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Laine's desire to play on Jets' top line understood by teammates, coach

Wheeler says it's 'great trait' after restricted free agent voices concern

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / Staff Writer

WINNIPEG -- Patrik Laine told a Finnish newspaper he would like to play on the top line with the Winnipeg Jets, a sentiment the restricted free agent's coach and teammates said they understand.

"When I'm negotiating a new contract, I always want to know who I'll be playing with," the forward said in comments published Tuesday by Iltalehti. "With my merits, I would play with the best elsewhere. Everybody who understands something about hockey knows that.

"There are the top lines and then there has been our line. I'll play with whomever I'm told to."

When told of Laine's comments, Jets captain Blake Wheeler said he can relate to what the 21-year-old is going through.  

"Regardless if it's [Laine] or anyone else, there's always going to be some [frustration] ... that's the nature of sports," Wheeler said. "You always want more ice time. You always want the opportunity to play with different players or play on the power play. We're pretty spoiled in this league.

"… He's a young kid that's certainly had a lot of success in three years. He's definitely not doing it by himself, I can guarantee you that. It's a great trait to have, to want more, to want more ice time, playing time, so I would say those are all good things, man. You want guys that are hungry for more, not content with where he's at."

Laine frequently played on the second line with center Bryan Little and Nikolaj Ehlers last season, though not exclusively. He also had stretches on the top line with Wheeler and center Mark Scheifele.

Laine, who has missed the first five days of training camp, is training with SC Bern in Switzerland. Jets forward Kyle Connor, another restricted free agent, also has missed the start of training camp.

Laine, selected No. 2 by Winnipeg in the 2016 NHL Draft, had 50 points (30 goals, 20 assists) in 82 games last season and has 110 goals in his first three NHL seasons. The Jets finished second in the Central Division the past two seasons and advanced to the Western Conference Final in 2018 before losing to the Vegas Golden Knights.

Video: What Patrik Laine needs to do to get back on track

"He's a guy that has certainly had a huge part in what we've done here and helped get us to the point where we can be talked about as being a Stanley Cup contender," Wheeler said. "Maybe there's some frustration in that. I can't speak for him. But I don't know."

Coach Paul Maurice said Laine is not the only Jets player to express that he wants to play on the top line. 

"I really don't think he said anything there that five or six guys haven't said," Maurice said. "There's an awful lot of analytics that would tell you we've got a fairly solid combination in the way we've run it. Is there going to come a time when Patty plays there? Possibly. There's one other line that comes to mind, top line, that has the same three hands. That would be unusual. 

"What Patrik and Ehlers and Kyle Connor and all the others are attempting to do, they just want to play more. And there's going to come a time for all three of them that they'll turn around and say, 'See, I told ya. If you'd just played me more.' And I'll use my driver's license analogy: Nobody gets the keys at 14."

Forward Adam Lowry said there will not be any hard feelings toward Laine over the comments or his contract situation. He mentioned Toronto Maple Leafs forward Mitchell Marner, a restricted free agent who missed the first day of training camp before signing a six-year contract Friday. 

In addition to Laine and Connor, there are other high-profile restricted free agents who remain unsigned, including forwards Mikko Rantanen of the Colorado Avalanche, Brayden Point of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Matthew Tkachuk of the Calgary Flames.

"I think stuff like this, you can just look at the Marner contract negotiations," Lowry said. "People were [irritated] at him for not signing earlier. He signs, and all is good in the world. I would expect something similar to happen with Patty. The contract gets resolved, and we're going to welcome him back with open arms. We'll be excited to get him and [Connor] back, and hopefully it's sooner rather than later."

Wheeler said, "I'm literally going to walk out of this room and not think about it ever again. I'll say it again: He's just in a spot right now where he's caught in limbo and probably wants more than anything to just get here and play and be an NHL player again. There's probably a lot of frustration in the fact he's not where he wants to be right now."

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