National Post (National Edition)
Laine determined to play the game the superstar way
The plot thickens. It turns out Patrik Laine was not benched in a 3-2 overtime win over the Carolina Hurricanes earlier this week because of a defensive miscue or a general lack of effort — or simply because he looked at head coach John Tortorella the wrong way. It was, according to a report from the Columbus Dispatch, because of verbal altercation he had with one of the Blue Jackets' assistant coaches.
We don't know the full details. But it's not surprising.
After all, it's not the first time this has happened to Laine.
While Tortorella might have a reputation for being an old-school coach who uses every opportunity to let his players know who's boss, the 22-year-old Laine is the opposite.
He knows he's a superstar. And he's not afraid to let his coaches know it.
At the 2014 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament, he was kicked off the Finnish team for giving his coach the middle finger and reportedly threatening to punch his coach for not playing him enough in a quarter-final loss to the U.S.
The following year, Laine was “loaned” to a team in the Finnish second division after his club team, Tappara Tampere, grew tired of babysitting a player who lacked the emotional maturity to play against men. It was there that Laine feuded with his coaches, was frequently benched, and was even made a healthy scratch in a playoff game.
At one point, he threatened to quit hockey altogether.
Speaking with me years later for my book, The Next Ones: How McDavid, Matthews and a Group of Young
Guns Took Over the NHL, Laine admitted he could be a coach's nightmare because of his stubbornness and his mefirst attitude.
“There has been some times when I was younger where maybe the coach wants me to play like this, but I didn't feel like I kind of needed to, or I just wanted to play the way I wanted to play,” said Laine.
“If I tried to play my own way, I wasn't playing or I was sitting on the bench, or I wasn't even on the roster. There was a season where I played like five games, because I wasn't ready to play the games that he wanted me to play, but I think that's only a good thing because there are millions of guys who can be that player the coach wants them to be. But I didn't want to be that kind of player. I wanted to be my kind of player and develop that way.”
Some things apparently never change.
TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT
Knowing what we know about Laine and the real story behind his benching, can we still blame Tortorella for Mikko Koivu's retirement announcement on Tuesday? I can. Koivu, who had a goal and an assist in seven games, was a healthy scratch on Monday. It was believed to be the only time it's happened in his career … Best line about all the drama in Columbus goes to TSN's James Duthie, who called it the new binge-worthy Netflix series … As good as Toronto and Montreal have looked this season, it's still hard to tell if they've truly turned the corner without having played Tampa Bay or Boston. In other words, the playoffs are going to be an eye-opening experience once the conference finals begin … If I'm voting for the Hart Trophy today, Auston Matthews is at the top of my ballot, followed by Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. And I'm finding a spot for Matthews on my Selke Trophy ballot, as well … I don't know about the Patrice Bergeron comparisons, but the more I watch him, the more I think Nick Suzuki is going to find a way onto Team Canada's Olympic roster next year … World juniors MVP Trevor Zegras, who scored two goals and five points in his first two AHL games, is my pick for the Calder Trophy. I just don't know if he wins it this year or next.
HERE'S ONE FOR YOU
Tampa Bay, which won a Stanley Cup with Steven Stamkos playing less than three minutes in the post-season, is a league best 9-1-1 this year. Imagine what they're going to look like when Nikita Kucherov joins them for the playoffs … With Brian Burke now in Pittsburgh, how long before he adds sandpaper to the lineup by trading for Calgary's Sam Bennett? … Not surprised that the Penguins interviewed the NHL Network's Kevin Weekes for the job that ultimately went to Burke. I've gotten to know Weekes pretty well for the past decade and there are few in the business who think the game as well as he does … At the time, almost everyone said Montreal would regret trading P.K. Subban for Shea Weber because of how much older Weber was. Five years later, Weber has two goals and seven points and is almost certainly a lock to once again represent Canada at the 2022 Olympics, while Subban is on his second team and still searching for his first goal of the season … Buffalo's Jeff Skinner, who once scored 40 goals, hasn't scored in 10 games. But based on his play, I'm more shocked that Toronto's Ilya
Mikheyev had no goals in his first 13 games.
FOR WHAT IT'S WORTH
It's great that the Rangers, Islanders and Sabres have been cleared by the state of New York to allow fans in the building later this month. But it would be even greater if seven teams, including Buffalo, currently didn't have players on the COVID-19 list … With 14 points and a league-best six goals in 12 games, defenceman Jeff Petry is well on his way to having a breakout season. But for someone who was previously a career minus-116, the bigger stat is that he's leading the league with a plus-14 rating … I'm sorry, but until Tuesday's 3-2 win over the Senators, you're telling me the Oilers had gone more than three years (0-26-2) without winning a game where McDavid and Draisaitl both failed to land on the score sheet? Thirty games might not be a lot. But it still means that three free agency periods and three trade deadlines have gone by where Edmonton decided they didn't need secondary scoring — the kind of scoring that could have resulted in a few more playoff appearances … After 11 games, No. 1 overall pick Alexis Lafrenière has one goal and no assists, while Ottawa's No. 3 overall pick Tim Stützle has four goals and six points.
CAN PENGUINS WIN IT ALL WITH THIS CORE?
How do you open a window that's been closing for years?
This is the question that Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ron Hextall and president of hockey operations Burke have to be asking themselves today.
A chance to run the Penguins used to be the most enviable job in hockey. Now, with a cupboard that's completely bare of prospects and a core that's past its prime, it's arguably the most challenging.
This isn't the same team that won back-to-back titles in 2016 and 2017.
Sidney Crosby has nine points in 11 games. But at 33 years of age, he might not be one of the top 10 players in the league anymore. Evgeni Malkin, who has two goals this year, looks disinterested. The way that Kris Letang is playing, he might be two years away from retiring.
The defence is thin. The goaltending has the worst save percentage in the league. And beyond Crosby and Jake Guentzel, no one seems to be scoring.
As of Wednesday, the Penguins had the second-worst winning percentage in the East Division. Forget about Boston, Philadelphia and Washington. As it stands, the Devils, Islanders and even the Sabres are better than them.
So how do you keep the window open when it's practically closed? How do you avoid rebuilding? Can you avoid it?
The feeling is that Jim Rutherford resigned as GM a couple of weeks ago because he wanted to move on from Letang and/or Malkin, whose contracts both end in 2023. Those two players remain Pittsburgh biggest trade chips.
But if those are no longer options, what else do Hextall and Burke have to work with?
What has gone wrong in Vancouver these days?
The Canucks have lost five games in a row by a combined score of 26-10. They haven't looked like the team that was a win away from reaching the conference final
five months ago. They don't even look like they'll make the playoffs in the crowded and competitive North Division.
But don't blame head coach Travis Green or even GM Jim Benning.
Neither is the problem. Instead, blame a roster that probably exceeded expectations last year and is now going through a sophomore slump. This is a young team. And like all young teams, there are going to be highs and lows and everything in between — especially in a season where you're playing Montreal and Toronto five times in an eightgame span.
That it's happening for the whole country to see is disappointing — and perhaps, embarrassing. But it's not totally unexpected.
It's easy to forget that Edmonton went to the second round in Connor McDavid's second year, but then missed the playoffs in each of the next three seasons. Or that Johnny Gaudreau's first six years in Calgary have resembled an electrocardiogram. Even the Maple Leafs, who have yet to win a playoff round, are finding it difficult to take that next step.
The Canucks aren't a finished product. Not even close.
Whether it's Quinn Hughes learning how to defend against the top players in the league or Elias Pettersson learning how to deal with the frustrations of having every single shot ring off the post, the kids are still growing, still developing, and still figuring out how to play consistent hockey.
Blame Benning all you want for failing to keep around Jacob Markstrom, Chris Tanev and Tyler Toffoli. Or blame Green for not getting the most out of this roster, which is counting on rookies like Nils Hoglander and Olli Juolevi more than anyone thought.
But the thing Vancouver needs most right now is not a coaching change or a different set of players. It's patience.