NHL on NBCSN: Jets not worrying about Patrik Laine’s goal slump

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Thursday’s matchup between the Minnesota Wild and Winnipeg Jets. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

WINNIPEG — Patrik Laine has been here before.

Mired in a scoring slump unbefitting of an elite goal scorer — one who has made a name for himself in the two-and-a-half years he’s played in the NHL with his signature release and near pin-point accuracy — Laine just hasn’t been the same player who set the league ablaze in the month of November.

It was then that Laine appeared to have the hockey equivalent of the Midas touch. Everything his stick graced ended up in the back of the net. A five-goal game, two more that ended with hat tricks, and 18 markers in 12 games had him flirting with the pantheon of some of the NHL’s best goal scorers.

Since then, Laine has only scored three times in 18 games dating back to Dec. 1. He’s gone stretches of six, five and four games without lighting the lamp and it has many concerned, questioning everything from his motivation to his morale.

Laine is a victim of his own doing in some of this. His rookie season produced 36 goals and he followed that up with a 44-goal campaign last season as he put up a fight against Alex Ovechkin in the race to the Rocket Richard Trophy. His theatrics in the month of November had people talking about him scoring 60, or more. And couple that effort with the fact that the Winnipeg Jets turned the corner last year and made their first push into the deep waters of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

In short: expectations for Laine and for the team have never been higher. Gone are the days of merely hoping to get to the playoffs and fans yearning for a pedestrian 30-goal scorer.

The mob is ravenous now. They want Laine to hit 50, at least (he’s already amassed 104 in 197 career games). They want the Jets to win the Stanley Cup. Slumps, like the one Laine is currently treading water in, isn’t a part of this year’s game plan. It simply doesn’t compute.

And it’s not just the fans who are guilty of these expectations. They’re coming from within, too, including head coach Paul Maurice

“We’re all — I’m trying to find the right word — the one that popped into my head is ‘intoxicated’ by that shot,” Maurice said on Tuesday, just hours before the Jets pumped seven past the Colorado Avalanche — with none coming from Laine. “I’m doing it, too. When he crosses the blue line and he’s still four feet from the top of the circle and you know he’s going to shoot, I think there’s a chance this thing’s going in. How many guys in the league do you feel that way?

“If I was crossing the blue line you might as well just go get a Coke, because it’s not happening for you, you’re not missing anything. And then he kind of wears that frustration: ‘I can’t believe it didn’t go in. I’m going to use some Finnish words to describe how my play is.’ Would it be any different than when Connor McDavid winds it up from the tops of the circles and even though there’s five guys he’s gotta go through you think ‘Hey, there’s a chance he could do it,’ because you’ve seen it.”

Jets forward Bryan Little didn’t hesitate when asked if he felt that the expectations of Laine are too high.

“I think absolutely,” Little said. “Him and [Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston] Matthews being drafted [high], people are always going to compare and fight over who’s better for probably most of their careers. He’s one of those guys that if he doesn’t score in a few games he’s really down on himself – he feels like he should be giving himself opportunities to score every night and should be scoring every night.

“That’s pretty unrealistic, unless you can end the season with 82 goals. But for him, he puts a lot of pressure on himself to be that player. People expect that out of him now; he kind of put it on himself with how good he was and how much he scored right off the bat and I think people expect multiple five-goal games which is super unrealistic. But that’s what people expect.”

Laine, who leads the Jets with 24 goals this season (and is on pace to surpass his 44-goal mark from last year), has remained mostly mum when it comes to his current lot in life.

In the past, he declared that “hockey was hard” and that his confidence was lacking. When an elite goal scorer isn’t scoring, you kind of expect that life is a little in the dumps. Scoring goals makes an elite goal scorer happy. Not scoring does the opposite.

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“I would probably say the same things [now],” Laine said on Wednesday. “There’s been a big stretch where I haven’t scored, and so it’s kinda my specialty. It’s always frustrating when you’re not doing the right things. There’s still a lot of things you can do well for the team and that’s kinda my focus now, try to rather do those things and not worry about the goals because, eventually, they’ll come when you work hard and do small things right.

“I’m not saying these things because I want to score in the next game. I’m just saying this to you guys because this is how the thing is. I’ve had a couple of good responses in the last couple of years after I’ve said something like this, so hopefully, I can do some positive things on the ice and get over this bad stretch.”

Maurice feels Laine has made progress in the areas that a third-year pro should.

“He’s made progress in all the areas we need a 20-year-old to get better at,” Maurice said. “He’s still shooting the puck a ton. He’s had his stretches where he’s not scoring. He’s had his stretches when he’s absolutely on fire. We’ll take that. So many 20-year-olds can’t produce like he does at times. You’re constantly working his game to get more out of him. Like a lot of these kids that we’ve brought in, he’s been able to produce while they’re learning the game.

“So he’s getting better. A much, much better five-on-five hockey player than he was a year ago at this time. And as he gets physically stronger, he’ll be a little faster, the reads will come more natural to him. Eventually more zone time. I don’t know what his ceiling is. I wouldn’t be foolish enough to put one on him at this age. Great player, he’s going to get a lot better.”

What sparked Laine earlier this year was a move down the pecking order. Laine spent time a brief period on the fourth line before he was inserted on Adam Lowry‘s line as Maurice tried to stoke a fire.

It worked, with Laine finding adding some directness to his game and instilling in him the value of hard work in his own zone. From there, he was back on Little’s line, equipped with a new perspective, and it was off to the races.

Perhaps that’s what needs to happen again.

Maurice might say that Laine is getting better, but the eye test on some nights — arguably many lately — has shown a lethargic player struggling to find his way to the surface. His partnership with Little, despite some instances of brilliance, hasn’t formed the consistent chemistry wanted. One issue is the team has two other lines it would like to keep together, and the fourth line doesn’t see the minutes that Laine should be playing.

With Laine on the ice in 5v5 situations, shots for drop by 7.59 this year per/60, while shots against rise by 9.26 per/60. Numbers via Corsica.

Laine hasn’t been demoted during this spell, suggesting that Maurice is OK for the moment with having his sniper working within himself to sort out his issues.

“He’s just maturing, just getting older, being able to weather the times when you’re not putting the puck in the net,” Maurice said. “One of the positives is he doesn’t have to carry the weight of the team, that if he doesn’t score we can’t win. In the stretches where he hasn’t scored a lot, recently, we’re starting to see some real good improvements in his game, five-on-five. And that’s what we’re looking to do.”

Indeed, as good as Laine is, he isn’t tasked with carrying the team — in scoring or otherwise. It’s a luxury that Winnipeg has built over the years. They’re a team that’s deep enough to find scoring from all lines and can live without one of its top goal-getters not scoring for a while.

“If you’ve got a kid that can buy the hockey team time to teach and play him, that’s a real positive,” Maurice said.

John Walton (play-by-play) and Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will call Jets-Wild from Xcel Energy Center. Tappen, Milbury and Jeremy Roenick will anchor studio coverage.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Kuzmenko signs 2-year extension with Canucks

Andrei Kuzmenko
Bob Frid/USA TODAY Sports
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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Forward Andrei Kuzmenko signed a two-year contract extension with the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.

The deal has an average annual value of $5.5 million.

The 26-year-old Kuzmenko has played in 47 games for the Canucks this season with 21 goals and 22 assists, four penalty minutes and a plus-4 defensive ranking.

Kuzmenko ranks second on the team in goals and power-play goals (nine) this season.

His 43 points are also tied for third on the team in overall scoring, while his 32 even-strength points (12 goals, 20 assists) are second on the Canucks.

Kuzmenko leads all Vancouver skaters in shooting rate (24.7%) and ranks third in the NHL in that category (minimum of 20 games).

He leads all first-year NHLers in almost every offensive category, including goals, assists, points, points per game (0.91), power-play goals, and power-play points.

He has also had 14 multi-point games so far this season (second most on the Canucks), highlighted by his first-career NHL hat trick and season-high four-point game against Anaheim on Nov. 3.

A native of Yakutsk, Russia, Kuzmenko spent his first eight professional seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, getting 200 points (85-115-200) in 315 regular-season games. He set career highs in goals (20), assists (33), and points (53) last season, ranking second in the league in scoring.

Kuzmenko has also represented his country on the international stage on multiple occasions, totaling 16 points (10-6-16) and six penalty minutes in 37 games played. He was originally signed by Vancouver to a one-year, entry-level contract on July 13, 2022.

Hurricanes top Stars in OT to win matchup of 1st-place teams

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
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DALLAS – Martin Necas scored 1:34 into overtime to give the Carolina Hurricanes a 3-2 win over the Dallas Stars in a matchup of division leaders Wednesday night.

Sebastian Aho had a short-handed goal and Brent Burns also scored for the Hurricanes, who lead the Metropolitan Division in the Eastern Conference. The game-winner was Necas’ 19th goal this season.

Dallas is still atop the Western Conference, and the Central Division, after its second consecutive 3-2 overtime loss at home. Jason Robertson scored his 33rd goal for the Stars, and 19-year-old rookie Wyatt Johnston got his 13th.

Carolina goalie Frederik Andersen didn’t return after the first intermission because of an upper-body injury, soon after a strange sequence that ended with Robertson scoring on a shot from what seemed to be an impossible angle.

The puck was bouncing on the ice behind Andersen and settled against the post after Tyler Seguin‘s shot before the goalie was able to swipe it away to his right. Robertson then shot from behind Andersen, and the puck apparently ricocheted off him and into the net for a 2-1 Dallas lead. Robertson’s 33rd goal matched his assists total.

Antti Raanta replaced Andersen and stopped all 15 shots he faced – none in overtime – after the starter had four saves. Raanta had to shake off getting struck in the head by Mason Marchment‘s stick when the Stars forward was behind the net fighting for the puck midway through the third period.

Stars goalie Jake Oettinger stopped 22 shots, including a glove save of Andrei Svechnikov‘s wrister with just more than five minutes left in regulation.

Aho’s 200th career goal put Carolina up 1-0 midway through the first period. The Stars got even just more than two minutes later when Johnston scored unassisted after a faceoff.

Johnston also had a shot ricochet off the post with just under six minutes left.

In between the first two goals, Oettinger went into a fully extended split, with his right skate against the post, to deny Paul Stastny‘s attempt to knock in a loose puck.

Burns tied the game at 2 in the second period, getting the puck after a faceoff, then skating over the top of the circle and scoring top shelf over Oettinger’s left shoulder.

NOTES: Marchment was coming out of the penalty box at the same time Carolina made an errant pass in the second period. He had a breakaway attempt, but couldn’t get enough control of the puck to get off a quality shot. … Hurricanes defenseman Brett Pesce and Stars center Luke Glendening both got five-minute penalties for fighting in the second period.

UP NEXT

Hurricanes: Will play San Jose on Friday night in the first of three consecutive home games.

Stars: Host the New Jersey Devils on Friday night in their last game before the All-Star break.

Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry out until after the All-Star break

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry‘s on-again, off-again season is now off again.

Coach Mike Sullivan said that the two-time All-Star will miss at least two games with an upper-body injury.

Jarry was scheduled to start against Florida but reported an upper-body issue when he arrived at PPG Paints Arena. Casey DeSmith got the last-second start as the Penguins pulled out a wild 7-6 victory over the Panthers.

Jarry is out through at least the All-Star break. Pittsburgh plays at Washington and then hosts San Jose before getting a full week off.

The 27-year-old Jarry has played well when he’s been in the lineup, posting a 16-5-5 record with a 2.65 goals-against average in 27 games. His availability, however, has been an issue of late. He missed more than two weeks earlier this month after being injured against Boston in the Winter Classic on Jan. 2.

The Penguins are not as sharp when Jarry is out. Pittsburgh is 8-10-3 with DeSmith or Dustin Tokarski in goal this season. The Penguins recalled Tokarski from their American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to back up DeSmith during Jarry’s absence.

Letang scores twice in return, Penguins beat Panthers 7-6 in OT

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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PITTSBURGH – Amid a nightmarish season off the ice, Kris Letang has been searching for joy. A sense of normalcy.

He found a little of both.

The veteran Pittsburgh defenseman scored twice in his return from a lower-body injury, the second with 54 seconds left in overtime to give the Penguins a 7-6 victory over Florida.

“I was just happy to be out there,” Letang said. “Be in the atmosphere of the team.”

Letang’s 17th season with Pittsburgh has been pockmarked by health issues and a profound sense of loss. He missed two weeks after suffering the second stroke of his career shortly after Thanksgiving. He then tweaked something in a loss to Detroit on Dec. 28.

His father died unexpectedly a few days later, and Letang spent an extended amount of time with his family in his native Montreal, with his teammates making an unexpected stop to join Letang for his father’s wake at the end of a West Coast swing earlier this month.

The Penguins activated him off injured reserve on Tuesday afternoon. Letang responded with four points in a rollicking game that featured 13 goals, the last Letang’s one-timer from just above the left circle on the power play that gave Pittsburgh just its fourth win in 12 overtime games this season.

“It was kind of surreal, you know?” Letang said. “I didn’t know what to think or how it was going to go. These guys supported me for the last month… it’s just great to be back.”

The Penguins, currently in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, opened up a small bit of breathing room over the ninth-place Panthers by beating Florida for the 18th time in its last 21 trips to Pittsburgh.

Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Danton Heinen each had a goal and two assists for The Penguins. Rickard Rakell and Drew O'Connor also scored for the Penguins.

Casey DeSmith struggled in place of Tristan Jarry, a late scratch with an upper-body injury. DeSmith stopped 33 shots, including both he faced in overtime, to win for the third time in his last 10 starts.

“That was a huge two points for us,” DeSmith said. “Obviously we’re battling with them in the standings. Character win at home.”

Carter Verhaeghe scored twice for Florida, including a tying goal with 2:32 left in regulation. Aaron Ekblad had a goal and two assists. Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Reinhart each had a goal and an assist. Colin White‘s sixth goal of the season 4:10 into the third gave the Panthers the lead but Florida couldn’t hold it.

Alex Lyon made 42 saves after getting the start when Spencer Knight was unavailable for reasons head coach Paul Maurice would not disclose. The Panthers are 7-3-2 since January 1 to surge back into the fringe of contention.

“We’re so much more of a different hockey team than we were a month ago at this time,” Maurice said. “Rallied around each other, battled as hard as they could to get a point on the road in the circumstances that we’re in. I couldn’t be more proud.”

Neither Lyon or DeSmith – who got the heads up he was playing less than an hour before the opening faceoff – appeared quite ready to play on short notice. They gave up a six goals – three by each team – during a frantic first period that included Letang’s first goal since Dec. 15 and Tkachuk’s 25th of the season.

Things settled down in the second. Ekblad’s short-handed goal put the Panthers in front but Crosby knotted the game at 4-4 with a pretty backhand through Lyon’s legs with 40 seconds to go in the period to set up a hectic third in which both teams squandered one-goal leads.

“It wasn’t pretty but you need to find ways to win sometimes,” Crosby said. “We did a good job of that here today.”

UP NEXT

Panthers: Host Angeles on Friday night.

Penguins: At Washington on Thursday night.