Randy Giroux, Manchester, N.H.
Randy Giroux, Manchester, N.H.
The Wild have a potential Vezina winner, coach of the year and a workhorse top defenseman, but come the post-season, opponent’s should most fear Minnesota’s depth.
Devan Dubnyk is well on his way to winning the Vezina Trophy and given the Wild have matched their win total from the past season in 25 fewer games, Bruce Boudreau is going to be in the conversation for the Jack Adams Award. He could very well take home the hardware by the time the season ends, too. There’s also going to be talk about Mikko Koivu for the Selke Trophy and Ryan Suter, as always, is going to be part of Norris Trophy discussions.
But with all the solo performances that have made this season an impressive one for the Wild, there’s more to this Minnesota club that the standout performances of single players. Rather, the best thing the Wild have going is their incredible depth, and as the playoffs inch nearer and Minnesota gears up for what looks like it could be a deep run, the way the Wild have been able to win should be striking fear into the hearts of opponents.
As of Friday, the Wild currently have the fourth-highest scoring offense in the league, but that’s a bit of a head scratcher given not a single player has hit the 20-goal plateau. Compare Minnesota’s lineup to that of the Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers and Washington Capitals — the top three offenses in the league, respectively — and you don’t exactly walk away thinking the Wild belong in the conversation. The Penguins boast Crosby and Malkin, Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller are leading the way for the Rangers and the Capitals are always lethal with Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov. On paper, one would likely take all three offenses ahead of Minnesota’s, especially given the Wild’s current top scorer, Mikael Granlund, had maxed out at 44 points before this season.
It’s been that kind of year in Minnesota, however, with just about everyone on the team stepping up under Boudreau. Matter of fact, no team boasts a more spread out offense than the Wild, who have 10 different players to have scored at least 10 goals. That list includes Koivu, Granlund, Zach Parise, Charlie Coyle, Chris Stewart, Eric Staal, Erik Haula, Nino Niederreiter, Jason Pominville and Jason Zucker. The Capitals high-powered offense is the only other group in the league that has as many 10-goal scorers, but the Wild have two more players, Suter and Jared Spurgeon, sitting at eight goals and on pace to hit double digits this season.
One of the things that’s evident is that Bourdeau has found a way to get the most out of players who are right in that prime stage of their development. There’s no better example than Granlund, whose 16-goal, 51-point performance thus far has already seen him set dual career highs. He’s not the only one on pace to reach new heights, however. Coyle’s 44 points are a new career-best, while Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin, Matthew Dumba, Nino Niederreiter and Jason Zucker are all on their way to setting new bests.
And while Granlund is the best example of a guy flourishing under Boudreau, no player is quite as indicative of the way the Wild’s depth has been clicking like Zucker. The 2015-16 season was a frustrating one for Zucker and Wild fans. After coming off a 20-goal campaign in 2014-15, the belief was Minnesota had a goal-scoring star in the making. All the facets of his game were present, but none more than his ability to absolutely burn up the ice when he hit his top speed. And while he’s seen his ice time take a dip under Boudreau — he’s playing roughly a shift or two less per game — Zucker is having the season of his life while playing bottom-six minutes.
Through 57 games, he has 16 goals and 38 points, but only a single point of his has come on the power play and not a single point of his has been scored shorthanded. Instead, he’s been a stud for the Wild at 5-on-5, so much so that he’s in the same league as Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid. That sounds bizarre, but it’s true.
Zucker’s managed 14 goals and 37 points while playing five-a-side this season, and the other 500-plus minute players who rank in the top five in scoring are McDavid, Crosby, Brent Burns and Mark Scheifele. That’s a select bunch as all four rank in the top six in league scoring. More impressive yet is that Crosby is the only one of those four others to have a higher points per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 than Zucker’s 2.86. Of course, no one is about to say Zucker’s in the same overall league as Crosby or McDavid, but when it comes to even strength play this season, the Wild winger is sure producing like it.
The brilliant thing about a player like Zucker playing that way is that he’s exactly the type of weapon a team that has designs on going deep into the post-season needs. Every post-season run has its unsung heroes, and they’re generally players who score a clutch overtime goal or get moved up the lineup in hopes of generating some offense. With the way Zucker has played, chances are he could be exactly that type of player for Minnesota in the playoffs, and if it’s not him, Niederreiter, Haula, Pominville and Stewart have all been proving they can give that added punch.
The post-season can be as much about rolling four lines and getting some mismatches along the way as it is about high-end skill. Given that’s the case, there isn’t a team more well equipped to make an opponent’s bottom six and depth defensemen pay quite as much as the Wild. So, while Dubnyk, Koivu and Suter could be in line for end-of-year award recognition, it’s the depth, led by players such as Zucker, that stands to carry Minnesota towards the real prize they’re chasing.
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Claude Julien. Image by: Getty Images
Any late season surge in Boston won’t be because of a new coach, it’ll be because a good team finally started getting some bounces.
When a team fires a coach mid-season and the guy barely lasts a week on the unemployment block, they’ve probably just made a huge mistake.
Back in 2011, the Capitals made that mistake. They fired Bruce Boudreau after the team hit a rough patch, and he was subsequently hired just two days later by Anaheim. It took two other coaches and three seasons for the team to find themselves another coach of his calibre, a waste of the their best players’s prime years.
Last week, the Boston Bruins made that same mistake firing Claude Julien. He lasted exactly one week on the market before another team scooped him up. The fact it was the division leading Montreal Canadiens makes matters even worse as it points to how clear of an upgrade they thought Julien was over the guy who led them to the top.
Boston’s decision came down to results and expectations. From that standpoint, it’s clear why they did what they did. After making the Cup final in 2012-13 and winning the President’s Trophy in 2013-14, the Bruins missed the playoffs twice and were sure looking like they would make it three with a 26-23-6 record under Julien. Someone had to take the fall and with this being Julien’s 10th season as bench boss, maybe his voice was getting a bit stale.
I’m not sure I buy that though and it all comes down to what the Bruins are doing under the hood this year. The year after the President’s Trophy win, the team took a step back dropping from third in score-and-venue adjusted Corsi to 12th and then dropped to 17th the year after. This year, they’ve shot all the way back up to first, ahead of the perennial kings of this stat, the Kings. Their mark of 56 percent is the ninth best mark of any team since 2007-08. Ahead of them are two Detroit teams, three Chicago teams, and three Los Angeles teams – and also three Stanley Cups. No fired coaches either.
The team made a remarkable year-to-year jump, the results just weren’t there. The team has the lowest shooting and save percentage among those top teams, and that’s led to a dastardly low 46.3 percent goals ratio, a full 10 percent lower than their shot share and six percent lower than the worst of the eight juggernaut teams above them.
While goaltending is a concern, some of that is a result of how terrible their back-up goalies have been. You’d also figure that a world class goalie like Tuukka Rask will get his groove back. The real big issue is on offense where the team ranks 21st in goals per 60 at 5-on-5. While they may have the ninth best shot attempt rate since 2007-08, they’re also posting the sixth worst shooting percentage since 2007-08.
The obvious answer from most pundits is that the Bruins aren’t actually a good team due to their massive shot advantage because a majority of those shots are coming from the outside. It turns out they have a point. Take a look at this heat map from HockeyViz.com of all the shots the Bruins are taking this year to see for yourself. It might be a lot to take in, but basically, red means “hot spots” where the team shoots more than league average, while blue represents “cold spots” where the team is getting fewer chances.
Just as expected, a lot of red on the outside and a huge blue zone right in front of the –– wait, wrong picture. That’s actually the Bruins 2010-11 season where they won the Cup and had the second highest goal scoring rate at 5-on-5. My bad. Here’s this year.
Yep, there we go. A little better than 2010-11, but still, they’re not really getting to the front of the –– wait, that’s not it. That’s actually the Bruins 2012-13 season where they made it to the Cup final and had the ninth highest goal scoring rate at 5-on-5. My bad. Here’s this year.
Hmm, a lot fewer shots overall, but again, their biggest cold spot is right in front of the –– wait, I did it again. That’s actually the 2013-14 season where the Bruins won the President’s Trophy and had the third highest goal scoring rate at 5-on-5. My bad. Okay, here’s 2016-17, for real this time.
Remember that this offense is the 21st rated offence at 5-on-5. If anyone could point out how it differs from any time the Bruins had a top five or 10 offense the past few years, I’m all ears. There is a bit of a deeper contour in front of the net than other seasons, but not by much, and the red zone in front of the slot is a deeper red and much closer to the front of the net. That should all cancel out, and it does. By expected goals for, here’s how every season under Julien ranks.
This year, the Bruins should be having one of the most prolific offenses they’ve had in years, instead, they’re struggling. The idea they’re “not getting to the front of the net” is a bad excuse because it’s clear they either never really have, it’s never really mattered, or there’s a systemic bias in Boston to record fewer shots there. Whatever the case, it doesn’t hold water.
The Bruins offense hasn’t changed much, but the results have and Julien lost his job because of it. Some might say the Bruins Corsi doesn’t tell the whole story here, but even by expected goals they’re the league’s top team, and those teams rarely struggle to convert like this team has. I normally hesitate to use “luck” as a crutch to describe a team with poor results, but it’s hard to point the finger anywhere else.
If you’re still not convinced, here’s another way to look at it. I plotted every player’s personal shooting percentage (at 5-on-5) this season compared to the the three seasons prior. Unsurprisingly, nearly everyone is having a down year.
There’s a fair number of players here who were reliable scorers in the past that suddenly can’t put it in. These 19 players have 86 goals this year, but if they were as efficient as they were before this season, they’d be at 111 collectively. If you look at expected shooting percentage that number drops a little to 104, but their expected shooting percentage is actually higher than it was in the previous three seasons. It’s hard to imagine all these guys suddenly forgot how to score, but that’s the reality if you think these results have nothing to do with luck.
Eventually, things should revert back to normal and they’ll start scoring at their normal rates again. With the way the Bruins control play, that’ll likely mean more wins down the stretch and it may be enough for a playoff spot (we think they’ve got a 70 percent shot at the moment). If they make it, they’re a dark horse team in the East, especially in a weak Atlantic. That is, if they keep playing as well as they did under Julien.
Whatever happens though, any team success will come back to the coaching change as a turning point. Make no mistake though, they likely would’ve turned it around anyways. Any late season surge won’t be because of a new coach, it’ll be because a good team finally started getting some bounces. The Bruins won’t be a good team now because they fired Julien -- they already were one.
data via corsica.hockey
It's not often stars like Matt Duchene are on the trade block. It will take a king's ransom to pry him from the Avalanche but these teams have a shot at him.
Oh, the possibilities. Matt Duchene is the most fun trade-bait name to pop up in a while.
First off, his skill set tantalizes. He’s got blazing speed, elite hands and can play center or wing. Teams chasing his services have many different ways to slot him into their lineups. Secondly, Duchene isn’t a rental. He’s under contract for two more seasons after this one at a $6-million cap hit. While that means the lowly Colorado Avalanche and GM Joe Sakic have no reason to rush and force a deal by March 1, it does mean Sakic should receive some 10-bell offers. Sakic also might receive pitches from bubble teams or even non-playoff squads, as anyone acquiring Duchene, 26, can make him part of their long-term plans.
Still, chances are the rebuilding teams wouldn’t target Duchene until draft day. This month’s offers should skew heavily toward contenders. Which teams are the best fits for Duchene? Keep in mind the return must be significant.
6. BONUS TEAM: OTTAWA SENATORS
It wouldn’t do the Senators justice to bury them in the honorable mentions category. They deserve a few extra words, as they’ve been linked to Duchene often of late. The problem is Colorado needs good young defensemen more than anything else – and a Duchene trade likely can’t happen unless Ottawa includes prized prospect Thomas Chabot. That’s a borderline non-starter for Ottawa. With no Chabot involved, Colorado would want Cody Ceci, but trading him would be counterproductive for the Sens, as he logs more than 23 minutes a game. They need him too much for the playoff hunt. The Avs could also ask for promising two-way center prospect Colin White, but they’d want much more than just White, and the smarter return for Duchene should start with a defenseman. Duchene is also somewhat of a luxury for Ottawa, who is already solid up the middle and might put Duchene on a wing if it acquired him.
The mutual interest makes sense, as Duchene would bolster Ottawa’s top six no matter where he plays and the Sens have pieces Sakic would covet. But I just don’t see Ottawa coughing up what Colorado wants.
5. CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
The Chicago Blackhawks need a left winger to play with Jonathan Toews yet again. A quick and dirty way to plug the hole this year might be to grab pending unrestricted free agent Patrick Sharp back from the Dallas Stars. If GM Stan Bowman wants to aim high, though, he could target Duchene. And we can’t underestimate Bowman’s ability to pull off massive deals. He surrendered a first-round pick and Marko Dano as part of the Andrew Ladd acquisition last winter. Bowman gave up a 2018 second rounder plus Philip Danault, who currently centers Montreal’s top line, to snag Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann. The year before, Bowman used first- and second-round picks as part of swaps for Antoine Vermette and Kimmo Timonen.
It’s established that Bowman has no problem giving up future assets for playoff pushes. He knows his team remains in a Cup-contending window. Better yet, Duchene could become part of Chicago’s star core for years to come. Bowman would then have to sort out some serious salary-cap problems in the summer, but c’mon…we all know that never stops him from dreaming big.
What Chicago can offer: The Hawks lack elite prospects, though Alex DeBrincat has almost played his way into that status with OHL Erie this year. He could be part of a Duchene trade. Some goes for blueliner Chad Krys or NHL rookie Nick Schmaltz.
Red flag: Chicago has three Stanley Cups in since 2010. It hasn’t selected in the top 15 of an NHL draft since 2008. The Hawks have also traded away multiple high picks before using them at the draft. It’s no wonder, then, Chicago’s farm system isn’t studded with A+ prospects. The Hawks would be squarely behind the other suitors in terms of what they could offer for Duchene. Bowman has also publicly stated he doesn’t expect to be active approaching the deadline. Choose for yourself whether you believe that, though Chicago’s lack of in-season cap space alone would make a Duchene deal difficult to execute. Some veteran body would have to go Colorado’s way, and Bowman doesn’t want to upset his team chemistry.
4. ANAHEIM DUCKS
The Ducks average the fewest goals of any team in either conference currently holding down a playoff position. Right winger Corey Perry has just nine. The Ducks need an injection of scoring, and GM Bob Murray has made six deadline-day trades over the past two seasons. He knows Perry and Getzlaf are inching deeper into their 30s, slowly closing the franchise’s championship window, and Murray thus doesn’t mind making moves. It helps that Duchene isn’t a short-term asset, too. And Duchene wouldn’t have to play center to help the Ducks. Coach Randy Carlyle could try him on the top line with Getzlaf and Perry, using Rickard Rakell to create nightmare matchups from the third unit.
What Anaheim can offer: Defensemen. So many defensemen. Maybe even two. The Ducks are spoiled at the position, with Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm, Sami Vatanen, Josh Manson, Shea Theodore and Brandon Montour leading the way, not to mention 2015 first-rounder Jacob Larsson marinating in the Swedish League. Murray could find himself in an expansion draft bind, too. Veteran Kevin Bieksa’s no-movement clause makes him a must-protect asset, and Murray would never expose Lindholm, Vatanen or Fowler as long as he has them. That could put Josh Manson in a precarious position, forcing Murray to lose him or, most likely, expose a decent forward like Jakob Silfverberg.
Long story short: dealing from their ‘D’ surplus helps the Ducks not just in that it could yield Duchene, but also because it would solve a roster logjam.
Red flag: We know Sakic seeks multiple useful pieces in a Duchene deal, so the return wouldn’t just be a Theodore or Montour. The Avs could easily demand, say, Vatanen along with one of the younger prospects, with a first-round pick to boot. Murray does have many D-men to spare, but surrendering one of his top-four guys for the stretch run would up the pressure on his youngest D-men. Are they ready?
3. MONTREAL CANADIENS
My colleague Ken Campbell said it best in our podcast this week: the Canadiens owe it to their fan base to make a push. They lead the Atlantic, hockey’s weakest division, but have wilted in recent weeks. They don't want to waste goaltender Carey Price’s prime years. And any team forced to shoehorn Paul Byron and Artturi Lehkonen into top-six duty scares no one. The Habs need more high-end talent for their scoring lines.
What Montreal can offer: The negotiation starts and finishes with Mikhail Sergachev and/or Nathan Beaulieu. No way GM Marc Bergevin gets a foothold without dangling his best young blueliners. A steep price? Yes. But the Habs, unlike the Sens with Chabot, are at more of a win-now juncture. That’s what last summer’s Shea Weber acquisition told us. The question is whether the Avs would also ask for hulking winger Michael McCarron in a Duchene package. My guess is yes. And Montreal should meet the price. It’s time to go for glory.
Red flag: Is Montreal even a top-four team in the Eastern Conference? Would you pick the Habs over the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, Columbus Blue Jackets or New York Rangers in a series? I’m obviously playing devil’s advocate here, but the point is acquiring Duchene carries risk, as Montreal has stiff competition and would have to empty its farm system in a Duchene deal. The good news, of course, is that the Habs would naturally become a much stronger contender in the East with Duchene.
2. CAROLINA HURRICANES
Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman raised an excellent point: it helps the Hurricanes to acquire players with term because they aren’t big players in the free agent game. The Canes are trending in the right direction, with strong analytics numbers. Sebastian Aho would be a Calder Trophy contender in most years but happens to be up against a fantastic rookie crop. The Canes have Julien Gauthier on the way, too. But as they mature into a pretty competitive club, they could use a boost in veteran scoring, and Duchene would provide just that. He could immediately take over as Carolina’s No. 1 center.
What Carolina can offer: The ’Canes are up there with Anaheim as the best pure hockey fit for a trade from Colorado’s perspective. Carolina boasts an impressive stable of young defensemen. Justin Faulk is untouchable in a Duchene negotiation, as is Noah Hanifin, but Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin should be in play. Neither of them would constitute nearly enough to land Duchene, which is where picks and high-end prospect defensemen Jake Bean and Haydn Fleury come in. Carolina has enough defensive depth to spare a couple in a Duchene package, and GM Ron Francis is swimming in cap space, too.
Red flag: The Hurricanes are in the midst of true rebuild. It’s trending in the right direction, with Carolina four points back of the Philadelphia Flyers for the second Eastern Conference wild-card position with two games in hand. The ’Canes are hardly guaranteed a ticket to the big dance this spring, though, and they aren’t in a rush. That doesn’t mean Duchene is a poor fit. It does mean a Duchene trade could go down at the draft in June instead of in the next few weeks.
1. NASHVILLE PREDATORS
You should’ve seen Duchene during all-star weekend in Nashville last year. He couldn’t stop smiling. As a country music fan and musician, he’s made for that city. Not that such an emotional connection makes him more likely to become a Predator, of course, but it’s nice to think about.
What makes Duchene most likely to become a Predator is that Nashville has the best blend of need and willingness. Mike Fisher shouldn’t be a top-two center on any team calling itself a Stanley Cup contender. That’s not meant to disrespect Fisher. It’s just that he’s 36. He’s still an effective two-way player and would be a wonderful No. 3 center on a powerhouse. Landing Duchene would put Fisher in that spot and give the Preds another dangerous scorer up front, which they desperately need. No Nashville player has more than 17 goals, albeit Filip Forsberg has heated up a lot lately.
GM David Poile is the king of blockbuster trades in the salary-cap era. He pulled Seth Jones for Ryan Johansen and Shea Weber for P.K. Subban in 2016. He’s made winter deals involving first-round picks over the years to land Peter Forsberg, Cody Franson, Paul Gaustad and Fisher. Poile treats every trade deadline like it’s his team’s last chance at a Stanley Cup push, and we thank him for it. The man is entertaining.
What Nashville can offer: Mattias Ekholm’s name has been tossed around in trade rumors this year. After dealing Jones away last season, though, Poile has to be careful not to weaken his depth too much. The more likely scenario: offering a first-rounder and a prospect such as Dante Fabbro. Maybe Kevin Fiala or Vladislav Kamenev, too. We know Poile is fearless.
Red flag: It’s taken the Predators all season just to climb back into a playoff position, and they’re a short losing streak away from slipping into ninth place. The smart money says they hold off their competition, but they’re no lock. At least Duchene isn’t a one-and-done commodity, though. So the threat of a playoff miss shouldn’t spook Poile.
OTHER TEAMS TO WATCH:
Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues, Vancouver Canucks
MORE FROM THE HOCKEY NEWS:
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.