going to get the points when you work hard,” Laine told reporters Thursday, ahead of the Jets’ home opener against the Minnesota Wild. “Now I’ve seen it in these first four games, when you work hard every shift with those types of guys you’ll get points somehow. So I think the key has been to just work hard every shift, every day, try to get better and that’s something that’s helped me so far.”

Just four games into 2019-20, the Finnish winger already has six points. While that’s not entirely unexpected, considering Laine’s history of hot starts, this part is: five of those points are assists, not goals. (For comparison’s sake, he registered 20 assists total last season and his career-high in the category is 28 as a rookie.)

Laine’s best game was Tuesday against the Pittsburgh Penguins, a three-assist affair that saw him collaborate with Scheifele to set up goals from defencemen Ville Heinola, Tucker Poolman, and Neal Pionk. Laine’s lone goal on the season so far came off an assist from Wheeler one game prior.

Laine said his helper-heavy stat line doesn’t mark a shift in priorities — “I would still want more goals than assists,” he said — but it does show plenty of progress and lessons learned.

“Still learning, learning every day, something new,” he said. “Maybe last year I thought I was working hard, and now I feel like maybe I wasn’t as hard as I thought. I’m still 21. I’m still hopefully going to have a lot of games in this league and a lot of time to learn. But still, the quicker the better, so I’m going to try to learn from all the pros in this room and especially from my linemates.”

These lessons and new-look lineups could also prove lucrative for Laine’s bank account. Like many of his RFA peers, he opted to ink a short-term bridge deal and bet on himself for a bigger payday in the not-so-distant future. Laine’s two-year, $13.5-million pact is looking like a smart bet for the winger, who admitted Thursday that all that contract talk in 2018-19 may have gotten in the way of his play.

“I think last year I was just stressed about contract and all that kind of stuff,” Laine said. “So now it’s just, I have it in my pocket so now I can just play hockey and not worry about that.”

Laine struggled mightily through much of last season, tallying a career-low 30 goals and 50 points. When he scored, he scored in bunches — case in point: the entire month of November, which saw him tally 18 goals. But that was followed by cold stretch that spanned much of the season — he had just 12 goals over the rest of the year. He warmed up again late in the season down the stretch and had a strong showing to start the playoffs, and so far it looks like he’s carried that momentum into the new campaign.

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