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Laine works to become complete player with Jets

Forward aims to be better without puck, in defensive zone

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / Staff Writer

WINNIPEG -- Patrik Laine wants to be a more well-rounded player.

No doubt the Winnipeg Jets forward plans to continue shooting pucks like the rocket he unleashed for a power-play goal from the top of the left circle in a 3-2 overtime win against the Dallas Stars at Bell MTS Place on Sunday.

The Jets don't want that to change, but coach Paul Maurice has pushed Laine to focus more on play away from the puck and in the defensive zone. In his fourth NHL season, Laine said he better understands the importance of those elements.

"Especially of the D zone and picking up rims and getting pucks out," Laine said. "That's something I'm really happy with myself so far, that I'm not the liability anymore that I used to be a little bit maybe. I don't think I was probably the best defensive forward in the League. It's great that I was able to work with [assistant coach] Todd [Woodcroft] this summer on those little details of the game, and it's been helping me so far."

Video: MIN@WPG: Wheeler, Laine connect to put Jets ahead

An evolving Laine continues to have confidence he can and will score.

That was one of the factors in an offseason interview with a Finnish newspaper in which he appeared to criticize coaches and teammates over his role with the Jets. 

"That was just my message, to try to earn more responsibility, more minutes and hopefully get this team more wins," Laine said before he signed a two-year, $13.5 million contract as a restricted free agent on Sept. 27.

Part of the 21-year-old's wish was to get more time with top forwards Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler, something Maurice has at times granted, though there has been plenty of line shuffling this season in Winnipeg.

"Everybody on this team wants to play with Mark and Blake," Laine said. "They're the drivers of this team. So far this year, I think I've played some good hockey with those two. That's my potential, that I can produce with the right guys. But I haven't played too many games with them yet.

"The first three years, I thought I was working hard. Maybe it wasn't working because I couldn't keep up with them as much. Now I'm trying to do that, and it seems to be working."

In the first six weeks of the season, Laine played seven-plus games (Oct. 6 to Oct. 22) at left wing, his off side, with Scheifele and Wheeler. He had seven points (two goals, five assists) and the line had 14 points (three goals, 11 assists) in the first two games, but then the offense dried up and line shuffling ensued.

Video: WPG@NYI: Laine goes bar down for first of the season

Maurice said that there is another complicating factor, that the fit isn't ideal. 

"I find [Laine] moves better on the right side of the ice, but Blake is there, and as a long as those two guys (Scheifele and Wheeler) are producing, I'm going to leave those two guys together," he said. "But they went a stretch [where they didn't], so we changed."

Injuries, most recently center Bryan Little's punctured ear drum, have also been a factor. With Little out and Wheeler moved to center the past two games, Laine has played right wing on a line with Scheifele and Kyle Connor.

Winnipeg (10-7-1) is seeing a Laine in transition, a work in progress. The No. 2 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft has scored less but is still contributing with 15 points (four goals, 11 assists) in 16 games. He is second on the Jets in scoring, and first in assists.

In his first three NHL seasons, Laine had 110 goals, sixth most in the League. He played with Scheifele and Wheeler on the top power-play unit and scored 44 power-play goals; only Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin had more during that time (52).

At 5-on-5, though, Laine had infrequent turns with Scheifele and Wheeler on Winnipeg's top line, so he didn't always see the opposition's best defensive players.

Scheifele said it will be the next thing Laine will need to learn to deal with on a regular basis.

"For the most part, it's a learning curve for him," Scheifele said. "He's got to get used to playing against the best players, the best defensemen. That only makes you better."

Scheifele also said persistence will pay off for Laine.

"Obviously he's a pretty dangerous shooter and teams are going to key on him," Scheifele said. "But when teams overload to him, that means someone else is going to be open. For me, it's to just keep telling him to go to the right spots and eventually things are going to change."

Against the Stars on Sunday, Laine scored his first goal in 10 games and his first on the power play this season.

"Hopefully [he] reminds himself," Maurice said. "Those guys need to feel that, to get on a confident roll, you've got to have one go."

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