How the Winnipeg Jets are trying to get Patrik Laine going

Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice doesn't know how to answer a Finnish reporter's question, but discusses the future plans of developing Patrik Laine into a power forward to go with his brilliant shot.

There is much to talk about with the Jets off to Finland this week for a two-game set with the Florida Panthers. Of course Patrik Laine tops that list.

Laine is front and centre back in his native Finland where he is hockey’s most popular player. I traveled to cover him before the 2016 World Cup and was blown away at how much attention he faced at that time. More than one person in the Finnish media and many people I met in the streets told me he was already the most famous person in the country before he’d played a shift in the NHL.

Laine has never shied away from that attention as long as I’ve covered him. Returning to Finland could be exactly what he needs to reclaim the torrid point production we have come to expect from him, but have yet to see this season.

Line-juggling Laine
A lot is being made of Laine’s trip up and down the Jets lineup. You don’t often see a natural goal scorer of his ilk on the fourth line so a move like that gets tongues wagging.

It looks as though the big Finn will start Winnipeg’s next game on the second line alongside Adam Lowry and Brandon Tanev. It’s not a move without risk. Lowry’s line has been a rock for the Jets this season, contributing offensively and often dominating the opposition’s best players. Adding a player who hasn’t been on top of his defensive game could upset the balance.

But the move makes a lot of sense. Laine has said in the past that speed is the key to getting out of a funk. He’ll have no choice but to up his tempo to keep up with Tanev and Lowry, who are the Jets’ pace-setters night in and night out.

Jets “struggles”
If you watched our pre-game show before the Oct. 24 Wednesday Night Hockey game between the Jets and Maple Leafs, you likely caught Elliotte Friedman referring to an interaction between myself and Paul Maurice.

I had asked the Jets coach about the team’s “struggles” when he stopped me to disagree with that characterization. He has a point — the Jets have remained near the top of the standings all season, so on paper the term “struggling” does not apply.

I should have stuck to the players’ voices. They used words like “frustration” and terms such as “searching for our identity” to describe their play. Blake Wheeler put it best when he said the team is “carrying a lot of weight and expectation and it’s inhibiting us from playing our game.”

Either way it’s Maurice’s job to slay the idea this team is somehow underperforming and have them focus on the positives.

We’ve seen this before.

Think back to January of 2015. The Jets were on their annual California road trip and had blown a 3-0 lead against the Kings, but pulled out a 5-4 shootout win in the end. The next night they were up two goals on Anaheim in the third period, but ended up losing in a shootout.

Following the game I asked Maurice about his team “blowing leads.” He said you don’t blow leads against teams like the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings and explained that sometimes you are up, sometimes you are down and sometimes the horn sounds. Clearly Maurice wanted his team focused on the fact they had just gone the distance with two tough teams, and not on their inability to hold a lead.

It’s the same strategy now. Focus on the positives and don’t dwell on the negatives. Maurice knows his current team is not served by lamenting their play, especially not when that play has them near the top of the standings.

Language matters
It was refreshing to hear Jets players acknowledge there was a little extra juice before their Wednesday night tilt last week against Toronto. I think it reflects growth in this team.

In the years I’ve covered the Jets the typical approach was “it’s just another game,” even when it clearly wasn’t. The Jets missed the playoffs in many of those years and I found myself on the post-season beat with other teams.

It always struck me that players from proven winners (eg. Chicago in 2015, Pittsburgh in 2016, 2017) usually went beyond those stock answers. They would admit to big games being just that. They would state the obvious — that heartbreaking defeats were tough losses and confidently claim they would be better the next game. Usually they were.

Those players from championship teams were comfortable in big moments and believed they could elevate their games when the situation required.

It made me think the Jets in those days blocked out the idea of “big games” because they didn’t know how they would respond in those moments, or even if they could. Things have changed. Last year the Jets proved to themselves that they can step up. It’s so much easier to speak with confidence when you know what to expect from yourself.

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