Over the course of the past month, Patrik Laine has become Winnipeg’s whipping boy. Attend any local bar, forum, or hockey game and you’re certain to hear that he needs to start moving his feet, that he’s a one dimensional player, and that he needs to play defence and get stronger on the puck. Certainly, these are areas of his game he struggles with, and they’ve been on full display over the past few weeks to hostile reactions.
However, is Laine truly to blame for his recent half-hearted showings? While he certainly shouldn’t be immune to criticism, he also shouldn’t be receiving it in its entirety while head coach Paul Maurice blatantly fails to rectify the situation.
The young sniper is a very unique talent. I’m confident in saying he has the best shot in the entire NHL meaning, yes, I think his shot is more lethal than Alex Ovechkin’s. However, he isn’t the best at putting himself in a position to use his shot as frequently as possible. This is why I don’t consider him to be the best goal scorer in the league, which is a different title altogether.
It’s no secret that Laine is far from a complete player, and it’s certainly not Maurice’s fault that his game is flawed. Coaches aren’t responsible for any player deficiencies they inherit. It is his job however, to optimize roster production and to put his young star in the best position to succeed.
And at this, Maurice has been failing miserably.
Rather than looking for rational solutions, Maurice’s plan has been to keep trotting Laine out on the same line to the same inevitable and disappointing results. The Laine/Bryan Little/Nikolaj Ehlers experiment has run its course. We have a 658 minute sample to prove this, which is too large and flat out unacceptable given their results. They get outshot (47.69 CF%), outscored (47.17 GF%), and out chanced (46.65 xGF%) when playing together, besting their opponents in nearly zero aspects of the game.
So why don’t they work? Well, while all three of them are solid players, they lack a fundamental element of hockey: chemistry. This is primarily because Ehlers and Laine don’t grind to find space, and Little isn’t a strong enough centre to compensate for them the way Paul Stastny was able to during last year’s playoff run. This line needs a play-driving forward, and none of them are that. Laine is a square peg. The vacancy he fills on this line is a round hole.
Occasionally, Maurice opts to demote the young Fin down the lineup as a result of their failures. This typically draws a positive reaction from fans. Some want him on the fourth line. Some have even ridiculously suggested sending him down to the Moose in hopes of teaching him a lesson.
But why set a player up for failure when he can be a key contributor in the right spot? Especially when these demotions have no history of solving anything? Once you promote Laine back up with Little and Ehlers (or current replacement Jack Roslovic), he still comes back the same player.
What Maurice needs to do is play to Laine’s strengths. Since the young star struggles in his own end, he’s best suited on a line that tilts the ice towards the offensive zone where he feasts.
Enter Mathieu Perreault, who is basically the Jets version of a free space in Bingo. As a rule, he makes everyone around him better. He was the driving force behind the Ehlers/Little/Perreault line last season, which was arguably the Jets best forward combination. The trio dominated in 207 minutes together, controlling 61.92% of the shots and 64.29% of the goals. Perreault executed all the right reads in the neutral zone to create possession, and crashed to the net for rebounds when possession was gained. He and Little were both strong along the walls, allowing Ehlers to thrive as the line’s shooter.
To get Laine going, Maurice could easily let him fill Ehlers’ role on that line and recreate its success.
Fortunately, Perreault is right there at Maurice’s disposal. He currently plays on the third line with Adam Lowry and Brandon Tanev, and it’s not like that line will falter when and if Perreault leaves. Andrew Copp can easily slide into his spot, seeing as Copp/Lowry/Tanev was a phenomenal defensive trio for the Jets in 2017-18.
Alternatively, Laine can be put on a line with Mark Scheifele, another player that’s hard not to thrive alongside. The combination of Perreault/Scheifele/Laine boasted a 55.73 CF%, a 62.5 GF%, and a 56.55 xGF% last season. Needless to say, a reunion would be delightful.
Whatever the case, the solution is not to keep forcing the Little/Ehlers combo on Laine. Nor is the solution to demote him and expect that to make him a better player overnight. Both strategies are proving to fail. Laine needs play-driving linemates that can grind and find space, and it’s up to Maurice to find them for him. After all, he is the Central Divison’s coaching choice for the 2019 NHL All-Star Game. It’s time he started acting like it.
Lost in the frustration is that Laine is still on pace for 47 goals this year. As fellow Jets Nation contributor Art Middleton recently noted, he’s also well on his way to joining a very exclusive list of six players who have hit the 40 goal mark twice before their 21st birthday, including Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky, Dale Hawerchuk, and Steven Stamkos. There’s also a prevailing opinion that Laine can only score on the powerplay, easily debunked by the fact that only five players have scored more 5 on 5 goals than him since entering the league. The five players are Auston Matthews, Connor McDavid, Jeff Skinner, Alex Ovechkin, and Nikita Kucherov, once again putting Laine in elite company.
Simply put, Laine is still a very good player. The defence isn’t there, but it won’t be such a nuisance if given proper deployment. Someone with his shot only comes around once in a lifetime.
Rather than ragging on the kid, destroying his morale and turning him into Winnipeg’s punching bag, I suggest helping him succeed and keeping him happy.
Stats courtesy of corsica.hockey.