WINNIPEG — Patrik Laine didn’t double down and stoke the fire, nor did he pour cold water over the trade rumour flames that have been swirling around him since the offseason.
As the Winnipeg Jets hit the ice for the first session of training camp, Laine was under the spotlight as he spoke to reporters for the first time since his team was eliminated from its qualifying round series against the Calgary Flames.
Laine did some tip-toeing when members of the media tried to pin him down on the subject that has been generating interest for several months.
After a few queries didn’t produce any clarity, a more direct question was posed.
Did Laine actually ask for a trade, and does he still want to be moved?
“That’s not something I think about. I only care about what’s going on today. I don’t worry about tomorrow,” Laine said. “Right now I’m here. I’m excited to play. I’m in good shape. I’m going to be a new player this year. And (I) just want to play well. That’s going to be best for both parties. What happens in the future, that’s not even my call. I'm going to work hard every night and that’s all I can do.”
That certainly wasn’t close to an outright denial, nor was it necessarily a sign of trouble brewing, either.
Of course, the subject of potentially seeking greener pastures is a topic most players prefer to avoid speaking about publicly.
But good on Laine to acknowledge the reality of the situation.
This is a business and sometimes changes get made — even with high-profile players.
“Even Wayne Gretzky got traded,” Laine said. “People get traded all the time. It’s part of the game you need to be aware of. It’s part of the business side. I’m just here. I just want to play. I’m not worried about all the talk and all the speculation, that kind of stuff. It’s not my job to worry about that.
“I think we’re way past that as a team. We’ve had those kinds of situations before and we’re way past that and we’re just going to worry about right now, worry about where we can improve as a team, what we want to do as a team. We’re not going to let that be a distraction. I don’t want to be a distraction.”
Because he is driven to become a better player and help his team succeed, Laine can make good on that proclamation.
Laine skated alongside Paul Stastny and Kyle Connor on Monday, while Mark Scheifele was between captain Blake Wheeler and Nikolaj Ehlers, as the Jets tested out some new combinations.
One of the reasons Stastny was acquired from the Vegas Golden Knights was to provide a pass-first, left-handed shooting option down the middle that can help Laine flourish.
“I don’t know, my job is to help whoever I play with. I’ve never asked to play with anybody in my career. Whatever the coaches think to slot me with certain guys,” Stastny said. “Here, the top nine is pretty legit, there’s a lot of different combinations you can work with and different things. The biggest thing is whoever you have chemistry with you just go out there and you work for each other. For me, you play with a lot of shooters on this team and that’s really nice to have. As someone who likes to distribute the puck and find the open guy, it’s really easy for me. I enjoy it.”
Wheeler went out of his way to praise Laine, while suggesting the situation might not be as dire as it’s being portrayed in some circles.
"What gets talked about in the media and what gets talked about in our dressing room are definitely two different things,” Wheeler said. “Since Patty's been here, we've become a contending hockey team every year. I think from a teammate's standpoint, I want what's best for Patty since the day he's gotten here. I want Patty to lead the league in goals. I want all the things that are within his capabilities. That's what I want for him. But first and foremost, I think we want all those things in conjunction with our team having success. Sometimes when there's rumours, when there's things talked about (with) individual players, it gets lost that the team gets put first in front of all those things. I think we're all in the same boat here that we're trying to win hockey games, and Patty's a big part of that and we're obviously lucky to have him here.
“We need to operate and think about everything that we do is in the best interest of us as a team. Does losing Patrik Laine make us a better team? Probably not. So it's unfortunate that things happen and maybe sometimes you're in a small Canadian market and there's nothing else really to talk about other than things of this nature.
"The position that we're in is one that we can have a really special year. That's where our focus is: on the amount of talent that we have on our team, how do we deploy that in the best way to get the most out of everyone so that we can be effective every game. Not too long ago, this team was knocking on the door for a Stanley Cup. This is the nature of big business and NHL and pro sports. We're not alone in this and trade rumors and high-profile players, and with a flat salary cap, these things are just going to continue to happen. We're in a better position today with Patrik Laine on our hockey team and I think we'll just leave it at that.”
Jets head coach Paul Maurice is no stranger to dealing with situations like this one, and he didn’t seem overly concerned about it.
Especially not after the way Laine handled himself on Day 1 of training camp.
“You see a lot of young players, it seems, these days where it gets out there and it may not be directly from the player, but the hint or the insinuation is that it might be time for a change, a different role, a different opportunity,” Maurice said. “I don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about it, to be honest with you. We have conversations with the player, but I find it’s far more valuable just to watch. He’s committed to being a great player and that’s almost the only thing I weigh.”
This storyline is likely to have a few twists and turns before it reaches its conclusion.
Laine has a clear picture of what the next step in his development curve looks like — and that’s either going to boost his stock in nailing down his next contract or increase his trade value as he looks for another opportunity elsewhere.
“I’m on a good path,” Laine said. “I can even be better defensively. I took some good steps last year. I think I've been kind of improving every year. (I'm not) an 18-year-old anymore, so I can't go behind that anymore. Just try to be even more defensively responsible and just do my job.
“I can't do anybody else's job out there. It's just about being worried about my position and what I can do better. Hopefully other guys can follow, and try to be an example on the ice, how to play."
Laine brought out his trademark humour when asked what was a reasonable expectation for goals scored during this 56-game truncated season.
“We'll see. I don't know. Hopefully start with one and kind of go from there. But hopefully more than one,” said Laine, who echoed the sentiments of Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff that this could be his best season yet. “Yeah, I always think it's realistic. You can always have the best year of your career. You always want to have a good season.
“The most pressure is coming from myself, from inside of me, to want to be the best. That's the thing that pushes me forward every day.”