Patrik Laine & Learning From Mistakes
What the Blue Jackets can learn from Laine's tenure with the Jets
“The Jets have to do everything in their power to keep Patrik Laine.”
It wasn’t even three years ago when everyone around the league was saying something along these lines. Winnipeg was seemingly at the beginning of their Cup window & just a year away from locking up Laine long-term after he scored 70 goals in just his first two years in the league. He looked like a guy who could break Expected Goal Models everywhere and give Alex Ovechkin a run for his money as the best pure goal-scorer in hockey. That is, until he wasn’t.
It took one year for the Jets foundation to crumble and Laine’s reputation slowly followed. He went from arguably the second best goal scorer in the league to not even being the best shooter in his draft class. Scoring 80 goals in your first two seasons in the league & only 58 in your next 150 games will do that. That stat alone is a little mind-blowing because objectively, Laine still excels at the toughest to do in hockey, scoring goals. It’s just that there are more players in the league who are also very good at this now and don’t have the flaws in his game that have been talked about ad nauseam ever since he’s been on the trade block.
Being able to put the puck in the back of the net consistently covers up a lot of sins at the other end of the rink. You can basically turn the game around with one good shift or striking on the power play at the right time. In his first two years, you can make the argument that Laine is the type of player who had that impact. The last two years? Not so much. Again, it’s not that he’s bad, it’s just that he’s gone from The Next Ovechkin to being firmly entrenched in Mike Hoffman/Jeff Skinner territory where there is a cap on how much of an impact they can have if they’re going through shooting slumps & not giving you much else.
This, along with money & maybe some internal issues, is likely why the Jets opted to trade him. Lucky for them Columbus had a falling out with their top center in Pierre-luc Dubois, so they were able to get a building block in return. Is there a path to redemption for Laine, though? Both teams were kind of boxed into a corner with this trade, so I don’t really care who “won” or “lost” the deal. What I am interested in is if Laine can reach the heights of his first two years again. Did the Jets do anything wrong with him or is this solely on the player not being good enough? Are the Blue Jackets setup to help Laine get back to where he was three years ago?
So, there’s obviously a lot of layers to scoring goals. There’s always a handful of players in the draft who are billed as having “elite shots” or something along those lines. It’s one of the tougher things to translate to the pro level because it’s so rare to actually have enough time & space to pick a corner or not fire the puck at the net in a millisecond. That’s what made Laine’s first two years so impressive & his struggles since so confusing. All goal-scorers are going to go through slumps, but Laine’s decline in both shooting percentage and “finishing impact” going by Micah Blake McCurdy’s HockeyViz site is a little hard to ignore.
Part of it relates to how we view goal-scoring. The more hockey you watch, the more you come to grips with how goal-scoring is less about how good your shot is & more about the situations you put yourself into & how you capitalize on them. Think of how most goals are scored now. It’s a lot of quick passes, deflections or one-timers where you have to get yourself open through coverage. Laine had the shot, but the Jets also did a great job of setting him up for success in his first two years.
I went through all of Laine’s goals in his career & tracked the context of each one. The main thing I was looking for was how the goal originated. Was it a play off the rush, a cycle play where the Jets had sustained possession/passing or was it a play off the forecheck where Laine or a teammate had to work to get the puck back? I also looked at the type of passes he received, the players who assisted on the goal (regardless of whether or not they were credited with one) and whether or not the shot came off an odd-man situation. Basically anything that put the defense in a spot where they were outnumbered at the point of attack. The chart above shows only 5v5 data, we’ll get to the power play in a minute.
There’s a few things that standout. The first of which is that a bigger percentage of Laine’ sgoals have come off the rush or off what’s tracked as “high danger passing plays.” Goals off the cycle (or sustained passing plays in the offensive zone) have mostly been taken away. He also has fewer 5v5 goals in general, which obviously skews the percentages. Although that does highlight some of his problems when it comes to 5v5 scoring (39 in 2016-18 compared to 25 in 2018-20), as teams will stress defending the neutral zone more than anything and Laine is definitely a guy they have circled in the pre-scout.
Also think of how a rush opportunity originates. How often does a controlled breakout lead to a rush chance? From just watching, it’s not that often unless you catch a team on a lazy line change or strike quick on a regroup. Otherwise, a good rush chance usually develops from the other team making a mistake in the offensive zone or having 2-3 guys below the goal line while pushing for a goal. This allows you to counter-attack with a numbers advantage & gives you the option of having a guy like Laine lead the rush or act as a trailer.
The common theme is that it involves spending time in your own zone for a little bit & playing some form of defense, something the Blue Jackets are much better at than the Jets. Defense isn’t limited to the blue line, but think of the talent purge that’s happened in Winnipeg the last few years. Dustin Byfuglien is gone and so are Toby Enstrom and Jacob Trouba. Tyler Myers & Ben Chiarot left to be overpaid elsewhere, but the Jets went through a gauntlet of waiver wire pickups & rookies to fill five roster spots over two years. They dressed 10 different defensemen last year & most of them played in at least 12 games for the team. Eventually that puts a strain on the rest of your lineup, something the Jets forwards have been feeling for two years now.
What we’re looking at here is the workload of each team when it comes to exiting the zone. The Jets defense was not trusted with the puck at all, especially compared to the Blue Jackets. Josh Morrissey was their leader here last year & look at where he is on the chart compared to everyone on Columbus. What does this mean, though? Well, someone has to get the puck out of the zone & that burden fell on the Jets forwards, specifically their wingers like Laine, Kyle Connor & Nikolaj Ehlers. One could argue this feeds to their strengths because striking off the rush is where Laine got most of his goals. While that’s true, it also didn’t yield many goals in general. This might relate to the Jets top line spending sustained time in the defensive zone & needing to simply get off the ice or putting all their eggs in one basket when it comes to creating offense. Hard to create any sustained pressure when you’re defending all the time & exhausted by the time you cross the red line. Columbus is a team that demands commitment in the defensive zone, but they don’t spend nearly as much time defending as the Jets, which could help Laine get his goal-scoring stats back up if all goes to plan.
The Ehlers Effect
Something that got brought up with Laine is his frustration with the Jets coaching staff. On the surface it seems kind of silly because he was paired with Mark Scheifele for most of his careers. His center isn’t a problem (although Scheifele’s defensive impact is something the Jets need to figure out), but his off-wing going from Nikolaj Ehlers to Kyle Connor is pretty important. It doesn’t look like that big of a deal t first glance because they’re both good offensive players who can lead the rush, make plays after gaining the line and feed off a player like Laine. The problem is that Laine did not score goals with Connor at the same level that he did with Ehlers.
Laine has bounced back and forth between the Jets top two lines for most of his career with Ehlers stapled to his off-wing for most of the first two years. Ehlers assisted on 12 of Laine’s 39 goals in those two years while recording secondary or tertiary assists on seven more of them. Since the 2018 season, Laine has spent 1064 of his 5v5 minutes with Connor on his off-wing compared to only 305 minutes with Ehlers. Connor has assisted on only five of Laine’s goals, recording a secondary assist on only one of them. Taking a step further, in the 600+ minutes of Laine I tracked the last two years for the passing project, Connor assisted on only 18 of Laine’s shots & Laine scored a goal on only one of them.
As a whole, this line has done pretty well from an offensive standpoint (they’re usually in the “fun” quadrant of any xG graph you’ll see), but something was clearly not working when it comes to setting up Laine. If you look at the stat profiles for both Ehlers & Connor you’ll see that they’re similar in some ways, except one big area; Passing.
Ehlers is a high-volume player in every sense of the word. He is one of the best players in the league at utilizing his speed & skating to create meaningful plays and drive offense for the Jets. Thus, he ranks as one of their better players at not letting the play die after entering the zone and creating sustained pressure, as evidenced by the number of shots & passes he racks up. He can keep a cycle going and find gaps in the defense when they’re open. Compare that to Connor, who is similar to Ehlers with how often he gets loose in the neutral zone & finding open players off the rush. It’s just that he’s more of a shooter than a passer & doesn’t create many high danger plays, especially off the cycle. He isn’t a bad passer by any means, he just isn’t Ehlers and it’s easy to see why this line for the Jets was such a feast-or-famine group. If they didn’t strike off the rush, the play was usually over and the Laine’s goal total suffered, even if he had chemistry with Scheifele & Bryan Little.
Compare the 5v5 goals in this video
To the 5v5 goals in this video, specifically the ones assisted by Connor.
You’ll notice that Ehlers setup Laine in a variety of ways. Whether it’s quick plays off the rush where Laine’s the trailer or plays where Ehlers has to pull up and wait for Laine to get open, Ehlers shows a ton of patience & chemistry with Laine here. Also notice the plays off cycles, especially in the brief run they had with Paul Stastny as their center. They do great work to keep the puck along the boards & eventually Stastny find Laine in the middle of the slot or behind the net while the defense is distracted.
Now, compare that to the goal where Connor & Scheifele assisted on & you’ll notice that they look the same. They’re usually entering the zone with a numbers advantage & one of them has to hit Laine in stride while he’s going to the net. Sometimes Laine has to lead the rush himself & start a give-n-go play with one of these two. These are high quality, dangerous plays but they are incredibly hard to setup with consistency in the NHL. They’re the type of plays where if you score on them, you’re in good shape but more often than not, they get broken up & you have to go back to work to get the puck back. Which might explain why Connor struggled to setup Laine compared to Ehlers. They’re both good players & similar in some instances, but Ehlers was just a better linemate for Laine even if Connor had a great season by counting stats.
How can the Jackets use this info to help them, though? Players like Ehlers don’t exactly grow on trees, although they do have a similar player in terms of neutral zone play & passing impact in Max Domi. He has only one strong play-driving season to his credit, so there’s a concern on whether or not they’ll be in the offensive zone enough to get Laine back to where he was three years ago. The encouraging news is they have a potential linemate with similar qualities & a stronger defense that should help keep some plays alive when they get the puck into the zone. They lost Dubois, but CBJ’s defense is still pretty aggressive when it comes to keeping puck in the zone & helping the offense, so maybe that will create some sustained zone time for the Jackets to work with. I don’t know if that will help Laine specifically, but making him less of a one-trick pony is going to be a priority if they want to get the most of out of this deal. Getting more goals off the cycle & forecheck seemed to help him in Winnipeg.
This is where the Jackets are going to get their surplus value. Laine is the closest thing to a power play cheat code since Ovechkin came into the league and the Jets exploited this big time in his first three seasons. Part of it is common sense. You have a righty shot whose specialty is putting the puck in the back of the net, of course you’re going to do everything in your power to set him up. That’s exactly what the Jets did, until they didn’t.
An interesting thing I found out when tracking the Jets power play goals is that they actually didn’t setup Laine much from “his spot” in his rookie season. He scored only seven goals on the power play that year, most of which were off faceoff wins from the point. The next two years, however, they had a blueprint and stuck to it until it didn’t work anymore.
The Jets essentially had two money plays to Laine; The cross-seam pass through the PK box from Wheeler or the pass from the point from Byfuglien, which is usually preceded by a fake shot or some puck movement down low to buy Laine time & space. Teams know what the Jets are trying to do here & cheat to Laine’s side, which is why Byfuglien & Scheifele’s roles here are so important. Scheifele scored eight 5v4 goals on only 30 shots in the Jets games I tracked from 2017-19, a good majority of which were one-timers from the slot after Byfuglien & Wheeler played catch at on the right wall to keep the defense honest.
You have to have more than one option on the power play open and while Byfuglien didn’t score a lot of goals himself, he was a key role in quickly getting the puck to Laine before the defense can react. It was very similar to the Ovechkin conundrum of teams either leaving him on an island because they didn’t want to give up a freebie to Oshie or cheating to his side & making the Caps other four guys beat them. Losing Byfuglien, however, caused this foundation to collapse.
Setting up through the point isn’t ideal, but it’s necessary sometimes because that seam pass just isn’t going to be there most of the time unless you quickly move the puck around & give the penalty killers different options to worry about. Byfuglien had a threatening shot from the point and could quickly get the high forward into a tough situation, whether it’s getting him out of position or opening space up for Wheeler on the right wall. His replacement, Neal Pionk, is a capable offensive defenseman but he doesn’t have Byfuglien’s skillset or the threat of a point shot. If you watch any of Winnipeg’s power plays last year you’ll notice how much slower the puck movement is compared to past years.
First, look at where the initial pressure is from Carolina. They all go straight to Wheeler & Scheifele while leaving most of the other Jets alone (although Connor is pretty much covered by standing stationary near the net). Next is look at how much space is at the point when the Jets move the puck up high. Theoretically, this should open up the seam to Laine from the point, but the Hurricanes react in time to get an easy shot block on him because the Jets had to go through two players to even setup the shot. Pionk got the pass to Laine off in one motion and the Hurricanes still had plenty of time to react. The pass to Scheifele was also blocked off, so Winnipeg really only had one option open the entire time and teams around the league seemed to catch on.
Thus, the Jets switched up their power play from looking like the one above to something like this.
Given that five of Laine’s seven power play goals this past year were off setups from Pionk, I’m going to go out on a limb and say this new setup didn’t work. Pionk had a good season by points, but the power play on the whole struggled. Part of that was just lack of creativity with getting Laine open, as moving him to the slot just made him easier to cover. They also didn’t really change much of anything except move guys around and try the same setup that had gone stale. They weren’t creative with getting Laine open and everyone kind of stayed stagnant in their designated spots on the power play with no motion to keep the defense honest. Thus, Laine had only seven goals in 68 games last season.
The situation he’s walking into in Columbus isn’t much better, as they have struggled to get their power play going for years and might have to think outside the box to return Laine back to the power play cheat code he once was. With so few games played, I don’t have a great idea of what their power play looks like now, but here’s what their top unit did last year with Domi replacing Dubois.
The power play ran through Zach Werenski at the point & Oliver Bjorkstrand in the left circle. The diagram is kind of a mess because they had so many injuries last year & they went through a lot of different units to find something that worked. Sometimes they would use Jones & Werenski on the same unit with one of them creeping below the dots to get a pass behind the net. Other times they would work the right side with Dubois until a cross-seam play to Bjorkstrand opened. Nyquist would act as the bumper in the slot for one-timers or to get the puck to Werenski. Most of the time, they would try to set Bjorkstrand up from the point to the left circle and fight for the rebound because it was the only thing open.
With Laine, they can get a little more creative. Ideally, you want him on the left side and you also have two other one-time options in Atkinson & Bjorkstrand. Does Seth Jones need to run the point? People have mentioned the need for a right handed shot at the point to make that final pass to Laine, or is Werenski good enough of a passer to make that play? I think they could benefit from running more setups below the dots because of how redundant the point pass can get & it might make it easier for Laine to get lost around the net. If the normal one-time options aren’t open. Werenski’s rover-like traits also make him a shooting option that teams have to respect, so that opens the door for someone else to play the point, whether that’s Jones or a forward, I’m not sure. It’s a different situation than when they had Panarin, as their power play usually ran through him on the left side while Laine is more of a pure shooter.
Regardless, Laine’s progression with Columbus is going to be something I follow closely. It’s not every day a player like that gets moved.