Laine’s defensive blues on showcase
Sniper can’t re-create five-goal magic in tight battle against division rival
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).
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.