Patrik Laine. Remember him? Well, he’s back, hanging around the very fringes of the Eastern Conference playoff chase, and boy did he make an impact on Tuesday night against the Leafs. He plays for the Columbus Blue Jackets now, by the way.
In Ohio, against a very good team but also a team that never surprises you when they stumble, Laine opened the Jackets’ account in the second period. After a strong turnover in the defensive zone from Zach Werenski, Laine found himself on the other end piloting a 2-on-1. Though he feinted toward passing across the ice to Boone Jenner, the sniper instead stayed true to his nature and lined up a shot that dinged off the post and in with the satisfying cling of a cash register becoming 100 bucks heavier. Columbus had tied the game.
The Jackets would go on to take a lead, then surrender it on a chaotic late goal by Jason Spezza. But in overtime, Laine appeared again, this time to end things for good with the deadly shot that’s made him famous since he was a teenager. You can watch the whole sequence over here, but I mainly just can’t get over Jack Campbell’s sheer disbelief at the speed and accuracy of the puck that just whizzed by him, like Wile E. Coyote pondering the cloud of smoke where Road Runner briefly stood.
This was a very nice win for the Blue Jackets, their sixth in seven games since the All-Star break, mostly against inferior competition. At 26-23-1, and ninth place in the East, they can even still tell themselves they have a shot to make the postseason, despite the imposing problem of the next-best Boston Bruins sitting a full nine points ahead of them with the same 50 games played.
Even if they stay where they are in the standings for the rest of the year, this has to be considered a modest success of a season for the Jackets, who should be firmly in rebuilding mode. High-profile talent leaving Columbus isn’t anything new, but this past offseason the team made moves that thinned them out even more. The decline in roster quality with the departures of guys like Seth Jones (say what you will about him but Columbus had no heirs to pick up his heavy minutes) and Cam Atkinson, coupled with a drop in quality from their young goaltenders in 2021–22, should have put the Jackets on the brink of the toilet. But instead, they’ve won more games than they’ve lost. That’s a fine enough thing to be proud of in a situation that once looked unwinnable.
The big stunner, specifically over the past month, has been the reemergence of Laine as a high-volume scorer and petrifying threat on the wing. That he’s still only 23 is hard to wrap my head around, because it feels like this kid has lived multiple entire careers since entering the NHL. In his first two years in Winnipeg he looked like the honest-to-goodness second coming of Alex Ovechkin, scoring 80 goals in his first 155 games. But the 44 he got in 2017–18 remains his career high, and though his production remained solid, his inconsistency and frustration with the limitations of his role on a team stacked with experienced forwards eventually came to a head and forced a trade for the unhappy Columbus star Pierre-Luc Dubois. Under the often-abrasive Jackets coach John Tortorella, Laine struggled to find his form. As coach and player clashed, and Laine put up an extremely disappointing 10 goals in 45 games last season in Ohio, this marriage called out for an annulment. Laine’s one-year deal in the summer was an obvious sign that neither side was particularly confident that this would work out.
But then everything changed. The Jackets parted ways with Torts in the offseason. Fans came back into the arenas. The world opened up, allowing Laine more freedom to get comfortable in his unfamiliar home. And finally, in late January, the floodgates opened, and Laine started scoring like his young self once more. With the two goals against Toronto, he’s now picked up an astonishing 12 in the past nine games, reestablishing his confidence and raising the levels of optimism around a troubled franchise. Highlights have included a 5-4 win over Washington that featured a pair of bombastic power play goals, a thundering one-timer with 6.5 seconds left in the third that broke a 1-1 tie with Montreal, and a hat trick in Chicago. It’s all a thrilling example of what can happen when a player as talented as Laine is in a good place mentally, and when his teammates do a good job feeding him the puck in open ice.
“I’ve always felt like I’ve been able to impact games [in a variety of ways], except for last season,” Laine said a few days ago, per The Athletic. “It was an off-year for me. I couldn’t do much. That’s the way it works sometimes. This year, I’ve gone back to my old days, how I used to play. I feel like I’m better than I used to be, but there’s so much more—so much more—there. I’m not even close to hitting the ceiling.”
This is where that one-year contract, signed when everything looked so much more cynical, heralds a fascinating crossroads in the Jackets’ rebuilding cycle. Laine is again a restricted free agent this summer and will be a UFA in 2023, and these negotiations will bring all sorts of tough questions. Do the Jackets go all-out and commit to him as a franchise centerpiece, with the accelerated timeline that would entail? Do they stay year-to-year, not fully trusting the small sample size, and risk losing him for nothing? Or, most distastefully to me, do they simply back away and trade him to a franchise in a higher gear than they are?
There is also, of course, the question of what Laine wants. But even though it is the pattern of major Blue Jackets players to eventually outgrow the city and leave for New York or Florida, the young Finn is at least not revealing any ambitions to live elsewhere.
“I kind of like everything [about] Columbus,” he told The Athletic. “It’s big enough but, at the same time, small enough. No traffic. It’s such a nice, family-friendly city and sports town. I like everything about this place. I’ve enjoyed being here. I don’t care [where I play] as long as we’re winning and everybody’s having fun. That’s all that matters to me. I’m not a guy who needs to go out [on the town] or whatever. I don’t really care about that part.”
He scores goals and he likes Columbus?? CBJ should sign him to a 20-year deal right this instant.