It was the question we've been waiting months to ask Patrik Laine. And the first crack at it fell to yours truly on Monday, with the Winnipeg Jets reversing course and forcing the disgruntled 22-year-old Finnish sniper to face the media after previously saying he wouldn't be available until later in training camp.
Rather than pour water on the burning notion he wants a one-way ticket out of town, Laine essentially dumped some gasoline and lit a match.
"Well, I’m here aren’t I?" he said in reply to my query about whether he stands by his agent, Mike Liut, saying earlier this off-season that a change of scenery would be "mutually beneficial" for all parties.
From the guy who once uttered "Winnipeg is Good," which caught on like a wildfire and was plastered on T-shirts, posters and memes, the rather curt and cold reply doesn't exactly elicit the same marketing opportunities or feel-good vibes about his long-term future, does it?
"I’m not in charge of what other people are saying. I don’t worry about that stuff. Even Wayne Gretzky got traded. People get traded all the time. It’s part of the game you need to be aware of," Laine continued.
Of course, those "other people" aren't just anonymous trolls on social media you could easily shrug off, but his very own representatives who opted to go public with their request. Which is why this has become such a big deal. As the questions kept coming, Laine was trying his best to stickhandle around them, something that doesn't come easy for a guy who is known as a straight shooter.
“Well, I’m here aren’t I?" ‐ Patrik laine on whether he stands by his agent, Mike Liut, after saying a change of scenery would be "mutually beneficial" for all parties
Why would Liut say a thing? Why would another hockey home lead to a better fit?
"I didn’t say it. I’m just here. I just want to play. I’m just worried about working hard, doing my job, which is trying to be the best player I can be. And 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’m here. I’m excited to play and that’s the only thing I care about, honestly," Laine replied.
That excitement may have waned a bit once he saw where he was pencilled into the lineup for the first day of on-ice sessions, which probably felt like taking one of his own famous one-timers to the groin.
Laine has long expressed a desire to be the team's No. 1 right-winger and skate on a line with No. 1 centre Mark Scheifele. I'm on record as saying he should be there. So it was noteworthy that he was in his familiar second-line slot Monday, with the reacquired Paul Stastny along with a new addition, Kyle Connor. His usual other winger, good buddy Nikolaj Ehlers, was bumped up to play with Scheifele and his mainstay, Jets captain Blake Wheeler, on the top trio.
Laine and Wheeler don't often see eye to eye, especially with their vastly different approaches to their profession. Laine is the laid-back, easy-going guy who loves his video games, while Wheeler is the intense, laser-focused veteran who eats, breathes and sleeps the game. The fact Wheeler may be perceived by Laine as standing in the way of the spot he desires likely doesn't help matters.
Wheeler, naturally, was asked for his take on the situation. He laid the praise on extra thick, about Laine being a great player and wanting the best for him. Whether he truly thinks that is another matter entirely, which is why I'd suggest taking it all with a giant grain of salt. We've heard the same song and dance around here before with regards to other players who wanted out, such as Evander Kane and Jacob Trouba.
Make no mistake: Laine definitely wants out. Monday's fascinating 15-minute availability only re-enforced that. But excruciatingly patient Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff isn't just going to give him away, and he's still three years away from being able to walk as an unrestricted free agent.
Laine definitely wants out. Monday's fascinating 15–minute availability only re–enforced that. But excruciatingly patient Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff isn't just going to give him away, and he's still three years away from being able to walk as an unrestricted free agent.
As much as he might not like it, Laine may be here for a while. Laine repeatedly stressed he wants his play this year to do most of the talking. And given that he'll be a restricted free agent with arbitration rights next summer, you think he'd be motivated to earn himself a lofty new contract. He had great chemistry in the past with Stastny, and Connor is an elite NHL scorer, so the opportunity should be there, even if it's not the one he believes he's entitled to.
"I think 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. Obviously, Paul's going to help me with that, KC on the other side, I think we can do something really, really good this year," said Laine.
Jets head coach Paul Maurice, likely in a similar public attempt to calm the waters, claimed Laine's effort on Monday was "as good as I've ever seen him practise."
"So I’ll judge that. He’s here, he’s in a good mood, he was fun to watch and we had a heavy practice, with hard even-strength drills. He’s committed. He’s committed to being a great player and that’s almost the only thing I weigh," said Maurice.
"Everything else is... sometimes innuendo, sometimes it might be his agent said this. You see it quite often, so we get into these situations and the first thing that I do is I watch him on the first day on the ice. And he looked good. So, I’m happy he’s here and I’m really, really impressed with his day."
Keep pouring that salt shaker, folks. But what else is the coach really going to say right now?
For those worried this whole thing might become a three-ring circus, following the club around to every Canadian market this winter, Laine and his teammates insisted that won't be the case. The Jets certainly helped the cause by having him address the elephant in the room Monday, rather than kicking it down the road, which was the original plan, which will at least shift the focus back to the on-ice product for the time being.
"I think that 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," said Wheeler.
"This is the nature of big business and NHL and pro sports. We're not alone in this and trade rumours and high-profile players, and with a flat salary cap, I think these things are just going to continue to happen. I think we're in a better position today with Patrik Laine on our hockey team and I think we'll just leave it at that."
All for one and one for all? Based on how Monday played out, I'd say good luck with all of that. It's going to be fascinating to watch, that's for sure.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.