Jets rookie Patrik Laine relished spotlight

Patrik Laine found a way to live up to the hype.

When you consider how high the expectations were surrounding the second overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, that’s an impressive accomplishment in itself.

Since the Jets essentially won the NHL Draft Lottery last April by moving from the sixth pick to second, the buzz around Laine grew so much that head coach Paul Maurice openly talked at the draft about tempering those expectations – at least the external ones.

Although Laine was basically running on fumes at the end of his first NHL season, he still put up 36 goals and 64 points in 73 games.

While it’s probably not going to be enough to help him win the Calder Trophy, that has more to do with the level of the competition, coupled with the fact he missed eight games to injury after suffering a concussion on a crushing open-ice hit from Buffalo Sabres defenceman Jake McCabe and sitting out another when he was under the weather.

Had Laine suited up in those nine tilts, the duel with fist overall pick Auston Matthews would have gone right down to the wire.

Laine won’t be adding any hardware to the trophy case, but he’ll head back to Finland during the coming days as a far more advanced player than the one who suited up in his first NHL game on October 13 against the Carolina Hurricanes.

“I learned a lot. From the first day of training camp to the last day of the regular season, there was a lot of improvement in that timeline,” said Laine. “There’s a lot of things I still need to learn, but there’s a lot of time to learn.”

The rookie sniper announced his presence in dramatic fashion in the opener, blasting home a one-timer with the net empty to make it a one-goal deficit and then chipping in an assist on a Mathieu Perreault marker that sent the game to overtime, where the Jets completed the comeback and won 5-4.

Laine was a topic of conversation in every rink he walked into this season and rather than shy away from the attention, he embraced it.

“It’s just nice to see how many people are watching what you’re doing. There’s a lot of people that are excited that I’m doing well,” said Laine, who hasn’t decided if he’ll suit up for Finland at the 2017 IIHF Men’s World Hockey Championship next month. “It’s always nice to sign autographs and (have people) ask for photos. There’s going to be a time when nobody recognizes you and you don’t have to sign any autographs. I need to do that now.”

Laine was addressing the media for one final time on Sunday afternoon and when asked for some off the highlights, he listed off the usual suspects.

“Of course my first game. It was nice to get the first assist and the first goal in the first game. My family was here to see that, so that was pretty cool,” said Laine. “And all the hat tricks.”

Ah yes, all the hat tricks.

All three of them, two against the Dallas Stars and then the one against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first head-to-head match-up with Matthews.

“I thought he did a great job (handling the attention). That’s a tough spot to be in,” said Jets centre Adam Lowry. “They’re kind of pitting you against another guy, him and (Auston) Matthews all year. They want the storylines. People would be going, ‘What’s wrong with Patrik? He hasn’t scored in three games.’ But an 18-year-old kid, what did he have? 36 goals? I think we’re happy with where he’s at. “He seems to not let a lot of stuff phase him. He seemed pretty calm and cool under the pressure and seemed to shine on the big stage.”

Laine’s arrival changed the dynamic of the Jets.

There are other skilled forwards who can put the puck in the net, but Laine is a pure goal scorer and a game-breaker who already boasts one of the best shots and quickest releases in the NHL.

“He was given a good opportunity to play a lot of minutes and he handled it with maturity probably beyond his years,” said Jets captain Blake Wheeler. “A guy like that comes in at 18 and kind of exceeds all expectations for a guy that had huge expectations coming in, it just adds to the excitement of our group.”

kwiebe@postmedia.com

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