Winnipeg Jets fans, stuck at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic without the ability to vent to their pals at the local pub, exploded with rage and sorrow Saturday over news on the NHL transaction wire.
Patrik Laine is a Columbus Blue Jacket, leaving the Jets faithful with many cold months to conduct a virtual post-mortem on what went so terribly wrong.
Laine was supposed to be the face of the franchise for the next decade. A second-overall pick in 2016, the Finnish power forward has size, speed, hands of silk and a personality the size of a prairie sky.
Now he’s gone.
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Given Laine’s massive upside — and the fear he invokes in opponents given his ability to take over a game — you can forgive Winnipeg fans for focusing on what they’ve lost as opposed to what’s coming the other way.
“I won’t lie, it’s kind of sad,” Winnipeg captain Blake Wheeler said after news broke of Laine and disgruntled forward Jack Roslovic heading to Columbus for equally disgruntled centre Pierre-Luc Dubois and a third-round draft pick. “I just rewind to four years ago and the excitement when we drafted Patty and the steps our organization has taken the last four years. He’s a big part of that,” Wheeler said.
“It’s disappointing to be having this conversation.”
Disappointing, for Jets supporters, is an understatement.
Devastating is more like it.
Laine, in the beginning, wanted to be in Winnipeg. He delivered with 36 goals as a rookie and 44 as a sophomore. In his third season, he scored 21 goals in the first month butfinished the campaign with 30 — a sign of turbulence to come for the burgeoning superstar.
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But he rebounded to collect 68 points in 63 games in the 2019-20 season. And in his last game as a Jet on Jan. 14 against Calgary, he was simply dominant with two goals, including the overtime winner, and an assist in a 4-3 Winnipeg victory.
So what went wrong? In the simplest terms, Laine wanted a bigger role, and he didn’t want to wait for prime time.
Sure, he jumped over the boards on the first power-play unit. But he grew tired of not playing on the first line, night in and night out.
Not one to hide his feelings, the relationship between player and employer deteriorated to the point to where Laine’s agent Mike Liut said publicly during the off-season that both sides would likely be better off if they parted ways.
Maurice shoulders blame
On Saturday, Jets head coach Paul Maurice shouldered the blame for a divorce no one imagined back on draft day in 2016.
“The environment that you’re trying to create for each player is for them to feel like they have the opportunity to be at their best,” Maurice said. “We were constantly trying to work on that, trying to constantly get to the point where Patrik appreciated who he was playing with and the opportunity he was given.
“It’s the head coach’s responsibility, so I’ll take all of that.”
Once the shock wears off, Jets fans will no doubt see the upside of this rare NHL blockbuster. Dubois will need to quarantine for two weeks due to health regulations, but his eventual presence will give Winnipeg impressive depth up the middle along with Mark Scheifele, Dubois, Paul Stastny, Adam Lowry and Nate Thompson. Laine will need to quarantine for at least seven days before suiting up for the Blue Jackets.
A third overall pick in 2016, Dubois collected 159 points in his first 239 games. His relationship with Columbus head coach John Tortorella broke down in explosive fashion, and the youngster wanted out.
Now he gets a fresh start on a team loaded with offensive talent — something he didn’t have in Columbus.
In truth, Winnipeg is likely better off without Laine given it seemed as though he no longer wanted to be there. The same holds true for Columbus. It’s tough in any relationship — or any environment — when one party badly wants out.
So often, hanging on hurts more than letting go.
“When I got to Winnipeg at 18 years old, I didn’t know what to expect,” Laine wrote Saturday in an Instagram post. “It became clear very quickly that this city loved hockey more than anything else. I couldn’t have asked for a more loyal, dedicated and passionate fanbase.”
For those fans, this one is going to hurt for a very long time.