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What’s wrong with Patrik Laine?

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There’s a lot going on with Laine’s puzzling season, and it’s not all on his shoulders.

NHL: Vegas Golden Knights at Winnipeg Jets James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY Sports

The best thing to happen to Winnipeg since the invention of wifi is, undoubtedly, the arrival of Patrik Laine. The Finnish phenom has put a recognizable face to the Jets, a team that’s occasionally struggled to create brand recognition outside of Manitoba. People may not know who Bryan Little or Jacob Trouba is, but it’s nigh impossible to mistake the thunderous release of Laine’s shot. He could probably fire a puck through the heavens and to the edge of the Universe, all without breaking a sweat.

In 213 games, Laine has amassed 105 goals and 65 assists. Did you know he’s accomplished this before the age of 21? It’s really quite remarkable when you consider how rare such an achievement truly is. Few under-21 talents in league history have expertly placed the puck in the net as regularly and efficiently as Patrik. This is now his third season in the NHL, and despite owning 25 markers to his season stat-line, something is very wrong. Is it Laine, the team, both, or something else?

Laine’s Power Play Struggles

The odd decision to move Laine from the first power play unit has been discussed at length, either here or on social media. It’s a notable problem, especially since Laine’s presence completely alters how opposing PK units cheat coverages. It does not, however, explain the dearth of even-strength scoring Laine has experienced over the past several months. Laine has also undergone a significant decline in points/60, which is fairly abnormal for him. He scores a lot, and scores frequently.

In Laine’s rookie season, he was scoring at a rate of 2.27 P/60. Last year, it slightly dipped to 2 P/60, which is still a respectable scoring rate. His actual goals-for were 36 and 44 respectively. Pretty good for a kid who isn’t of legal drinking age in the US. This season has been a different story. Laine’s scoring rate has dipped to 1.54 P/60, and his assist rate (not high to begin with) has also declined slightly.

All statistics sourced from Corsica. Link for reference: http://corsica.hockey/skater-stats/.

Looking into Laine’s individual CF and iCF/60, the story becomes even more puzzling. Generally speaking, Laine is attempting shots at a rate fairly close to what he was last season. His sh%, however, has declined from 14.47% to 11.32%. You could contend he’s having a bit of poor puck luck, and that’s certainly true. From my own observations, especially on the power play, Laine has been finding goalie pads a lot more frequently.

From PK units, this is a pretty natural adjustment. When Wheeler starts spying the far left-side near the face-off circle, the goalies usually know what follows. As a result, they’ve been cheating to Laine’s side a lot quicker, sealing off the near-side post from Patrik’s shot. You might believe the sheer force of the release would be enough to squeak through opposing netminders, but that hasn’t been the case thus far. Generally speaking, I don’t think Laine is actually doing that poorly on the power play. He’s shanked some shot attempts wide in trying to preempt the cross-crease goalie movement, but he’s still vulcanizing pucks.

NHL: Colorado Avalanche at Winnipeg Jets James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY Sports

In anything, it’s the support Laine is offered that’s the issue. On the power play, Patrik usually drifts along the left circle, looking for a lane between the PK diamond to rip a shot from distance. Occasionally, the Jets have been a touch over-reliant on the option to Laine, and have tried to compensate for that with more Wheeler shots. I’m not a fan of this, as Wheeler’s release isn’t as strong as it used to be. Blake has also had some mobility issues along the wall, and when he hangs on to the puck for an extended period, he can get caught closer to the goal-line, springing a dangerous short-handed counter.

The effect is two-fold; Laine is forcing his shot attempts, and Scheifele is being taken out of the equation. The Jets power play is extremely reliant on a diversification of scoring options, yet Winnipeg has begun to default to Wheeler and Laine almost exclusively. Connor is a non-factor and Byfuglien is still Byfuglien, which means cannoned shots from up high. The reduction in scoring threat makes it easier for goalies to cheat to Laine without fearing a reprisal for the decision, and that takes away from Laine’s poaching ability.

The most puzzling decision was to plant Laine on the second power play unit. I know Maurice wanted to send a message and experiment, but it completely messes with how both units attack PK coverages. Even stranger was the decision to use Patrik in the central slot area, a territory of the ice where his slower approach doesn’t translate well to scoring from tight angles. All of this seems like a fairly obvious issue, but the Jets haven’t really seemed keen to reset things until the game against Colorado. Even then, the change wasn’t until late. Don’t overthink this, Winnipeg.

A Shadow at Even-Strength

As I alluded to earlier, Laine’s even-strength issues may be the most frustrating part of his season. It’s a well-established fact that Patrik isn’t a typical playdriver. For the most part, he’s a booming shot with some remarkably savvy passing and a brain that processes high-level reads. His body, however, seldom allows for execution of the offensive and defensive plays he mentally conjures. Many mistakenly label him a one-trick pony, and this is a great disservice to a player that’s shown some tremendous two-way growth in recent times.

One notable area of improvement is Laine’s defensive contributions. He occasionally handles the puck like a hand-grenade, but has redoubled efforts to win puck recoveries along the boards and disrupt offensive zone entries by opposing skaters. He’s certainly no expert in either category, but his improvement has been reflected in a surprising decrease in his expected goals-against. In Laine’s first two seasons, he was expected to account for 43.79 and 41.21 goals against. This season, he’s reduced that rate to a much improved 33.22 xGA. Make no mistake, that delta is huge, especially for a winger branded as a liability.

Unfortunately, Laine’s expected goals-for has also taken a tremendous hit. Last season, he was expected to score somewhere in the neighborhood of 38 tallies, but that’s declined to 24.64 xGF. Patrik has always drastically outperformed his xGF due to his shooting skill, but that ability has nearly vanished this season. Fans have turned on him as well, owing to the scoring drought he’s suffering. One goal in 15 games is pretty bad, but this has quite a bit to do with his deployments on the second line.

Data visualization courtesy of Micah Blake McCurdy at hockeyviz.com.

The graphic above displays the shots-for relative to the rest of the league. Friends, this result is not good. Not good at all. Winnipeg’s common second line trio is generating less dangerous chances, and not getting anything directly in front of the goalie. The combination of Laine, Little, and Roslovic is actually worse, if you can believe it. Both units don’t have tremendously large sample sizes, but the common thread is that the second line isn’t getting shots on net from the areas of highest danger.

When watching the Laine unit, you can detect some micro-tactical decisions that completely nullify the line’s effectiveness. For one thing, Patrik has been made to be the neutral zone transition lead and the offensive entry specialist. He has improved in both areas, but still falls well below that of someone like Scheifele. Laine certainly possesses the ability to transition play across zones, but it’s best when this isn’t occurring. With Laine serving as the puck carrier, teams have a much easier time intercepting him at the blueline and countering Winnipeg’s breakouts.

NHL: Colorado Avalanche at Winnipeg Jets James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY Sports

In the offensive zone, the second line also has very limited puck movement. They’ve likely already expended a good deal of energy entering the zone, and don’t establish great puck distribution lanes inside the perimeter. As a result, Little and one of Connor or Roslovic ends up shooting the puck instead of feeding Laine a quality pass. Both of Laine’s linemates are passive in zone transition, and a bit trigger-happy in the offensive zone. This neutralizes the single most powerful shot on Winnipeg’s roster at even-strength.

The Outcome

You can tell all of this is weighing heavily on Laine. His body language looks poor, he’s grimacing in between breaks, and there’s a general air of despondency in him. He’s endured goal droughts before, but nothing quite as stark in goals and scoring chances created as this. As much as Laine needs to improve on things like skating and decision-making, the coaching staff also needs to support him with players who can best activate his talents. You don’t want to throw a bunch of guys together with no chemistry, but that’s precisely what’s happened. Laine needs a true distributor to feed him the puck, whether that’s Perreault or Scheifele. Until this happens, the season isn’t going to improve.

It’d be an overstatement to suggest fixing Laine solves all of Winnipeg’s problems, but so much of what’s gone wrong for him this season may be a result of the deeper issues plaguing the roster. The Jets don’t have the right balance in the line-up, and it’s only exposing the defensive woes to a greater extent. Winnipeg needs to do all it can to support its young superstar. Help Laine help you, and things may start to work the way they’re intended to. The Jets are certainly making the playoffs, but to win the Cup, improvement starts from within.