This season could not have started more differently for Patrik Laine than last season, where he struggled to get anything at all done at even strength but remained a strong power-play shooting option.
This season, Laine has a whopping zero power-play goals, but is tied for the team lead in points with 12 in 11 games, and is nearly halfway to equalling his assists output from last season in 71 fewer games.
Laine and Mark Scheifele share the team lead in scoring, while linemate and team captain Blake Wheeler, who has been a rock of consistency throughout his time with the Jets, has struggled to produce so far.
There was a lot of noise during training camp when Laine let it be known that he wanted to play with the team’s best players on the top line, sounding angry while waiting on the sidelines without a new contract. At the time I though Paul Maurice handled a tough situation brilliantly, shrugging off Laine’s gripes as the kind of thing every player thinks, because everyone wants to be their best.
Once Laine was signed and brought back into the fold, I was surprised how quickly the Jets decided to test out Laine’s demands, and on the surface you could say that the team has been rewarded for it.
Not only has Laine been producing at a great clip, but Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor seem to have found some chemistry on the second line. But beyond the surface numbers, is that line functioning with Laine?
In order to figure that out, we need to know how that line has worked in the past, and it’s been one of the weirdest in the NHL. The duo of Schiefele and Wheeler along with mostly Connor, but also sometimes Ehlers or another winger, has been outshot on a relatively consistent basis, but outscored their opposition due to a high level of control of the most dangerous plays on the ice.
Specifically, their biggest strength has been passes to the slot, where they’ve been brilliant defensively and offensively, making things easy on Connor Hellebuyck and tough on opposing goalies. Laine’s high number of assists early on might be an indicator that this holds true, but let’s take a look at the on-ice differentials of the Scheifele line over the last three seasons to see if that assumption is true.
As you can see, two years ago the Jets’ top line was significantly better than it is today, though they have rebounded significantly in terms of controlling inner slot shots compared to last season. In fact nearly half of all of the high-danger scoring chances the Jets have recorded in this young season have come while the Scheifele line is on the ice, but in every other area they’re struggling mightily compared to their teammates.
The lack of pass control is perhaps the biggest shocker, as they’ve gone from one of the best lines in the NHL in that category two seasons ago to among the worst in the league. The sample sizes with both passes to the slot and inner-slot shots are small, but outside of those inner-slot shots, the trend over three seasons for this line appears to be downward.
The question then becomes, despite the early season production, is Laine’s inclusion on this line what is driving the drop in pass control? And is the bigger problem a lack of playmaking on the offensive side, or being too lackadaisical in the defensive end and being eaten alive by opponents?
Considering Laine’s history as a defensively deficient player, it would be easy to point the finger at him and say the problem lies in his lack of defensive engagement, and digging into the numbers, it’s true that the issue in pass control does come down to defensive coverage, but Laine doesn’t appear to be the problem.
Splitting the three players up and looking at them as individuals, we can see how many passes to the slot for and against that each player is on for.
Compared to his linemates, Laine is a bit lower event in both passes to the slot-for and passes to the slot-against, but he’s been on the ice for the fewest passes to the slot-against of the three players. Wheeler has managed to stay even overall, while Scheifele posts the worst differential by both percentage and in terms of raw numbers.
No matter how you slice it, none of these players are really standing out in a good way in terms of controlling passes, despite it being a historical strength of the Jets as a team. Wheeler has taken the brunt of the criticism for his lack of production, but he remains the closest thing to a play driver on that line, so his importance to it can’t be understated.
For the time being, they’re managing to score at a high rate despite being outplayed overall, but it’s highly questionable whether it will continue now that their control of the most dangerous plays teams make seems far more tenuous than ever before.