'I'll be real good this year': Jets' Patrik Laine ready to shed last season's setbacks
'I'm super excited and happy to be here. My summer was way too long'
Patrik Laine missed all of training camp and pre-season action with the Winnipeg Jets but certainly not his confidence.
Meeting reporters on Monday for the first time since inking a new two-year contract with the Jets last week, the 21-year-old sniper said he expects big things from himself and the team this season.
"I know I'll be good for the next two years. I'm gonna score a lot of goals, that's for sure," he said. "I'm going to be betting on myself."
He was responding to a question about signing a shorter deal, compared teammates Kyle Connor (seven years) or Josh Morrissey (eight years).
Laine was asked if, coming off a disappointing year, that was a better option because he could boost his value substantially when the next round of negotiations come up.
"It doesn't matter if it's a two-year deal, eight-year deal, I still gotta be better," Laine said, adding, "I'll be real good this year."
Also missing from Laine are the struggles the Finnish star had with English when he broke into the NHL as an 18-year-old.
Where he once grasped for the proper phrasing, giving answers in broken words, Laine now speaks as smoothly as he skates, and easily cracks jokes.
"No questions? OK, thank you," he said, motioning to leave the podium just seconds after getting there.
<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Jets?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Jets</a> Kyle Connor, sporting longer locks since the end of last season, says he’s disappointed teammate Mathieu Perreault chopped his flow “but I like the ‘stache he’s got going.” <a href="https://t.co/PFwvzfKbdt">pic.twitter.com/PFwvzfKbdt</a>—@CBCManitoba
Lauding the play of Jets rookie and fellow Finn Ville Heinola, Laine said "I've seen some nice comments from him about me [in the media], so I always like nice comments."
Despite the massive improvements in his English, Laine still blames the language barrier for raising eyebrows earlier this month.
In a mid-September interview with a Finnish reporter, Laine expressed his dissatisfaction with the line combinations and opportunities he was getting last season with the Jets, saying other teams would have him on the top line with the best players, specifically a high-end centre.
Later in the week he phoned and apologized to Bryan Little, who centred Laine's line for the majority of the past three years.
"Were things misinterpreted?" Laine was asked.
"Yeah. I'm not going to try to explain it here," he said."It's something that happened and there was wrong conclusions."
If there is any friction in the room from those misunderstood comments, it's not apparent, he said.
"I'm happy to be here and I think everybody seems to be happy that I'm here. It's awesome to see my teammates, coaches, staff, everybody, [even] you guys," Laine said with a smirk to the reporters, then added, "Yeah, right."
"No, but I'm super excited and happy to be here. My summer was way too long."
'I love this team'
Kyle Connor, who also rejoined the team after getting a new deal on Saturday, told reporters he was "extremely excited" and wanted to thank the Jets "for that commitment and belief to me as a player and as a person."
He, along with his agent and the team looked at a number of options for contract lengths before settling on the seven years.
"Long term was definitely my preference. I wanted to be here, I love this team and the way it's going. That definitely played a big part of it," he said.
Connor was skating with his alma mater at the University of Michigan while the contract negotiations were underway and said he doesn't feel like it will take him long to get up to speed with the team.
"I'll go through the video and I'll try to catch up as much as I can these next couple of days but I've been through a couple training camps here now and I kind of get the gist of what we're doing," he said.
"I don't think it'll be too much of an adjustment. I'm ready to go, I'm ready to play."
Opportunities for young stars
Laine acknowledged the changes in the Jets from last season, having lost forward Brandon Tanev to free agency and trading Kevin Hayes, while also facing a big turnover on defence.
Jacob Trouba was dealt to the New York Rangers while Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot signed with new teams in free agency. Dustin Byfuglien has been grantd a leave of absence to deal with some personal matters and the team has no timeline for his return.
"There's a lot of big shoes to fill but I think our young guys are ready for the challenge. That's just the way it goes sometimes … but we just have so much talent on this team and guys who will step up and build their game," he said.
"Hopefully we'll go further than last year and I think we have a really good chance to do that."
One of those players he sees making a mark is Heinola, who Laine watched play in a couple of the pre-season games.
"He's had a really great [training] camp. I think he's been unreal as an 18-year-old," he said.
The teen needs a little more experience and some more muscle "but you can see from a guy if he's a really good player, and he is," Laine said.
But the one person he wants to see most improved is himself. After a blistering November last season, in which he scored 18 goals, Laine only managed another 12 the rest of the season.
His defensive play was also sub par as he finished last season in the plus-minus category with a –24.
"Everybody knows it was a tough year for me," he said. "It was pretty terrible. Gotta do better."
At the end of last season Laine revealed he played with a back injury for much of the year but on Monday he said he is 100 per cent healthy and ready to go when the team's season opens in New York on Thursday against the Rangers.
He has also been skating more this off-season than ever in the past, starting in July, just weeks after the season ended. And he was working with Swiss hockey club SC Bern this month while waiting for a deal to get done with the Jets.
Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said securing Laine and Connor will help the team move forward as it tries to leave behind the "difficult thing" that was last year's outcome — being eliminated in the first round of the playoffs
"That's in the past. We've got an exceptional group of veteran guys" and up-and-coming stars like Heinola and David Gustafsson, he said, expressing optimism anew.
"That's the bright future that is there. We've got a good hockey team here."
Cheveldayoff turned bristly, however, when faced with questions about Byfuglien's situation, saying it will remain status quo until the team makes an announcement.
As for injured centre Bryan Little, he hopes to get an update soon. Little went down in Sunday's preseason game against Minnesota after a high hit.
Cheveldayoff said he is also waiting to hear word from NHL "as to what their interpretation of that [hit] was."