Laine’s de­fen­sive blues on show­case

Sniper can’t re-cre­ate five-goal magic in tight bat­tle against divi­sion ri­val

Winnipeg Free Press - - I JETS SPORTS - JA­SON BELL ja­[email protected]­ress.mb.ca Twit­ter: @WFPJa­sonBell

WIN­NIPEG winger Pa­trik Laine KO’d the St. Louis Blues with a fist­ful of goals the last time the Jets faced their Cen­tral Divi­sion ri­vals, yet one of the game’s pure snipers says he’s heav­ily fo­cused on preven­tion.

That’s pos­i­tive news for the Jets, who re­quire some de­fen­sive ac­count­abil­ity from the 20-year-old Finn, par­tic­u­larly dur­ing those in­evitable stretches when his stick cools off.

Laine has made scor­ing look easy since he pumped in a goal against the Carolina Hur­ri­canes in his NHL de­but with Win­nipeg on Oct. 13, 2017, fin­ish­ing with 36 dur­ing his rookie cam­paign, up­ping his to­tal to 44 in his sopho­more sea­son and blast­ing 21 more this year — in­clud­ing a fran­chise-record five last week in St. Louis — to grab a share of the league’s goal-scor­ing lead prior to Fri­day’s play.

He’s also demon­strated dur­ing his brief North Amer­i­can pro ca­reer with — some reg­u­lar­ity — that the de­fen­sive el­e­ments of his game need en­hance­ments. Nearly as of­ten as he’s made high­light reels with his rapid-fire releases, he’s been caught on cam­era cough­ing up the puck in his own end ei­ther be­cause of an ill-ad­vised pass or his weak­ness along the wall.

Head­ing into Fri­day’s con­test, Laine was a team-worst mi­nus-six through 27 games, one of the few NHL stats no elite player wants to own. So, his ef­forts to up­grade his work in­side the Jets blue line per­sists.

“I could be bet­ter. When I was scor­ing I don’t think I was play­ing the best hockey. The goals and the points are not al­ways telling the whole story but, ob­vi­ously, as a sec­ond-line, first pow­erplay guy you want to get points. That’s what ev­ery­body’s ex­pect­ing from you,” Laine said Fri­day, fol­low­ing the Jets morn­ing skate. “The over­all (game) is more im­por­tant and that’s kind of what I’ve been work­ing on. I think it’s get­ting bet­ter but there’s still lots of room to im­prove

“Just kind of play­ing mostly bet­ter de­fence, not los­ing the puck on the half-wall ev­ery time and try­ing to make plays and, ob­vi­ously, if the play’s not there you gotta put it in or chip it out.”

Win­nipeg head coach Paul Mau­rice said he’s got a higher tol­er­ance level for gaffes Laine might make given what the star winger ac­com­plishes in the of­fen­sive zone. But he’s en­cour­aged by what he’s seen lately of the 6-5, 205-pound winger’s de­fen­sive game.

“Some of it is just ex­pe­ri­ence. When you get the puck along the wall in the NHL, that’s a whole lot dif­fer­ent than any other league he’s ever been at... that puck gets turned over in the NHL, it’s go­ing to your net that fast,” Mau­rice said. “What he’s learned now is all the value in the game out­side of scor­ing goals. We will al­ways value goal scor­ing with Patty first. Forgive isn’t the right word, but I’ll take that tal­ent over his abil­ity to get the puck out all day long, which means we’ll live with it some time.

“In his last week of hockey, I agree with him he’s more phys­i­cal, he’s play­ing like a power for­ward, he’s hang­ing onto pucks, he’s play­ing de­fence and he’s still get­ting his shots.” ●●●

Fri­day’s con­test of­fered de­fence­man Sami Niku an­other op­por­tu­nity to strut his stuff, suit­ing up in his fifth-straight con­test and part­ner­ing with Ja­cob Trouba against the Blues.

Josh Morrissey (lower body), a late scratch Tues­day in Brook­lyn against the New York Is­lan­ders, is near­ing a re­turn but was held out against the Blues. He’ll likely suit up Sun­day against the Philadel­phia Fly­ers in Win­nipeg’s sec­ond of four straight at Bell MTS Place.

Niku was point­less in his first four games since he was re­called from the AHL’s Man­i­toba Moose and pressed into duty with the rash of in­juries to Win­nipeg’s back end. The 22-year-old Finn looked out of place in his first two tests (Chicago and New Jersey) but was re­li­able against the Rangers in a lim­ited role and then had a ter­rific game paired with Trouba against the Is­lan­ders, play­ing nearly 20 min­utes.

“We re­ally liked his last game. (As) the left (de­fence­man) there, the two of them played to­gether and that was Sami’s best per­for­mance as a Jet,” said Mau­rice. “I felt he de­served to go back in. I was pleased with his game.”

Niku, slightly built but a bril­liant skater who’s shifty with the puck, has worked to clean things up in his own end along­side Trouba and has moved the puck up quickly and ef­fec­tively, while keep­ing his risk-tak­ing to a min­i­mum since his pro­mo­tion to the NHL last month.

Mau­rice has been im­pressed with the no­tice­able pro­gres­sion.

“It’s not fair to re­late this young man to Josh Morrissey but in some ways when they came into pro hockey they came in the same way, very highly skilled of­fen­sive de­fence­men. The thing that turned the cor­ner for Josh that led to maybe him be­com­ing a dif­fer­ent type of player was speed... aware­ness of how and when to how to use it,” he said. “For Sami, it’s an aware­ness that you have to use more all the time. We saw him skate in a dif­fer­ent way (against the Is­lan­ders) and that is a driver for all parts of his game.”

A re­cu­per­ated Morrissey likely means Niku be­comes the club’s sev­enth de­fence­man, at least un­til Joe Morrow is well enough to come off the in­jured-re­serve (IR) list. Morrow had a skate Fri­day morn­ing be­fore the main group but there’s no timetable on his re­turn.

De­pend­able for­ward An­drew Copp (con­cus­sion symp­toms) skated early with Morrow and re­mains on IR.

●●●

St. Louis has its own share of wounded play­ers, al­though Alex Steen (con­cus­sion symp­toms) made his way back into the lineup in his home­town.

The 14-year vet­eran and son of Jets 1.0 great Thomas Steen was side­lined for two games af­ter tak­ing a high from Colorado’s Erik Johnson last Fri­day. That was just Steen’s sec­ond game back af­ter miss­ing six with a con­cus­sion suf­fered Nov. 14 in Chicago.

The 34-year-old winger, in his first con­ver­sa­tion with the me­dia in some time, chose not to dis­cuss the el­bow to the chin he took from the Avalanche de­fence­man, who was tossed from the game but faced no sup­ple­men­tal dis­ci­pline from the league.

“It’s part of the game. Things hap­pen,” said Steen, who had six goals and five as­sists in 18 games prior to Fri­day.

“We’ve got a good (med­i­cal) staff and I worked through some things. But I’m feel­ing much bet­ter. When you’re out, you have that itch to get back the whole time.”

The Blues were with­out for­wards Jaden Schwartz (undis­closed), Robby Fab­bri (shoul­der) and blue-lin­ers Alex Pi­etrangelo (hand), Carl Gun­nars­son (up­per body).

PHO­TOS BY PHIL HOS­SACK / WIN­NIPEG FREE PRESS

Smooth-skat­ing Jets rookie de­fence­man Sami Niku slips past Tyler Bozak Fri­day night at Bell MTS Place.

Win­nipeg Jets winger Kyle Con­nor slaps at a re­bound.

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