COLUMBUS, Ohio — Two days after he was made a healthy scratch for the first time in his career, Columbus Blue Jackets veteran forward Patrik Laine made it painfully clear how he felt about first-year coach Pascal Vincent’s decision.
“It’s probably, over my career, the most embarrassing thing that’s happened to me,” Laine said. “So obviously I’m not happy about that. They know that. It is what it is. It’s done and we’re back (to practice). So just try to focus on playing.”
Laine didn’t stop there, saying he was blindsided Vincent’s decision, felt it was unfair and would not be beneficial to his play, even though he acknowledged that he has struggled so far this season, in part due to injuries. He has two goals and one assist in nine games.
“If your confidence isn’t there, I don’t think you’re going to find it eating popcorn, watching the game,” Laine said. “That’s my opinion.
“I understand it, that guys who are going are playing. I understand that. I’m not stupid. But at the same time, if you want to get going, you have to be out there. I can’t get confidence drinking BioSteel on the bench. I’m not crying about it, because I’m not in a position where I can complain about anything with the way I’ve been playing. But that’s how I see it.”
The Blue Jackets are off to a 4-10-4 start heading into Wednesday’s game vs. the Chicago Blackhawks in Nationwide Arena. The list of “what’s gone wrong” in Columbus is lengthy, but Laine became the poster child when he was scratched vs. the Flyers as the Jackets’ losing streak (0-7-2) reached nine, matching a franchise-record.
It was clear that Laine, 25, was biting his tongue on Tuesday, even as he spoke at length with reporters.
“I’m not going to start analyzing it that much, because I don’t know what I’m gonna say,” Laine said. “I’ll just keep it at that. I’m not going to say anything dumb. It’s up to them. I just play here. And I play whenever they tell me.
“It was a complete surprise, yeah. We had some talks (with Vincent), but I don’t think it was related to that. I was kinda blindsided by it, I’m not going to lie. But what are you gonna do? Just suck it up and deal with it. That’s all I have to say about it.”
Laine has known Vincent since he was drafted by Winnipeg in 2016. Vincent was head coach of the AHL Manitoba Moose beginning with that season, but the Moose and Jets both play in the MTS Centre and frequently shared ice time.
That didn’t make Sunday’s decision any easier to accept, he said.
“I don’t think it matters who it is, Patty or somebody else I don’t know that well,” Laine said. “I would have said the same thing — I’m not happy with this. I don’t think it’s fair.
“It is what it is. They heard my side. I heard their side. At the end of the day, they’re the ones making the call as to who’s playing. I just show up whenever they tell me to. I didn’t think I would see this day. So, just try to move forward and work hard and get back to playing.”
Vincent has made several bold coaching moves in his first six weeks behind the bench.
Defenseman Damon Severson, who signed an eight-year, $50 million contract, was benched in the third period of an Oct. 16 game vs. Detroit, the third game of the season. Veterans Johnny Gaudreau and Laine were both benched for most of the third period in a 3-2 loss to Arizona, even as the Blue Jackets scrambled with an extra attacker to score the tying goal.
But a healthy scratch of Laine, who has played 471 NHL games and scored 200 goals, was taking things to the next level. So far, Blue Jackets president of hockey operations John Davidson and general manager Jarmo Kekalainen have supported Vincent’s coaching tactics.
Vincent may have gotten the response he’s wanted from Gaudreau, who has started to play a bit better in recent games. He’s hoping for the same response by Laine on Wednesday and beyond.
“I expect from him and all the players to respond like a man,” Vincent said. “I know he wasn’t happy. Like, if he was happy today and he said something different, I’d be disappointed.
“There’s never (an attempt) by our decisions to embarrass any of our people, ever. That’s not the point. We want him to respond like a man and to play hard tomorrow. That’s it.”
Laine has moved back and forth from center to right wing twice already this season. As of Tuesday, he was back on the wing, skating with rookie center Adam Fantilli and left winger Dmitri Voronkov.
It’s not the first time Laine and Fantilli have played together, but it’s the first time Fantilli has centered the line. Early this season, Laine centered a line with Alexandre Texier and Fantilli on the wings, but the trio lasted less than three games.
“Even before he got to Winnipeg, he was scouted as a character player,” Vincent said. “If you were in a Game 7 and you wanted a guy to make a difference, Patrik Laine was your guy. So it’s in him and we hope to see that tomorrow and the future.
“We need him. We absolutely need him. We need his talent. We need his presence. We need his skill level. We need his ability to be a difference-maker in the games. We know he can do it. To me, we’re moving forward.”
Vincent ascended to the top job in Columbus just four days before training camp, following the resignation of Mike Babcock. If players thought it would be an easier ride under Vincent, they’ve been sorely mistaken.
Asked if he worried that his tough tactics might divide the dressing room, or pit the players against him, Vincent vowed not to change.
“My vision for this team is, we want to be a team that challenges to be in the playoffs every year,” Vincent said. “And if we stay status quo, it’s not going to happen.
So by challenging guys, by making these decisions, there’s a reason behind it. There’s a vision behind it, and in order to get there, yes, it’s going to be uncomfortable for some people. It’s asking this: ‘Are you in? Or are you in the way?’ We’re in that stage.”
(Photo of Patrik Laine: Jason Mowry /Getty Images)