Barring a November to remember, the story surrounding Patrik Laine this season has often been what he’s not doing instead of what he is. When he struggled through October, the conversation was about his slow start. When he slumped again in December coming out of his monster 18-goal month, again the chatter was about his lack of consistency. And as January comes to a close, the discussion again is about what Laine didn’t do.
To be sure, there’s a lot Laine didn’t do Tuesday night against the Boston Bruins. He didn’t score. He didn’t register an assist. He didn’t have a shot on goal, and he didn’t have a shot attempt. It should come as no surprise, then, that the other thing Laine didn’t do was see the ice a whole lot, unless you count the minutes he spent staring at the sheet from his spot squarely in the middle of the Winnipeg Jets bench. He skated just 10 minutes and 55 seconds on Tuesday, the lowest single-game ice time of his NHL career. (His six-minute game in March 2018 against the Los Angeles Kings was the result of an injury.) Laine’s time spent stapled to his seat included a 12-minute span in the second frame in which he didn’t set foot on the ice.
For Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice, sitting Laine down — not an outright benching, but certainly passing over the youngster in favor of others in the lineup — appears to be the latest tactic the Jets are deploying in hopes it will spark the 20-year-old’s game. Make no mistake, Laine’s game needs some sparking, too. Over the course of the past 26 games, which includes last night’s contest in Boston, Laine has scored only four goals and 10 points, making this one of the most trying stretches of his young career. And one of the biggest issues for Laine over the past two months, dating back to Dec. 1 when his unbelievable November performance came to a close, has been the ability to create.
While Laine’s overall numbers would suggest he’s actually seen an increase in offensive creation this season — his nine shots at 5-on-5 and 11.9 shots at all strengths per 60 minutes are higher rates than either his rookie or sophomore campaigns — the reality is that his performance from the first quarter to the second quarter has been vastly different. For instance, through the first 24 games of the season, which encapsulates all of November, Laine was averaging 11 shots per 60 minutes at five-a-side and 14.3 at all strengths. But those numbers have plummeted since December began, and across his past 26 games, Laine’s 5-on-5 and all-strengths shots per 60 minutes rates are 7.2 and 9.8, respectively. That’s a decline, a significant one, of roughly four shots per hour of ice time.
There could be several factors at work for Laine. Some will say it’s a matter of his game being “figured out” by the opposition. There is likely some truth to that. Opposing defenses are going to key in on a player who has the ability to hurt them in an instant like Laine does. With more offense comes more attention. That’s simply how the game is coached. Others will say the loss a play-driver on his line such as Nik Ehlers or Kyle Connor on his line has hampered Laine’s performance. There’s probably some truth to that, as well. But there also seems to be a certain hesitance to his game right now, a possible lack of confidence for a scorer in a slump. The Jets’ tilt against the Bruins was the first all season and only the third time in three campaigns in which Laine has failed to register a single attempt. Ice time can only partially be to blame, but there are six other instances in which he’s skated less than 15 minutes this season and he’s had at least two and as many as 10 attempts in those contests.
Here’s the bright spot for Winnipeg and Laine amidst some dark days: This isn’t the first time the Jets have sat him down — it probably won’t be the last, either — and his performances have gotten better in the wake of his limited workload each time. In fact, there are four instances in which Laine has skated less than 13 minutes in a contest in the past, and historically he has come out of the pseudo-benchings with offensive jump.
The first such contest came on Feb. 2, 2017, when Laine played a then-career-low 12:58 against the Minnesota Wild. In the 10 games that followed, Laine scored nine goals and 15 points. Again, when sat down for all but 12:44 against the Los Angeles Kings on Nov 22, 2017, Laine fired back with four goals and 10 points in his next 10 games. After playing just 12:50 against the Florida Panthers on Feb. 18, 2018 — a game Laine notched a goal and an assist, it should be noted — he went out and scored 10 goals and 14 points in his next 10 contests. And just this past November, when Laine skated 11:24 against the New Jersey Devils mid-month, he came out sniping with 13 goals and 14 points in the 10 games that followed.
True as it may be that Laine wasn’t struggling as mightily as he is now heading into past outings in which his shifts were limited, it doesn’t change that the returns after his games with a fourth-liner’s ice time were offensively impactful, more so than he was prior to being sat down. That’s what the Jets are hoping he can rediscover. It almost goes without saying that eventually a player of Laine's ability is going to find his form again. But if the Jets have to get him there by sending a message to their young star and limiting his ice time, it’s clear Maurice and his staff are willing to do so.