The Winnipeg Jets desperately needed to kick-start Patrik Laine after the biggest slump of his young career. The magic formula to break that slump turned out to be what many Jets fans had been clamoring for all season: a change in linemates. It wasn’t exactly the change everyone wanted, but it was apparently the right one. Say whatever you will about Jets coach Paul Maurice’s much-discussed line blender, every now and then it hits a grand slam.
Such was the case for Laine who, since joining Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler on the Jets’ top line, has four goals and an assist in three games. Some of the goals have been of his usual patented power play variety, and wouldn’t you know it, he’s even getting some luck now, too.
It hasn’t just been the goals, though. The statistics tell a big part of the story with players like Laine (i.e. goal scorers) but not the entire story. His defensive play is greatly improved, his forecheck is reinvigorated and his physical play is also increased.
Playing with good players, as any coach who’s had to find linemates for a superstar will tell you, is an underrated and at times bizarre skill. Laine may be a rarity: a good player who not only plays well with his team’s best players but also needs them.
Laine Plays to Teammates’ Strengths
At times this season, the Jets as a team have been accused of playing down to their competition. This would explain their oddly dismal record against the Minnesota Wild, among other teams.
As for Laine, he’s the type of player who plays up to his linemates rather than down to his competition. Playing with the fastest, most competitive players on the ice ups his speed and compete level, too. And try to find a more competitive player than Wheeler.
The goals are one thing, and they were always going to come. Laine’s shot and release are the class of the NHL, and at some point, it was all bound to come uncorked. The biggest differences are in his overall play and demeanor.
Laine’s first goal against the Vegas Golden Knights on Feb. 22 resulted in a monkey-off-the-back type of celebration. Watch his reaction after scoring the second goal of the game, however. Ho hum, back to business as usual.
His goal against the Arizona Coyotes the next night was more of the same. Act like you’ve been there before, kids. Laine certainly has, 29 times this season to be exact. Yet the goals are, as mentioned, only one part of the equation. In that same game against the Coyotes, he posted seven shots and two hits, as well.
There have been numerous theories about what had been troubling Laine during his worst slump to date. Different games brought different difficulties; it’s not every day Laine shoots the puck six times and has no goals to show for it, but that happened twice on his current streak, once each against the Philadelphia Flyers and Nashville Predators.
Most goal scorers will tell you, however, that when they’re not putting the puck in the net, they feel the need to pitch in other ways. They tighten up defensively, they forecheck harder. When they do little things right, their confidence builds and the goals follow.
Top line Patrik Laine seems to be the best Patrik Laine. He's raised his game to the level of Scheifele and Wheeler and the results are dangerous. #NHLJets
— Scott Billeck (@ScottBilleck) February 27, 2019
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. Some of their brash, in-your-face style seems to be rubbing off on Laine, and the offense is following naturally.
For Maurice, this edition of the line blender landed on exactly the right combo. We’ve talked before about how Laine is better off scoring off the cycle than off the rush. That’s why he and Kyle Connor found success together for a time. But as strong as Connor is becoming down low, nobody on the Jets does the cycle game better than Scheifele and Wheeler.
Laine Becomes More Complete
The accusations of “one-trick pony” flew fast and furious at the height of Laine’s slump. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that when he plays with players who force him to branch out beyond that trick, the trick itself becomes all the more successful.
We’re early into Laine’s time with Wheeler and Scheifele yet, and it’s true that three of his four goals in that time have come on the man advantage, but both on and off the power play Laine’s play is growing. Rewatch his first goal against the Golden Knights. He mixes it up heavily with Deryk Engelland, one of the toughest in the business, right before the goal and gets mobile to get himself open rather than planting himself in one spot.
Then there’s the game at the other end of the rink. Much like Alexander Ovechkin at the same age, Laine has fielded concerns about his defensive play a lot in his young career. Not lately, however. Since joining Wheeler and Scheifele, he’s been playing a more complete, 200-foot game.
Whoa. Patrik Laine just had a terrific man-on-man defensive shift in his own zone. Just excellent tracking. Whoa!
— Murat Ates (@WPGMurat) February 27, 2019
Laine’s evolution shouldn’t really surprise anyone, in hindsight. He’s 20 years old. It’s a rare 20-year-old player who’s adept defensively, and a rarer one still who can do it while scoring goals at the rate Laine does. Even Connor McDavid, the best player in the world, has had his defensive game questioned in his young career.
There was always room for Laine to grow, but he wasn’t just going to magically do it on his own. He had to be put in a position to succeed and be given players who bring out the best in him. It took longer than many expected, but for now, at least the Jets have found Laine exactly the type of players he seems to play best with.
Despite his slump, Laine is still within range of another 40-goal season, which would be his second before the age of 21. The Jets have a prodigious talent on their hands, that much is clear. Finding the right players to bring him along is one of the hardest parts of that battle. Have the Jets, at last, figured it out? For the time being, at least, it seems so.