Will Laine’s Play Save the Jets Some Dough?

Patrik Laine is in the final year of his entry-level contract and is set for a huge raise and a long-term contract come July. However, will his inconsistencies and struggles, which have recently come to a head,  impact how much of a raise it will be?

Laine a Streaky Scorer

Laine undoubtedly possesses one of the NHL’s most dangerous shots. That being said, his offensive output has more ups and downs than the Lacerda Elevator. He looked lost to start the season, scoring just three goals and none at even strength through October. He bounced around the lineup, playing on all four lines. However, a trip to Finland as part of a pair of 2018 Global Series Games gave him the perfect chance to get back on track and get his mojo back.

Patrik Laine Jets Bench
Patrik Laine is known to score in bunches but also struggle for stretches. (Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports)

His homecoming was a sight to behold — he potted four goals, including a hat trick in the first game, much to the delight of his Finnish fans. He looked multi-dimensional and dangerous and used his speed and hands to generate offence from many different areas on the ice rather than from just his power-play ‘office.’

The 20-year-old parlayed the confidence he built in his old stomping grounds into the best month of his NHL career — his November will long be remembered for its prolific and historic performances. He lit the lamp 18 times in 12 games, scored three hat tricks in three different countries and scored five in a once-in-a-lifetime performance against the St. Louis Blues.

Related: Laine’s November a Month to Remember

Jets right wing Patrik Laine
Laine had an incredible November, but hasn’t had much success since. (Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports)

However, Laine is now bogged down in another slump. He has just three goals since his prolific month and only one in his last 11 games.

Laine’s Defensive Zone Deficiencies Disturbing

Laine’s streakiness is more or less expected at this point. The Jets have had tickets to this roller coaster for nearly 200 games now and know it’s a ride full of peaks and valleys.

“He kind of put it on himself with how good he was and how much he scored right off the bat and now people expect multiple five-goal games, which is super unrealistic,” linemate Bryan Little said recently. “But that’s what people expect” (from ‘Laine struggling to meet lofty expectations‘  -Winnipeg Free Press – 01/08/19).

What’s more alarming is his play in his own end of the rink. Despite being in his third NHL season, his defensive game is still full of foibles.

On some occasions, he seems to be completely uninterested in working hard in the defensive zone. He frequently gets knocked off the puck despite his 6-foot-5, 205-pound frame by opponents exhibiting even a modicum of effort. He often loses battles along the walls and fails to get pucks out of the zone, especially when playing on his off-side as he is right now on the second line with Little and Jack Roslovic.

On other occasions, he looks like he’s working hard but doesn’t have the skill to translate his efforts into positive results. A few weeks ago, he backchecked hard on a Calgary Flames odd-man rush but ended up deflecting Johnny Gaudreau’s centering pass into his own net.

Laine’s defensive zone efforts often leads to penalties. On Tuesday against the Colorado Avalanche, he was sent to the sin bin twice — the first time for slashing and the second time for tripping. Both infractions occurred in his own end.

Despite head coach Paul Maurice saying Laine is “a much, much better five-on-five hockey player than he was a year ago at this time” and Laine’s claim that “defence is still the most important thing we need to do on the ice,” he’s made little headway in improving his defensive play since his a 36-goal rookie campaign two seasons ago.

He simply hasn’t taken the next step to becoming a complete player yet. Age is not an excuse when you look at the well-rounded, 200-foot game Auston Matthews, who was chosen first overall in the same draft as Laine, plays for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Toronto Maple Leafs Auston Matthews
Age is not an excuse for Laine’s struggles considering Auston Matthews is also 20 years old but plays a well-rounded, 200-foot game. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

Laine’s offensive prowess covers a multitude of sins. It’s when he’s not scoring that his ineffectiveness in other areas is illuminated. If he’d have scored, say, five or six goals in his last 10, fans would likely be singing the praises of their Finnish phenom instead of shaking their fists at him.

Is Laine Losing Leverage?

That brings us back to the question posed off the top: does Laine’s all-or-nothing play and obvious defensive flaws impact how lucrative of a new contract he can command? How much will general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff be willing to pay for someone who is — and might always be — a one-trick pony?

Patrik Laine, Winnipeg Jets, NHL
Will Laine’s recent struggles put a cap on his new contract? (Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports)

In the summer, the consensus of many, this author included, was that while Laine was not likely to receive a Connor McDavid-esque 12.5 million cap hit, he would undoubtedly become the highest-paid Jet whose salary easily eclipses that of Mark Scheifele and Nikolaj Ehlers. Scheifele and Ehlers’ contracts are both team-friendly and carry average annual values of $6.125 million and $6 million, respectively.

Many thought Laine’s contract would come close to 2015 second-overall pick, Jack Eichel’s. The Buffalo Sabres star, selected one spot after McDavid in 2015, signed an eight-year contract with an AAV of $10 million in Oct. 2017.

“It’s not unthinkable Laine could pull down Jack Eichel money, in the neighbourhood of $10 million a year,” Sportsnet’s Sean Reynolds wrote in the wake of Laine’s amazing month. “It could be more. His historic scoring pace is a strong negotiating tool and since Laine hasn’t shown a perceptible ceiling, his agent can argue he will only get better.”

Jack Eichel Buffalo Sabres
Laine will not be likely to command Eichel-esque money if his struggles continue. (Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports)

Laine’s recent struggles, however, may have swung the pendulum and the bargaining power back to the Jets and swept double-digit millions off the table. This was recently the topic of much discussion on TSN 1290 Winnipeg’s keynote program, The Big Show. 

“This hockey market is too smart to be drunk on his goal scoring prowess when the other holes in his game stand out,” host Troy Westwood said Wednesday. “Because I think there’s such great hockey knowledge here and understanding of the game, he’s still been criticized for the weaknesses of his game,” he continued, going on to say he feels the criticism is legitimate and warranted. “$10 million seems like a bit of stretch right now,” co-host Brandon Rewucki added.

Laine Will Still Command Big Bucks

Again, how much will the Jets pay a one-trick pony? Perhaps not as much as the Sabres are paying Eichel, but still a lot.

Some other recent contracts that may be more realistic are of the Boston Bruins’ David Pasternak (who signed six-year contract with an AAV of 6.67 million in Sept. 2017) and the Maple Leafs’ William Nylander (who inked a similar six-year deal in December with an AAV of 6.69 million in years two through six.)

David Pastrnak Bruins
Laine’s contract could end up looking more like David Pastrnak’s rather than Jack Eichel’s. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

So yes, in a way, Laine can’t lose. He’s still going to become a very rich man, so don’t shed too many tears for him. Even though he only has one trick at times, it’s a darn good one that’ll get him paid.

Next Six Months is Very Important

A lot can change before the Jets and Laine sit down and try to hash out a new deal. There’s nearly half a season of hockey and playoffs still to come, and Laine could easily go on anther heater that swings the pendulum back his way. He’s still an elite sniper who’s capable of great things. He’s on-pace for nearly 50 goals and possesses a mesmerizing shot that allows him to score from nearly unthinkable areas. There’s a reason only Alexander Ovechkin has more goals over the past three seasons.

“If the dude goes off come playoff time, the whole storyline can change,” Westwood said. “If you bring a Conn Smythe home it might go to 12,” Rewucki agreed.

Mathieu Perreault Patrik Laine Winnipeg Jets
The way Laine plays between now and summer will ultimately be the biggest influence on how much he makes. (James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY Sports)

That makes the next six months crucial for Laine and the Jets. Ideally, Laine catches fire and the Jets win the Stanley Cup. However, Laine remaining sub-par might not be the worst thing for the Jets. They’ve been succeeding despite their sniper being mostly MIA since early December and are set to dole out a lot of cash to a pile of players this summer and next. Any savings, even a million or two, would be beneficial.

Winston Churchill once characterized the Soviet Union’s potential role in World War II as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” That quote also characterizes Laine’s uneven play and how lucrative his new contract will be.

It’s a riddle wrapped in mystery inside an enigma right now, but it’ll become much clearer between now and July. As the Jets strive to be first in the Central Division, keep an eye on No. 29. He’s playing for the Jets, but also for his future fortunes.