Truth By Numbers: Is Patrik Laine becoming a playmaker?

Jets reporter Sean Reynolds joins Hockey Central to discuss why he thinks Patrik Laine deserves votes for most improved player this season, for the work he put in this offseason to improve his passing and his physical play.

It’s a strange situation when a 20-year-old winger in the NHL scores 30 goals and their season is considered a disappointment, but that’s where last season ended for Patrik Laine. It was an odd season to say the least, with his goals coming in bunches to an extreme degree, punctuated by long droughts where the weaknesses in the other areas of his game took over the headlines.

The underwhelming scoring season he had relative to expectations led to a lingering uncertainty about what kind of value Laine had when he was an RFA last summer, when he went through a tough negotiation.

In the end he and the Jets settled on a relatively rich bridge deal that saves the team cap space in the near term, with Laine earning $6.75 million per season this year and next. Right now, that’s looking like a good bet from Laine, but not for the reason many expected.

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SPOTLIGHT PERFORMANCE

Based on the first two seasons of his career, Laine is once again having a disappointing season from a goal scoring perspective; he’s on pace for just 27 over 82 games this season and the lowest shooting percentage of his career at just a flat 10 per cent.

The big surface change from last season that has led to plenty of praise for Laine is that through 45 games he’s already tied his career high in assists with 28. Only Mark Scheifele’s 20 assists at 5-on-5 outpace Laine’s 16, and overall at even strength, Laine leads the Jets with 22.

So what gives? Has Laine changed up his game in order to add more playmaking and become a more rounded offensive threat in the process? We can look back at his even strength tendencies over his career and see how much has changed.

Looking at the first four seasons of Laine’s career compared to this one, his shots from the slot are coming from slightly closer to the net on average, and after dropping his perimeter shots last season, he’s back up to where he was in the first two seasons of his career. But the goals haven’t come at an expected rate.

Early in his career, most of the playmaking Laine did was in attempting long East-West passes through the middle of the ice, either to the opposite winger or to a pinching defenceman. Those types of passes have a place, but they usually have to come from a bit high in the zone at 5-on-5 to be considered truly dangerous.

This season the big passing change with Laine has been his ability to get the puck into the middle of the ice instead of through it. He’s increased his completed slot passes per 20 minutes by a staggering 52 per cent over his career average at even strength.

That’s a huge change for Laine and, at least compared to last season, it hasn’t come at the expense of his ability to take shots. Playing with talented shooters like Scheifele and Kyle Connor, it makes sense that Laine has to play as more than just a triggerman in order for that line to function offensively, and so far he’s stepping up.

THE QUESTION

This week Steve Dangle was feeling a little nostalgic, so he asked a question that was a little bit spicy…

“Freddy Andersen struggled early, and he’s struggled lately, so my question is: has James Reimer been better than Andersen this season overall?”

First of all, wow. That’s a loaded question, Steve. This is the part where I act all surprised and not like we came up with this together. How dare you.

Reimer has a better overall save percentage at .917 to Andersen’s .912, and at 5-on-5 at .921 to Andersen’s .919. But as we know raw save percentages don’t tell the whole story. So, let’s break it down by area of the ice.

Sorry to tell you Steve, but Reimer has not, in fact, outperformed Andersen this season. There’s no doubt Andersen hasn’t been great, but he’s posted league average numbers from the inner slot, and strong numbers from the high slot, which is actually the Leafs’ biggest defensive weakness.

Reimer’s been strong from the high slot too, but significantly below league average from the inner slot.

Most of the strength in Reimer’s game so far this season has been in not allowing goals from the perimeter — he’s allowed just a single goal from there at 5-on-5 this season. That’s in strong contrast to Andersen, who has given up 10 from the perimeter and he’s posting a below average save percentage from that spot, though keep in mind Andersen has also faced more than twice as many shots as Reimer from that area.

Those goals from far out can sap the energy from a team, so you might be tempted to trade the poor results from the inner slot for no weak goals allowed, but it’s extremely important to know that the perimeter brings the most variability in terms of performance. True talent is very rarely represented on those shots. Poor performance from Andersen in that area has more to do with random variance than him being bad, and Reimer’s performance there is likely the opposite kind of variance.

The Leafs wouldn’t be better served by turning back the clock in goal.

QUICK HITS

• Since the calendar turned to 2020, the top goaltenders in the NHL are Andrei Vasilevskiy (.964), Carey Price (.942), and… Elvis Merzlikins (.948). If you’re trying to figure out how the Blue Jackets are appearing to be resurgent, look no further than the young Latvian who put up back-to-back shutouts against two powerhouse teams in Vegas and Boston.

• Price on the other hand… the Canadiens can’t seem to figure out in season if they’re good or bad. This streakiness and uncertainty perfectly mirrors the direction of the organization as a whole. If he keeps playing like this, they probably can’t tank hard enough to get a good pick. If he struggles again, they won’t make the playoffs. That straddling of the middle is the worst place to be.

• 5-on-5 scoring chance leaders in 2020 so far: Anders Lee, Auston Matthews, Bryan Rust (seriously?), and Nikita Kucherov. The right players for Tampa Bay are getting hot right now. Every team should be afraid.

• The top-three players in Corsi in 2020 are all on the same line: Paul Stastny, Mark Stone, and Max Pacioretty. They control 65 per cent of shot attempts, but that’s not even their biggest strength; they control 79 per cent of slot passes, too. Completely absurd line, one that makes an instant Stanley Cup contender. Peter DeBoer is very lucky.

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