When the Columbus Blue Jackets acquired Patrik Laine, the idea was the Finish winger would bring his bomb of a shot to a team that lacked goal scoring.
And while he and the team have had their fair share of struggles since his arrival (he has 6-4-10 and the club is 6-8-2 in 16 games), Blue Jackets fans have gotten a taste of what he can do. Namely, his lethal shot has already paid dividends on the power play. But John Tortorella wants more from his star winger.
“I’d like to see (Laine) go with the puck more,” Tortorella said. “I envision him as an unbelievably skilled power forward. I’d like to see him bring some power into his game, and that’s skating with the puck, taking people on one-on-one.
As The Athletic's Aaron Portzline mused in his Sunday Gathering piece, this could be the start of some tricky maneuvering between the headstrong coach and the prized asset. To quote Portzline, "Laine didn’t exactly seem enthralled with the idea when told of Tortorella’s comment on Saturday. At best, he looked like a guy who’d heard the message too many times."
“I get it. It’s not the first time I’ve heard that", Laine said. "Just try to do my job out there and maybe try to be that power forward. I can do a lot of things on the ice. So, yeah, not something new.”
Before we go too far, let me say this. It is the coach's job, by definition, to get the most out of his players. If Tortorella were to simply accept Laine for what he is, that is to say, a finished product, that would contradict his very job description. There is nothing wrong with him saying that he hopes to develop Laine and give him new tools. On the other hand, his existing tool - his shot - is a signature skill that sets him apart from 99% of the NHL. That doesn't exonerate him from being encouraged to develop additional skills... but it does mean he's a bit of a different project than your typical muck and grind Blue Jacket.
And let's be honest, part of the calculus in working with Laine is the courtship to his next contract.
Laine, who will be a restricted free agent after this season, is arguably the Blue Jackets most valuable asset.
Laine's game is not without fault. He isn't fleet of foot. He isn't a particularly strong defensive player. And when he's not scoring, it's easy to question his value. But for a Blue Jackets team that needs - NEEDS - to re-sign the 22-year old to a long-term contract, perhaps it's in the best interest of the organization to let him be himself (but elsewhere, meet him in the middle).
He's been held pointless in his last six games, and when he's not scoring, it's easy to find faults in his play. Adapting to a new system takes time, but the Blue Jackets need to make sure they're getting Laine the puck in areas where he can do a lot of damage, and they haven't been doing a great job of that as of late. Laine has three power-play goals this season, and all three have come from the left circle, a spot that Alexander Ovechkin has scored hundreds of goals from. Of those three, two have been one-timers, and one was a wrist shot.
Laine has never been great at driving 5v5 play. He's only had one season in his career where his Corsi For percentage has been above 50%, and that was in 2017-18, at 50.2%. This year, he's at his lowest ever, with just 42.5% of shot attempts going the Blue Jackets' way when Laine is on the ice. In order to succeed in Tortorella's system, players need to be able to contribute as much defensively as they do offensively, if not more.
The Blue Jackets need to accept what Laine is, and what he's not. However, that doesn't mean that they can't keep chipping away at the areas of his game that need improvement. The Finnish winger is listed at 6'4" and 201 pounds, which is more than enough to throw some bruising forechecks and challenge opposing teams physically, both offensively and defensively.
He's averaging 2.69 hits per 60 minutes with the Blue Jackets this season, which puts him at 9th out of 14 forwards that have played five games or more for Columbus. He can be more physical and aggressive, with or without the puck, but it shouldn't come at the expense of the areas where his skill takes over.