The Columbus Blue Jackets’ season is about a week from being over and with no playoffs for the second straight season, we prepare for a lengthy offseason. One of the noteworthy moments of the offseason is the year-end awards. While no Blue Jackets are legitimately in contention for any of the performance-based awards, one award to keep your eye on is the Bill Masterton Trophy. Star forward Patrik Laine has had a season worthy of the award and should be getting some love from the voters.
What are the Criteria for the Masterton?
Taken directly from the NHL, the Bill Masterton Trophy is awarded “to the National Hockey League player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey.”
It is, by far, the most malleable of awards with so much room for interpretation, which is why it’s seen such a wide variety of winners from so many different situations. Looking at who has won in the past few years, the award has been won by players who have overcome extraordinary odds to return to playing the game in the world’s top league. Normally, those odds are some sort of personal tragedy, illness, or disease, but there are a plethora of considerations that could put someone’s name on the trophy.
The list of Masterton winners is full of a variety of people:
- Cancer survivors – like Oskar Lindblom (2021), Brian Boyle (2018), and Phil Kessel (2007)
- Those dealing with mental illness – like Bobby Ryan (2020) and Robin Lehner (2019)
- The extremely old for the sport – Jaromir Jagr who led his team in scoring as a 44-year-old (2016)
- Those who’ve suffered great personal loss – Dominic Moore (2014), Jose Theodore (2010)
- Those who’ve returned from terrible on-ice injuries – Max Pacioretty (2012), Steve Sullivan (2009)
- Those who’ve had a strong bounce-back season – Devan Dubnyk (2015)
- Other debilitating illness – Josh Harding diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (2013)
The award is voted on by members of the Professional Hockey Writer’s Association. Since 2000, it has been awarded to 15 members from Eastern Conference teams, two from Canadian teams, and six from Western Conference teams.
How Does Laine Fit the Criteria?
No one else on the Blue Jackets roster has bounced back quite like Laine this season — in multiple ways — while overcoming his fair share of adversity. He ticks a couple of the boxes from above.
Coming over from the Winnipeg Jets in a blockbuster trade last season, Laine did not initially play as advertised. Struggling under John Tortorella’s stringent defense-first approach, he found himself often butting heads with the coaching staff, and even riding the pine on a couple occasions. His offensive production ran dry in what was a less-than-stellar first impression. An impression which drew speculation if he could be a fit in Columbus without the star talent he had played alongside in Winnipeg.
Under new head coach Brad Larsen’s more laissez-faire approach, Laine bounced back to start this season with a point-per-game pace through his first nine outings. Then, adversity hit in the form of the injury bug. He was sidelined with an oblique strain from the beginning of November through the end of December.
During his time out of the lineup, tragedy struck the Laine family. In late November, Laine’s father, Harri passed away unexpectedly. Following the passing, Laine made his way home to his native Finland to spend time with family and celebrate the life of his father, who he has since referred to as his best friend.
He’s been my number one fan and supporter always. Not that my mom and sister and everyone else hasn’t been, but I think hockey was kind of our thing, our passion. I definitely wouldn’t be here without him. He always watched my games ever since I was a kid. He always wakes up at night to watch my games. It’s definitely tough, losing my best friend. It’s tough.Patrik Laine said of his father after he returned to Columbus following his passing.
It’s not exaggerating to say that Laine’s offensive performance after his return has been among the greatest seasons in Blue Jacket history. From a points-per-game perspective, right now Laine sits at exactly a point-per-game, which is a mark that has only been hit by Rick Nash and Artemi Panarin. Through that run, he also had an incredible 11-game point streak, through which he posted 13 goals and eight assists. While he is currently out of the lineup, injured again, he leads the team in goals and sits tied with Jakub Voracek for the team lead in points. It’s an impressive thing to accomplish when missing so much time and overcoming so much.
Yes, other Blue Jackets have been fraught with adversity, too. A couple of Blue Jackets have outright quit on the team following tough times, Mikko Lehtonen and Gregory Hofmann, while Alexandre Texier has taken a personal leave of absence stretching throughout the entire second half of the season. Even Gus Nyquist has had a return to form after missing the entirety of last season after shoulder surgery. Only Laine bounced back from a down year, and persevered through mental and physical obstacles to perform at an elite, team-leading level.
Who’s Laine’s Competition?
In a year with no clear front-runner, Laine is as strong of a candidate as any. My colleague Steven Ground wrote an excellent piece about St. Louis Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko as a front runner, which you should give a read after this. Tarasenko has returned from multiple surgeries and other injuries to lead the Blues in scoring this year.
The one fatal flaw in the Tarasenko argument for me is his trade request out of St. Louis at the beginning of the year. To me, the request says that he tried to quit on his team, but due to his injury situation and his cap hit, the Blues couldn’t even give him away. Only after that did he simply continue to play at a level that he had already shown he was capable of playing.
Other notable frontrunners for the award are: Philadelphia Flyers forward Kevin Hayes, whose brother Jimmy passed away before the season began; Detroit Red Wings captain Dylan Larkin, who spent some time away during the season to tend to a family emergency; even someone like New York Islanders defenseman Zdeno Chara could be a contender for playing nearly 20 minutes a night at 45 years old.
Laine Should be Strongly Considered
At the end of the day, there are a lot of players worthy of consideration for this award. In a season like this, with no clear frontrunner, predicting the winner would be difficult. Being in a smaller market like Columbus with not as much media attention may hurt Laine’s bid in the end, but that doesn’t mean he is any less worthy.
With a major loss in his life and a few injuries, to still perform at a team-leading level shows Laine’s perseverance through adversity and exemplifies sportsmanship and dedication to the sport of hockey. At the very least he has put his strong character on display to those in the Blue Jackets’ organization, which you would have to assume will bid favourably for the Finn in what is likely to be a very serious discussion around a new contract this offseason.
Writer covering the Columbus Blue Jackets for THW since August 2021.
Co-host of the Blue Jackets’ focused “Union Junction Podcast” on The Hockey Writers’ podcast network.
Also, a radio personality and reporter currently based on Vancouver Island.