Raise your hand if you thought the strongest point of Patrik Laine’s game down the stretch for the Winnipeg Jets would be his playmaking ability. Now, if your hand is up, put it down, because you’re a liar.
Laine’s had his share of struggles this season, but still has 29 goals. While he possesses, without question, a once-in-a-generation shot, the “Laine laser” has taken a backseat lately to the deft dishes of “Patrik the playmaker.”
From Sniper to Set-Up Man
In the Jets’ seven March contests thus far, Laine has zero goals. But there hasn’t been the hand-wringing, brow-furrowing, or general sense of disquietude as when the Finnish phenom went 15 games without lighting the lamp between Jan. 19 to Feb. 20.
Granted, his seven-game goalless streak is not even half as long as that abysmal stretch. However, the main reason no one’s ragging on Laine right now is that he’s lending a regular helping hand to his linemates.
Despite his lack of goals, Laine’s been hitting the scoresheet consistently — he’s got six assists already this month.
Laine’s shot is well-feted, but his passing and ability to settle the puck down quickly are underrated. He’s at his best when he is on the move and creating chances from different points on the ice, whether from shots or passes. We explored this multi-dimensionality after his outstanding Finnish homecoming back in November. He can actually make a lot happen with very little space, although this aspect of his game seems the first to fade when his confidence dips.
New Linemates Demand Laine’s Best
Laine’s transition to a dish master began about three weeks ago when he joined the Jets’ top line alongside Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler, while the 20-year-old was stuck in the nadir of the deepest and most profound dry spell ever.
If you recall, placing Laine on the top-line, left-wing spot was something head coach Paul Maurice was loathed to do in early February. His rationale was that he wanted Laine to “feel the what the pressure’s like when things don’t go well,” and to work out of his slump on his own rather than be handed the most coveted forward slot on the team. (from ‘No, pain, no gain,’ Winnipeg Free Press, 02/08/19.)
Since then, Maurice clearly had a change of heart, and that change of heart has created a change in Laine. Laine is more engaged than at any other point this season — his pace, especially, is way up. It’s something THW’s own Rob Mahon explored in detail at the beginning of the month.
“The style of game Wheeler and Scheifele play leaves no room for floaters, but if you’re willing to keep their pace, you’ll be rewarded,” Mahon wrote.” Some of their brash, in-your-face style seems to be rubbing off on Laine, and the offense is following naturally.”
Laine admits playing with the pace-driving pair has come with a learning curve, but he is getting more comfortable as time goes on.
“They’re good at creating spaces, empty spots on the ice,” Laine said after a two-assist night in a 4-3 win against the Boston Bruins on Thursday. “Now, I’m kind of starting to learn where they want to go with the puck, where do they want me to go, so it’s kind of been a learning process but… it’s getting more and more comfortable.
New Line Creates New Looks, New Challenges
Playing with the team’s’ captain and alternate captain is opening up new looks for Laine, but also creating new challenges.
“I’ve got three right-handed shots there, so when he opens up he’s got two guys that are very, very fast,” Maurice explained recently. “Blake just drives the pace and Mark is very good at finding holes off that. It’s a different game if it’s a lefty there… because of the off-side speed he has, it puts (Laine) in a position when he gets it to have those passing options, where he wouldn’t have had it before. It also puts him in a more difficult place to shoot the puck.”
That Laine can help, rather than hinder, his line even when he isn’t the one scoring is a testament that his game is evolving.
“The parts of the five-on-five game for Patty that he’s improved drastically on playing with Mark and Blake is patience in his game,” Maurice continued. “His shot selection’s always been very very good — he doesn’t waste a whole lot.”
“His five-on-five game is night-and-day better from the day that he went with those guys,” the coach concluded. One: because he’s smart and wants to make it work, right? But he also has an appreciation now that if you’re playing against (the other teams’ best), you don’t get to make two mistakes in one shift. It’s in the back of your net.”
If Laine continues to be multi-dimensional, it will make goaltenders respect the potential for a pass when he enters the zone with the puck or otherwise has o-zone possession, whereas previously they could key on him as the triggerman. Giving goalies more to think about is never a bad thing, and it’s led to increased opportunities for Scheifele and Wheeler in recent games, like in the goal below.
— Winnipeg Jets (@NHLJets) March 15, 2019
That’s something Wheeler touched on after Laine’s two-assist Thursday. “All eyes are on him when he has the puck in a scoring area,” Wheeler said. “People lose track of the other guys going to the net.”
Wheeler Benefitting Most From ‘Bizarro Line’
Speaking of Wheeler, the man who usually amasses the apples has been the biggest beneficiary of Laine’s recent playmaking prowess.
Wheeler is third in the NHL with 65 assists, and has now reached the 20-goal plateau for the seventh time in his career. He’s scored eight of those 20 this month, and Laine’s drawn an assist on four of them.
— Winnipeg Jets (@NHLJets) March 9, 2019
To see Laine dishing to Wheeler instead of vice versa is odd; it’s a bit like “The Bizarro Jerry” episode of Seinfeld, where Elaine stumbles upon people who look the same as her old friends, but act completely different. Bizarro George is considerate and generous. Bizarro Kramer knocks. Laine passes. Wheeler scores. Even though it’s a bit strange to see, it’s working right now.
“He’s been great,” Wheeler said of Laine. “When you have a guy who gets as much attention as he does shooting the puck — he gets a lot of focus on him for that. We don’t want to take that away from him, but there’s time when the right play’s pass… we’re trying to drive the net, give him some space.”
Goals or Assists: Does it Really Matter?
Would the Jets like Laine to light the lamp a little more in their final 12 games and into the Stanley Cup playoffs? Absolutely. Unless he suddenly starts scoring at an outrageous pace as he did in his 18-goal November, he will finish with the lowest goal total of his three-year career. Scoring goals, after all, is what he’s going to get a big extension this summer to do for many seasons to come.
However, it’s not like he’s not getting his chances or passing up shooting opportunities altogether. He clanked both posts in the second period against the Bruins, the second time beating Tuukka Rask — but not the iron — after a beautiful rush complete with a toe drag around Patrice Bergeron. With how strong his overall game is lately, the goals will come.
As long as Laine continues being a boon to his line and keeps playing inspired hockey, the Jets won’t be too angry if he doesn’t pot a pile. When it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter — especially in the playoffs — who’s putting the puck in the net. All that matters is that someone is.