A simple number change is all that’s needed in and around Winnipeg to fuel debate and conjecture.
— Winnipeg Jets (@NHLJets) July 14, 2018
A few days ago, 21-year-old forward Jack Roslovic changed his number from 52 to 28, sparking immediate speculation online about whether the Jets will put together a 27-28-29 line — a line on which Roslovic would be flanked by dynamic Dane Nikolaj Ehlers on his left and Finnish phenom Patrik Laine on his right.
Perhaps it was because of the departure of Paul Statsny to the Vegas Golden Knights, who played between and found quick chemistry with Ehlers and Laine in the latter part of the 2017-18 regular season and Stanley Cup playoffs. Perhaps it was because, other than the recent re-signing of Connor Hellebuyck, the Jets’ summer activities have been low-key thus far. Perhaps it was just due to the numbers being sequential: how often do you see a line made up of players wearing three consecutive?
Whatever the reason, the Jets should give an Ehlers-Roslovic-Laine line a shot this upcoming season.
Line of Young Stars Could Be Game Changer for Jets…
An Ehlers-Roslovic-Laine line has the potential to be extremely high-impact. If there’s any line that would act as a testament to and illustrate Kevin Cheveldayoff’s wizardry at the draft table, it’d be one featuring three homegrown players all 22 years old or younger.
The potential upsides of the combo border on the absurd. Patrik Laine is well-known and borderline worshipped for his offensive exploits, including his trademark wicked shot and devastating one-timer. He’s produced 80 goals and 134 points in his first two NHL campaigns.
Ehlers, on the other hand, possesses explosive speed, tremendous vision, and slick hands, and has produced 162 points in his three seasons since being drafted ninth overall in 2014.
Roslovic doesn’t have as much experience as the other two, but he’s got plenty in his toolbox. He is a proficient playmaker, an accurate shooter, and a deft stick handler in tight spaces. After tearing up the AHL with prolific efforts such as this four-point performance against the Chicago Wolves in the first half of 2017-18 and averaging better than a point per game, he made the jump to the Jets in late December and stuck with the big club the rest of the way. He ended up with 14 points in 31 games, his statistical results rising in lockstep with his role.
At just 21 years old, Roslovic has not nearly reached his sky-high ceiling. Putting him in the middle of Ehlers and Laine for his first full NHL campaign and giving him meaningful minutes could be just what he needs to transition from stud prospect to rising star.
If all three players stayed together and stayed healthy for the bulk of 2018-19, they could end up lighting the lamp more than the sum of their consecutive jersey numbers. 90 goals between the three would not be out of the question if Laine and Ehlers could match their 2017-18 production of 44 and 29, respectively.
…But Success Isn’t Guaranteed
While the potential upsides of the line are many, and the departure of Statsny opens the door for Roslovic to shoulder more responsibility, there’s no guarantee the line will work — putting the three together would still be risky business.
It’s definitely a gamble to make a greenhorn of just 32 NHL games your second-line centre and ask him to log big minutes in between two of your franchise players. However, Roslovic has responded well to incremental increases in his role. In one 14-game stretch—four of which he played on the top line—he tallied two goals and seven assists.
However, that’s a fairly limited sample size. Asking someone to take a top-six role for an entire season is a different animal altogether and would put Roslovic under a whole lot of pressure, pressure far exceeding any he’s faced in his fledgling career thus far.
There’s also a chance Roslovic won’t be able to keep up with the other two or that they simply don’t have good chemistry. Laine and Ehlers are quick customers, and while Roslovic’s not a poor skater, whether he could skate with the speedy superstars for a whole season is unknown. The Jets wouldn’t want to risk kneecapping Ehlers’ and Laine’s production by playing them with a centre who can’t quite reach the same gear.
The last concern is whether the line would be good enough defensively. As good as Patrik Laine is in the offensive zone, he can be equally as bad in his own end. Ehlers, on the other hand, greatly improved his defensive play last season and has become a more well-rounded player.
Youth or Experience?
The old guard may also block Roslovic’s quest to be the Jets second-line centre. The Jets could opt to slot in the vastly experienced Bryan Little—a veteran of 754 NHL games—in between Ehlers and Laine instead.
Per Anthony Murphy, an NHL writer for vavel.com:
On a team that is ready to win now, Little’s track record is something that could earn him the nod over someone like Roslovic, who showed promise but is still relatively unproven.
Compounding the case for Little over Roslovic is the fact the latter took only 39 draws last year as he also played right wing. (Roslovic, has, however, played more extensively as a centre at the AHL level.) Also, the Jets’ history of showing loyalty to their established players—Little is one of the few remaining holdovers from the Atlanta Thrasher days—could make the 30-year-old Little the frontrunner.
Jets Would Be Well-Served to Give the Line a Try
While it’s no sure thing that the trio will find chemistry or that Roslovic is a suitable centre for Ehlers and Laine, the Jets should give the “27-28-29” line a whirl. They’d be foolish not to.
Head coach Paul Maurice should put them together early on in the season when stakes are lower to see if it works. If they produce and aren’t a defensive liability, he should keep them together. If they don’t mesh and they’re a dumpster fire in their own zone, he can always fall back on Little and send Roslovic to the bottom-six, deploying him either at centre or on the wing.
The potential benefits of grouping the three guys together are too good to ignore—the line could be fearsome for opponents. Ehlers, Roslovic, and Laine should at least be given the opportunity to show what they can do on the ice together.