A 6-foot-5 shadow hung over Bell MTS Iceplex on Monday as the Winnipeg Jets opened training camp for the upcoming shortened NHL season — and captain Blake Wheeler wasn’t happy about it.
“Maybe it’s a small Canadian market and there’s nothing else to talk about, I don’t know,” he told reporters in an online news conference following his morning skate.
The target of his ire? The barrage of questions surrounding trade rumours around superstar winger Patrik Laine.
The 22-year-old’s agent has reportedly said the player would like to be traded, and that a move would be mutually beneficial for Laine and the team.
Wheeler said trade talks are just part of the nature of professional sports and teams learn how to tune out the outside noise and focus on the game.
“I want what’s best for him and that’s to lead the league in goals and all things in his capabilities. I want all of that in conjunction with what’s best for our team,” Wheeler said, repeating multiple times that Laine makes the Jets better.
Dodging trade talk
For his part, Laine wanted nothing to do with the trade questions.
“I’m here, aren’t I?” he said. “That’s the only thing I’m worried about.”
He noted players get traded all the time, even Wayne Gretzky. Rumours and social media are things Laine said he ignores.
But reporters drilled him about why his agent said that, if he was aware the agent said it and if he gave permission to say it.
“I didn’t say it,” is all he offered. “I’m here and I’m working hard.”
When Laine was asked directly if he wants to be traded, “That’s not something I think about. I just think about what’s going on today,” he said.
Questions about the trade ended when the moderator of the conference asked media to focus on the camp instead, but they returned when head coach Paul Maurice sat down in front of the mic.
“I don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about it,” Maurice said about the rumours.
Like Laine, Maurice said he’s focused on the present day. And on Monday, he said Laine was fantastic — skated hard and fast and “was as good as I’ve ever seen him practice.”
“So I’ll judge that instead,” Mauriuce said. “He’s here, he was in a good mood.”
If Laine keeps practising and playing games the way he did Monday “all the things he wants can be had in Winnipeg.”
Different kind of season
The season, set to begin Jan. 13, will look a whole lot different from past years due to COVID-19.
With international travel bans in place, the seven Canadian teams will be grouped into the North Division and only play each other over the 56-game schedule. Typically, the NHL season begins in October with an 82-game schedule.
There will be no pre-season exhibition games either, which usually give teams a chance to juggle lines, evaluate new players and just get in some game shape before the points start counting.
“We’re going to have to deal with it and get right to it,” Wheeler said. “Everybody’s in the same boat.”
The Jets are set to open the season on Jan. 14 against the visiting Calgary Flames.
While acknowledging the hardships COVID-19 has caused, Maurice said having an all-Canadian North Division is one of the best things to happen.
“You couldn’t dream of anything better than this. Everybody’s going to get wired up,” he said.
Every game is a divisional one, which means every point matters more than ever because only the top four teams will make the playoffs.
“There’s not one easy game this year,” said Laine. “It’ll be a battle but I think we’ll be ready for it.”
Missing in action
Some notable absences at Monday’s camp included forward Jack Roslovic, who has also reportedly asked for a trade and remains in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio.
Roslovic’s agent Claude Lemieux tells me tonight his client has asked for a trade. So we’ll see where this goes… <a href=”https://t.co/4T08ZOoPwx”>https://t.co/4T08ZOoPwx</a>
Also missing was centre Bryan Little, whose season — and possibly career — ended Nov. 5, 2019, when he was hit in the side of the head by a slapshot, leaving his eardrum perforated. Doctors recommended Little not play for at least this season.
In his absence, the Jets re-acquired Paul Stastny in a trade with the Vegas Golden Knights Friday.
“Feels like we never left,” said Stastny, 35, who played 19 regular season games and 17 playoff games with the Jets in 2017-18, recording the most productive playoff performance of his career with 15 points.
And after signing forward Marko Dano in November 2020 for a return engagement with the team — he was a Jet from 2016-2018 — Winnipeg put him on waivers on Monday. Playing in Slovakia, he broke his wrist shortly after the Jets signed him.
Ville Heinola and the Jets’ 2020 first-round pick Cole Perfetti were also absent Monday. Both are still in Edmonton, in the playoffs at the World Junior Hockey Championships.
Heinola, a defenceman, is on Team Finland and Perfetti, a centre, is with Team Canada.
The training camp roster has its share of new faces as well.
Trevor Lewis, a two-time Stanley Cup champ centre with the Los Angeles Kings, is one of three players signed to professional tryouts with the Jets.
He joins Manitoba Moose defenceman Jimmy Oligny and goaltender Cole Kehler from Altona, Man., who has been playing in the East Coast Hockey League.
Defenceman Dylan Samberg, picked by the Jets in the second round of the 2017 draft, made his first appearance at an NHL camp.
The 21-year-old was signed in April to a three-year, entry-level contract after he completed his junior season with the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs.
“I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time,” Samberg said in a Zoom call.
Two centres, Nate Thompson and Dominic Tonanato, are also new to Winnipeg. Both were signed to one-year deals by the Jets in October 2020.
This is the ninth NHL club for the 36-year-old Thompson, who spent time with both the Montreal Canadiens and Philadelphia Flyers last season.
Tonanato, 26, played with the Colorado Avalanche before being traded to the Florida Panthers, who released him as a free agent at the end of last season.
Tonanato and Lewis weren’t on the ice on Monday, though. They, along with goalie Mikhail Berdin, are currently declared unfit to practice. The Jets would not say whether they are injured or ill.
Centre David Gustafsson and defenceman Tucker Poolman were in gold-coloured non-contact jerseys, indicating they are dealing with injuries, though Maurice wouldn’t elaborate further on their conditions.