It’s no secret that Patrik Laine has struggled this season. Since being traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets on January 23, 2021, Laine has posted just 10/7/17 in 34 games. To say that is an underperformance, for a guy that is considered one of the most talented shooters in the entire NHL, would be an understatement. There has been a lot of debate about why he has struggled, who is to blame, and what needs to be done to help him. Now that the trade deadline has come and gone, and the team’s trajectory for the rest of this season has seemingly been decided, let’s take a look at the future of Patrik Laine and the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Developing the Player
Per Aaron Portzline of The Athletic, Jarmo Kekalainen has had his eye on his fellow countryman for a long time and thinks Laine can be developed into much more than a shooter. But what does he need to improve? On the offensive side of the puck, we’ve seen glimpses of play-making and power forward abilities, but his biggest weakness seems to be lack of puck strength. Laine currently leads the team in giveaways per 60 at 3.59, which is also good for 17th most in the league. On the defensive side, there’s an argument to be made that he’s better than some have given him credit for based on his level of effort. The one glaring stat, however, that sticks out like a sore thumb is goals against per 60 at 5v5 - he’s 2nd worst on the team at 3.72, just behind Scott Harrington. The counterargument would be that the entire team has struggled defensively this season. Former Blue Jacket David Savard, who Torts relied on in critical defensive situations, ranks 3rd worst on the team in GA/60 at 3.59.
The biggest debate has been around whether or not John Tortorella is putting him in the best position to succeed, but let’s operate under the assumption that Torts isn’t the coach next season. It is possible that a new system that doesn’t require Laine to grind away in the corners and below the net would allow him to hone his puck carrying skills. It would also be helpful for a coach to lean into his strengths, while working with him on other parts of his game, instead of putting him head first into situations that cause his biggest weaknesses to become glaring public spectacles. We’ve seen glimpses of this since the Jackets mailed it in for the season. On Monday night, the entire team played a more open and offensive style of hockey and Laine was a beneficiary. He now has 3 goals in his last 2 games, including a true power forward’s goal. At 6’5” and possessing one of the most accurate shots in the league, he has the size, speed, and skill to be an all around elite player in the NHL. The Blue Jackets want him to be strong on the puck and to create his own space and opportunities on a nightly basis.
If Jarmo’s vision goes according to plan, Laine will become an impact player all on his own. What if that vision struggles to become reality?
Finding a First Line Center
Regardless of how Laine’s development tracks individually, the Blue Jackets will be looking for a center anyway. If the struggles to consistently create offense on his own continue, he may need a true number one center that can drive play and take pressure off the wings. Laine would likely be much more effective if he wasn’t getting double and triple teamed every trip down the ice. Right now, especially if Bjorkstrand is on the bench, Laine is usually the only high danger forward the defense needs to worry about. The defensive philosophy of many opponents this season has been to shut him down and take your chances with the other forwards.
There is one problem with this. First line centers are very difficult to come by. Even if Columbus managed to land a top line center in the 2021 NHL Draft, it would like be at least a couple of years before they were contributing at a high level. For immediate help, trading for a center is going to cost you. If Jarmo manages to trade for a center, there’s a pretty good possibility that someone like Werenski will be involved. Does this team have the defensive depth to lose a player like Z? If not, there’s only one other asset with that kind of value.
If Jarmo Kekalainen ends up trading Patrik Laine, it won’t be an indictment against the player. The most likely reason for a trade would be a failed attempt at finding a center. Laine is still under team control until July 1, 2023 (assuming he doesn’t sign an extension past that date). There’s still a lot of value in a player that scored 44 goals at age 19. There will always be teams looking for a player like Laine, the question would be whether or not one would be willing to part with a top line center. A couple teams come to mind - LA has Byfield and Turcotte, Buffalo has Eichel and Cozens, Colorado has MacKinnon and Newhook, and Anaheim has Zegras and Perreault. Any one of those teams could end up having two first line centers and may be willing to part with one for a package that includes Laine.
Picture it being the summer of 2022. You’ve re-signed Seth Jones and Zach Werenski. Oliver Bjorkstrand is coming off a 70 point season. Yegor Chinakhov put up 15-20-35 as a rookie. Kirill Marchenko will be moving to Columbus in September. These things may not all fall into place, but there is a potential scenario where Columbus finds itself with significantly more offensive talent going into the 2022-2023 season. At that point, what do you do if you still need a true number one center to send you over the top?
The Columbus Blue Jackets find themselves in a situation they haven’t been in for awhile, looking solely to the future. Whether or not Patrik Laine will be part of the long-term future of this club is pretty unclear. What this team has to work with right now is a player with tons of potential that needs to improve on both sides of the puck. Maybe a new coach and system will allow Laine to thrive and grow next season. If the Patrik Laine from Monday night is the Patrik Laine of the future, we all hope he will be a Blue Jacket for a very long time. If not, the need for a center may eventually outweigh the need for him. If that happens, there will be plenty of suitors. For now, #29 is a Blue Jacket. Let’s enjoy the brilliant one-timers and root for him to come out the other side of this season a better player.