Mike Powers, Elmwood Park, Ill.
Mike Powers, Elmwood Park, Ill.
Patrik Laine. Image by: Getty Images
The origins of Patrik Laine’s lethal shot lie buried in his family’s backyard. And imagine, if it weren’t for his father, Laine would still be stopping pucks instead of shooting them.
It takes somewhere in the neighborhood of five centuries for aluminum to decompose. That means there are 490-odd years left for some archaeologically inclined Finnish hockey fans to get their hands on some precious pieces of memorabilia. The dig site is a backyard in Tampere, Finland, and soda can shrapnel is the treasure. Those fragments of old aluminum cans, bashed, battered and burst to bits by six ounces of hard-charging vulcanized rubber, are a reminder of where Patrik Laine began his path to becoming one of the most fearsome rookie scorers ever.
Laine’s shot, used to blast soda cans apart years ago, has been the talk of the NHL this season. It’s lethal, both in strength and accuracy, and it didn’t get that way overnight, which is to say it’s not Laine’s gift so much as his passion project. In his backyard, on the ice and in every moment he could spare, Laine would shoot. And when he was tired, he would shoot again. He’d shoot until his hands bled, as they did while training this past summer, and then he’d shoot some more.
“I had a net in our backyard and I spent many hours there every day, just shooting,” Laine said. “When the coaches would blow the whistle and everyone would get water, I stayed and took shots to improve it.”
Laine has long since graduated from obliterating soda cans in his backyard, moving on to dominating the SM-liiga in Finland and now to destroying the already high expectations put upon him as an 18-year-old rookie in the NHL. On his first night in the league, Laine showed off the skills built in his parents’ backyard with a laser wrist shot from the left point that sparked a Jets come-from-behind victory. He called his first NHL goal “the best moment in the world,” made more special with his family there to see it. Days later, he had a hat trick in a showdown against Toronto Maple Leafs phenom Auston Matthews – the only player drafted ahead of him last June – capped off by an overtime snipe that sent the MTS Centre into a frenzy. At the season’s midway point, only Sidney Crosby had more goals than Laine, and he and Matthews were on pace to be the first teenaged rookies to score 40-plus goals since Eric Lindros in 1992-93.
The irony in all of this, of course, is that Laine came close to spending his entire career trying to stop pucks. If Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff hasn’t sent Laine’s father, Harri, a thank you card yet, he may want to get out his finest stationary and draft up something special, because if it weren’t for him, Laine might still be plying his trade as a goaltender somewhere in Finland. He didn’t give up the position until he was 12.
“I would have kept going but then my dad decided for me, and I went being a forward all the time,” Laine said. “I was a better goalie than a forward, but I think I’m good with his decision.”
That position change came only six years ago. Imagine what Laine could be capable of had he focused all his energy on scoring goals instead of stopping them from the outset. But there may be something to the connection between Laine’s goaltending days and his current goal-scoring ways. Facing Laine’s shot hundreds of times already in practice, Jets goaltender Michael Hutchinson made note of a trait Laine has that few players, be it rookies or veterans, possess – the ability to use a goaltender’s understanding of a shooter’s tendencies against them.
“He doesn’t just pick the top corner every time,” Hutchinson said. “A lot of kids, especially at 17 and 18 with a shot like that, want to come in and just shoot the puck as hard as they can and try to go bar down and blow one by the goalie every single time. He’s not like that. He has no problem shooting for a rebound to get his teammates a goal, shooting for five-hole or picking a low corner over the pad. That’s maturity beyond his years.”
And impressive maturity given how swift his progression has been from goaltender to goal scorer. Laine is used to progressing quickly, though, because his six-year rise to becoming one of the world’s best teenage players was preceded by a year-long skyrocket up the draft rankings.
“I was a better goalie than a forward, but I think I’m good with his decision.”
In The Hockey News’ Future Watch and Draft Preview issues in 2015, Laine was nowhere to be found among the projected top 10 for 2016. Instead, a panel of scouts deemed the likes of Logan Brown and Kieffer Bellows as top-10 selections, with fellow Finn Jesse Puljujarvi considered the shoo-in second-overall pick behind Matthews. By the start of 2015-16, however, the winds of change were blowing fiercer than a blustery chill at Portage and Main. Laine had vaulted up the charts, projected to go as high as fourth, with Matthew Tkachuk and Jakob Chychrun often separating Laine from the top three. It was following the 2016 World Junior Championship that Laine completed his rise up the draft board.
“A year ago him and Jesse Puljujarvi were more or less even,” recalled NHL director of European scouting Goran Stubb. “But after Christmas, and after the world juniors, Laine just took off and was unbelievable.”
Laine had seven goals and 13 points in seven games at the world juniors en route to winning gold with Finland. He then returned to the Finnish League and scored at a torrid pace, dominating the post-season with 10 goals and 15 points in 18 games as Tappara, his hometown team, captured the league title with Laine taking playoff MVP honors. His unpredictable rise continued at the World Championship in May, where he scored seven goals and 12 points in 10 games on his way to a silver medal and yet another MVP honor.
“His understanding of the game is exceptional,” Stubb said. “He always seems to be in the right spot at the right time. What people also forget is he’s also a very good playmaker. It’s not only the shot.”
Laine had come a long way from being that petulant kid sent home from the 2014 Ivan Hlinka tournament following a highly publicized dispute with his coach. Petteri Lehto, Laine’s European agent who has grown to know both Laine and his family the past four years, said the incident was overblown and taken out of context. But instead of stirring up the controversy more, Laine, on the advice of Lehto, stayed quiet in hopes the story would go away. And eventually, it did.
“It was very tough for Patrik and his family,” Lehto said. “But it probably helped him to understand that when you’re a good player, media is a part of it and you better watch yourself.”
Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine.
The same passion that got Laine into trouble earlier in his career has now become one of his greatest assets, according to Kimmo Vaha-Ruohola, his former coach. When Laine came under Vaha-Ruohola’s guidance, first in the under-20s and later for two seasons with Tappara, his all-consuming desire to score often led to frustration and distraction. Vaha-Ruohola and Laine would talk honestly about what happened after each outburst, and learning to harness his passion led to a rocky road that required a benching from time to time. Laine grew to understand how he could handle his emotions and channel them to help his team. That continued into the men’s league.
“He had to analyze his game, every game, mental-wise,” Vaha-Ruohola said. “How did it go? Did he lose his temper and at what cost? How did he try to handle it? And so on. That process took two-and-a-half years.”
It’s clear how hard Laine can take the difficult moments, though, as evidenced by his gaffe in a December game against the Edmonton Oilers. Defending in his own zone, Laine inadvertently shot a loose puck into the Winnipeg net, for what ended up being the game-deciding goal. He looked distraught as captain Blake Wheeler comforted him on the bench. It was an impressive show of maturity post-game when Laine sat in his stall and answered questions, owning up to his mistake, but the sight of him on the bench following the goal was a reminder that this dynamic scorer who has set the NHL ablaze in his first few months in North America is still a teenager.
"The thing that often divides good players and top players in the world is how eager they are to learn and how fast it happens.”
It’s sometimes forgotten that Laine is still a kid, and it’s easy to see why. At 6-foot-5, 206 pounds, he’s a teen in a grown man’s body. And if it’s not Laine’s size that makes us forget how young he is, it’s his outspoken confidence that does.
In a sport filled with braggadocios boasting about the merits of humility, Laine has never shied away from being upfront about the fact he’s a talented player. He openly stated he believed he had what it took to be the first-overall pick ahead of Matthews, he turned heads with his stick-twirling celebration and he has outright said he knows how good he is. That’s a rare quality found in a small handful of players, and it has only increased his appeal.
It’s all about how Laine expresses that confidence, however. It doesn’t come across as if he’s gloating. There’s a truthfulness in the way he says it, an almost Honest Abe-like inability to tell a lie. It’s more endearing than anything, as are the other aspects of his personality, like his dry, subtle sense of humor.
For instance, Laine calls his father, a plumber, a “beer-league” player in Finland. When asked about his living situation, he glowingly refers to his mother as his roommate, remarking around the holidays how she did the decorating because that’s not really his thing. And he’s more than willing to take playful jabs at teammates. When asked about a scoring drought plaguing Nikolaj Ehlers, Laine’s road roommate and one of the teammates he’s closest to off ice, Laine quipped it was similar to the struggles that haunt Ehlers during their Playstation battles in FIFA. Ehlers shakes his head and chuckles in Laine’s direction when it’s brought up.
“He’s a great guy on and off the ice, and he’s a pretty funny guy sometimes,” Ehlers said, later comparing the duo to an old married couple. “We do chirp each other in a healthy way.”
Despite his steady growth both on and off the ice, Laine isn’t a finished product. He understands there’s room to improve, specifically on the defensive side of the puck. Even in Tappara, he was striving to be better defensively, sharpening his skating in order to be in the right place at the right time in his own end as often as he is when on the attack in the other direction.
But outside of his shot, Laine’s other great weapon is his ability to adapt and learn at a rate few others can.
“His development is probably the bigger thing for me as a coach,” Vaha-Ruohola said. “He’s not just scoring goals and being good offensively, but it’s how much he wants to learn and how quick he learns. The thing that often divides good players and top players in the world is how eager they are to learn and how fast it happens.”
It’s a skill of Laine’s that Vaha-Rouhola compared to Crosby, adding he believes Laine had the capability to be that kind of two-way forward. And it’s in his playmaking skill and ability to “take you out of your pants” that Lehto, who had a brief stint playing with a rookie Mario Lemieux, sees flashes of a young No. 66. For Stubb, there will always be the parallels drawn between Laine and great Finnish scorers like Teemu Selanne and Jari Kurri. And every time Laine unloads a one-timer from the top of the circle on the power play, there will be inevitable comparisons to his childhood idol, Washington’s Alex Ovechkin. Yet Laine sees things differently.
“I don’t have to compare myself to anybody,” Laine said.
“Everybody is different, and I want to be me. I don’t have to think about what everybody else has done. People can say what they want, but I just want to be me and create my own path.”
Dale Hawerchuk's letter to Patrik Laine.
Connor Hellebuyck and Auston Matthews. Image by: Mark Blinch/Getty Images
As we count down to the March 1 trade deadline, here are five of the teams that present the toughest buy-or-sell call.
We're now one week away from the trade deadline, which means the entire league is being divided into buyers and sellers. This year, there's far more of the former than the latter, so much so that it might throw the market into chaos, or maybe lead to a very quiet week.
Still, most teams know where they stand by now. If you're a Cup contender or desperate for a playoff spot, you buy. If you're already toast, then you look to the future and let the firesale begin.
But what about those teams that are stuck somewhere in between? Even this late in the season, there are still some teams that could make a good case for either side of the equation. Maybe they're not quite sure if they're still in the running, or maybe they can't decide if this is the right year to make a push. But either way, they've got a few days left to make up their minds.
As we count down until March 1, here are five of the teams that present the toughest buy-or-sell call.
The case for buying: One year into the Auston Matthews era, the Leafs have been better than most expected and are right in the mix for an Eastern Conference playoff spot – and a run at home-ice or even a division title isn't completely out of the question. The team has access to a ton of cap room and plenty of picks and prospects to work with.
And maybe more importantly, they have a three-year window while Matthews and Mitch Marner are on their rookie contracts. James van Riemsdyk's cheap deal runs for one more year after this one. William Nylander needs a new contract after next season. The time to strike could be soon.
The case for selling: "Soon" doesn't mean now. The Leafs have been patient during this rebuild, and waiting another year to really swing for the fences would be the smart play. And with a handful of rental options like Roman Polak and Matt Hunwick, collecting a few more future assets might be a smart way to prepare for what's to come.
Where they'll end up: You never know with Lou Lamoriello and his fortress of silence, but for now it sounds like they're not planning to do much.
The case for buying: After making the playoffs last year, the Flyers have taken a step back and are fading from the race. But this team is good enough to do some damage, as they showed earlier this year when they won nine straight and briefly moved into the mix with other elite teams in the Metro. Ron Hextall has been patient since taking over the GM's job, but this team hasn't won a playoff round since 2012 and Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek are in the late stages of their prime. At some point, it's time to take a step forward.
The case for selling: Timing is everything, and this year's Metro Division is so stacked that taking a run at it seems foolish. Better to move rentals like Mark Streit and Michael Del Zotto (and maybe even Steve Mason) and regroup for next year.
Where they'll end up: Their next two games are against the Capitals and Penguins, if they lose those, Hextall likely folds his hand.
The case for buying: We've been talking about the Jets as the NHL's team of the future for years now, but that future never seems to arrive. The West is wide open this year, and the path out of the Central doesn't seem as daunting as it has been in recent years. Their biggest need is goaltending, and there could be some good ones available, even as short-term rentals. With the team on the edge of the playoff bubble, this could be the year to make a push.
The case for selling: This team is good enough to make the playoffs, but are they really a threat to do much damage once they're there? The franchise has been patiently building up a young talent base since returning to Winnipeg, and abandoning that approach now just to get swept in the first round could seem like a panic move.
Where they'll end up: History tells us that GM Kevin Cheveldayoff and the Jets won't do much at all, no team has been as reluctant to trade in recent years. This could be the year that changes, especially if a goaltender shakes free as a decent value buy. Then again, it feels like we've said that before.
The case for buying: They've been bad for five straight years. Some of those were strategic, granted, but that phase of the rebuild was supposed to end in 2015 and give way to progress. There's been some, but not as much as fans probably hoped, and they're on the verge of missing the playoffs yet again.
But they've been better since a rash of injuries torpedoed their start, and they've got assets to work with to plug some holes. And in an off-year for the Atlantic, a push into the playoffs isn't far-fetched.
Again, most teams don't want to load up at the deadline just to make the playoffs and go out early. But this isn't the same situation as a team like the Jets, who didn't have to endure hitting rock bottom like the Sabres did. In Buffalo's case you wonder if even a first-round exit wouldn't represent a worthwhile investment, if only to offer long-suffering fans some hope that things are moving in the right direction.
The case for selling: They're not winning it all this year, and the roster is still young. Sure, missing the playoffs again will be frustrating, but there's no need to rush. Trust the process, trust Jack Eichel and the young core, and most of all, trust Tim Murray. At least for one more year.
Where they'll end up: Murray might tinker here or there, but any big moves to improve now would also have to extend to next season and beyond.
The case for buying: They're the Lightning. They went to the Cup final in 2015, and to the conference final in 2016. Plenty of us picked them to win it all this year. They'll be facing a cap crunch soon and their window may be closing, but on paper this team is still good enough to win it all, especially if Steven Stamkos comes back by the playoffs.
So of course you're buying. This team can win the Stanley Cup. They're the Lightning.
The case for selling: They're also terrible.
I don't know why. You don't know why. I'm not sure Steve Yzerman knows why. But they just haven't clicked all year, and they remain outside the playoffs with multiple teams to pass. Better to accept that, recoup some assets for guys like Ben Bishop and Brian Boyle, and maybe even figure out a way to dump some deals with term. For whatever reason, this just isn't their year, so start setting the table for the next ones.
Where they'll end up: Yzerman's earned the benefit of the doubt over the years, so you figure he'll make the right call one way or another. The betting is with two more home games before the deadline, he waits as long as he can before throwing in the towel. But I have them in the "sell" column.
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008; you may know him from Twitter as @downgoesbrown. His e-book, The 100 Greatest Players in NHL History, is available now. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.
John Chayka. Image by: Getty Images
The Coyotes dipped their toes into the trade market by dealing Michael Stone, but the likes of Martin Hanzal and even Shane Doan could be next.
The Arizona Coyotes made their first trade of the deadline season on Monday, but it likely will not be their last. Defenseman Michael Stone went to Calgary for a third-round pick in 2017 and a conditional fifth in 2018, which Arizona receives if Stone re-signs with the Flames this summer. Arizona also retains half of the defenseman’s salary. Arizona is in the midst of a rebuild and for GM John Chayka, action is the name of the game right now.
“I’m always looking to get better,” he said. “That’s my job.”
And that’s where the intrigue lies with Arizona from now until the March 1 deadline. Just how stripped down can this squad get for the remainder of the campaign? The Coyotes are suffering through another down year in the standings, but there is plenty of hope on the near horizon thanks to the prospects they’ve accumulated lately. With Stone gone, the Coyotes called up right-shot defenseman Anthony DeAngelo from AHL Tucson in order to get the youngster another look. DeAngelo has already played 20 NHL games for Arizona this season and while the last stint ended with a three-game suspension for abuse of an official, the Coyotes want to give him another chance.
Another benefactor for Chayka is Jakob Chychrun, who has already exceeded expectations by breaking into the NHL as a defenseman straight from the draft. With Stone gone, Chychrun can now be given a crack at more special teams duty. The teen has averaged 16 minutes of ice time this season, but now has a chance to earn more (as does Kevin Connauton, whom Chayka also mentioned).
But for fans of contending teams, the juicy names in Arizona are the veterans. Martin Hanzal is the most coveted, while captain Shane Doan’s name has been floated as a trade candidate, despite his no-move clause. Leading scorer and pending unrestricted free agent Radim Vrbata has “rental” written all over him too. As far as Chayka’s concerned, the Coyotes’ yard sale is open for business.
“I don't deal with ‘untouchables,’ ” he said. “Practically speaking, there are players who are difficult to move because then you have to find someone to replace them for a role. I’d move anyone for the right deal.”
In terms of what Doan means to the Coyotes, that’s leadership and loyalty. But if Doan had a chance to win a Stanley Cup elsewhere, it’s hard to see anyone in Arizona holding him back. Hanzal, on the other hand, still has a lot of NHL years ahead of him and big, responsible centers aren't easy to find. Chayka mused that any number of avenues are available here – the Coyotes could trade Hanzal, or re-sign the pending UFA if they can figure out the right term and price. He certainly sounds like one of those players who are difficult to replace that the GM spoke of.
“He’s one of our most impactful players,” Chayka said.
While Cup contending GMs may not want to hear that, there’s definite logic in having a veteran pivot who can play against top lines on the squad next season. Either Dylan Strome or Clayton Keller (heck, maybe both) will make serious runs for roster spots in 2017-18 and being able to shelter an elite youngster at the start of the season can be quite valuable – just look at how Toronto turned Nazem Kadri into a shutdown guy while Auston Matthews ran rampant on offense.
On the other hand, your best trade return comes from Hanzal.
Looking to the future, the Coyotes have a ton of young talent. Bounce-back seasons from Max Domi and Anthony Duclair would really help next year, while Christian Fischer is ahead of schedule and brings great size and scoring touch up front. Though Keller is just a freshman at Boston University, I believe he is good enough to make the jump to the NHL next year. His ascent may be crucial, because a number of Coyote kids – Strome, Fischer, Kyle Wood and Nick Merkley – still need to work on their skating. Keller is fast and his game is tailored for the current NHL. Oliver Ekman-Larsson is the unquestioned No. 1 blueliner, while Connor Murphy, Chychrun and DeAngelo offer hope on the back end.
Of course, there are no guarantees in life, which is why Chayka’s asset management will be so crucial from now until next season and beyond. With four picks in the first three rounds of the 2017 draft already, the Coyotes can put themselves in a position where current needs are met by trading away some of the great assets the organization has already accrued. Pittsburgh did it with Ryan Whitney (for Chris Kunitz); Los Angeles did it with Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds (for Mike Richards) and both franchises won Cups shortly thereafter.
Is Arizona at that point yet? Of course not. But the Coyotes have built up a solid pipeline already and with more chips likely coming before the trade deadline passes, they’re putting themselves in a good spot.
Jonathan Toews. Image by: Getty Images
The Blackhawks captain may look like he’s merely shaken off a big slump. But the underlying numbers suggest he’s emerged as a different player – more offense, less defense.
The three-goal, five-point night wasn’t the match that ignited Jonathan Toews’ season. It was a squirt of gasoline on an already-raging fire. Toews got piping hot over the past two months, and Tuesday was the boiling point.
The Chicago Blackhawks captain started 2016-17 posting the worst offensive numbers of his career. Even as his regular right winger Marian Hossa enjoyed a resurgent offensive campaign, Toews just couldn’t find the net. He sat at four goals and 12 points after 22 games. Plenty of fans and pundits scoffed on social media at his All-Star Game invite over teammate Artemi Panarin.
Typically, we’ve accepted that Toews trades a bit of offense to be an elite two-way pivot. He’s shown the highlight-reel hands to be an 80-point player – just look at his immortalized shootout performance for Canada at the 2007 World Junior Championship – but he’s let Patrick Kane be the scoring star and sacrificed some scoring to play a shutdown role. Still, even by Toews’ Selke Trophy-winning standard, his offense was pitiful through mid-December. He sat at 0.60 points per game and had never finished a season below 0.73.
Even more concerning: Toews wasn’t performing as well as advertised from a defensive standpoint, either. Per corsica.hockey, Toews rates as one of the NHL’s very best possession players since stats like Corsi and Fenwick were born. Among NHL forwards with 1,000 or more minutes played since his rookie campaign of 2007-08, Toews ranks 16th in 5-on-5 Corsi at 55.8 percent. That includes a Corsi For of 61.48 and a Corsi against of 48.68, representing a player equally adept at driving shot attempts for his team and preventing shot attempts against his team.
Toews, though, slipped to a 5-on-5 Corsi of 51.38 percent in that lackluster 22-game sample to start 2016-17, with a Corsi For per 60 of 58.51 and a Corsi Against of 55.37. Teams were having a much easier time than normal getting attempts on Chicago’s net with Toews on the ice.
But the possession stats did show a player still creating a lot of offensive action for his team, and he was scoring on just 7.3 percent of his attempts, so a positive regression was coming. Since that juncture at Game 22, Toews has ignited for 30 points in his past 29 games, including a whopping 20 in his past 12, sprinkled with four- and five-point performances. He’s doing it primarily playing with Richard Panik and rookie Nick Schmaltz, so it’s not like another star scorer is carrying Toews. He’s scoring on 12.6 percent of his shots during his hot streak, still below his career average of 14.7, so we could see this goal-scoring run continue for a while.
The most interesting change for Toews comes in his possession numbers since the 29-game binge started. Defensively, he’s actually been worse, coughing up a Corsi Against per 60 of 57.2, but he’s sizzling with a Corsi For per 60 of 64.54. Per stats.hockeyanalysis.com, Toews faced the toughest quality of competition of any NHL forward with at least 500 minutes played last season, as Toews’ opponents averaged a 5-on-5 Corsi of 50.8. This season, his opponents average 50.2, ranking him 124th among forwards in quality of opponents. So he’s facing weaker competition yet still faring worse defensively.
What, then, are we witnessing? This isn’t The Old Jonathan Toews making a triumphant return. The possession numbers suggest he’s instead reversed his career trend and sacrificed some defense for a major spike in offense. He’s still not bad defensively, as his relative Corsi Against per 60 is still among the better figures on the Hawks, suggesting the team as a whole has regressed defensively this season, not just Toews. But he’s currently not the smothering defensive player he’s reputed to be. His offense, meanwhile, is right up there with Artemi Panarin for the team’s best on the year if we judge it by Corsi For per 60 relative to teammates.
Interestingly, with Toews filling the net, the Hawks have won 14 of their past 20 games and seven of their past eight. Unlocking Toews’ scoring seems to correlate directly with Chicago re-emerging as a dangerous Western Conference contender.
Meanwhile, the first-place Minnesota Wild have dropped their past two meetings with the Hawks, including Tuesday’s. The Wild still own a five-point lead in the Central Division with a game in hand, but would anyone put it past the Blackhawks to stay hot and steal the division crown and home ice advantage for the playoffs? If that happens, watch out. Toews has not returned as a powerhouse two-way forward yet, but he has emerged as a new beast altogether, albeit in a small sample size. It’s tough to say if the Hawks are a better or worse team with Toews no longer playing great shutdown hockey, but so far, so good.