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This article was published 18/1/2019 (394 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
When pure goal scorers are in slumps, usually they start to get their games picked apart in the press, and Patrik Laine is no exception to this rule.
Former NHL executive and current Hockey Night in Canada / Sportsnet analyst Brian Burke has said Laine gives you goals, but nothing else. Goals are pretty significant in the NHL, and I would say that statement is remarkably harsh.
There are three ways that we can quantify defensive play at this stage of hockey analytics: we can look at what kinds of plays a team allows while a player is on the ice compared to when he’s off the ice; how engaged a player is without the puck in order to get it back from opponents; and how well a player manages the puck to avoid risks.
Let’s start with on-ice statistics; is Laine’s presence on the ice a defensive problem for his teammates?
Laine is currently on the ice for more goals-against at five-on-five than the number scored when he’s on the bench, but the Jets allow a fraction fewer high-danger chances and fewer shots against while he’s on the ice, as well.
The Jets allow more passes to the slot while Laine is on the ice, but those passes are rarely something that wingers have a huge impact on; just think of where dangerous passes come from and where a winger’s area of influence is in the defensive zone. It’s possible that Laine’s presence allows for more gaps in coverage that result in more passes to the slot against, but I would be hesitant to blame him over the centres and defencemen he plays with, who have much more responsibility in blocking those passes.
Laine is below average at recovering loose pucks in the offensive zone, which is to be expected because he’s not the guy you want in on the forecheck, you want him to be ready to receive the pass from the guy who recovers the puck.
Slightly surprising to me is that this year Laine is an above-average loose-puck retriever in the defensive and neutral zones, which he hasn’t been in other years, meaning he’s more aggressive without the puck this year, working harder to get it on his own stick.
In terms of actually removing possession from opponents, Laine isn’t an effective checker, by any means, though he does get in lanes pretty well, close to team average in blocking passes and above team average for forwards in blocked shots per 20 minutes.
Considering Laine’s reputation as a below average defensive player, it’s somewhat surprising how active he is without the puck. It’s easy to forget that he is still 20 years old, and while scoring comes easy to him, he’s still learning the finer points of defending.
The blocked passes also backs up my thought that he probably isn’t responsible for the higher-than-average passes to the slot in the Jets’ end and he doesn’t appear to be a significantly irresponsible player in terms of allowing passes through.
So far, compared to the first couple seasons of Laine’s career, it looks like he’s actually been making strides defensively, but we still need to look at his puck management. Is Laine turning the puck over a ton and undoing all this good work?
Unfortunately, the answer to that seems to be a resounding yes. His defensive zone turnover rate this season is disastrous, much higher than the team average, and leads to more chances in which teammates aren’t in position to defend properly.
A higher O-zone turnover rate for an offence-focused player is to be expected, because they take more risks to create offence, and turnovers in the offensive zone are generally less dangerous than in the defensive or neutral zones, but the problem here for Laine is that he’s turning the puck over more often per possession in every zone.
Not only does this make Laine a risky player with the puck, but it also makes him a target for opposing checkers, because teams can smell blood in the water when a player is having trouble handling the puck effectively, which just exacerbates the problem.
Of the 357 forwards who have played 300 or more minutes in the NHL this season, only one turns the puck over more often than Laine at 22.9 per cent, and that’s Montreal’s Nicolas Deslauriers at 23 per cent. Since Laine handles the puck more often, no forward in that cohort produces more defensive zone turnovers per 20 minutes of ice time than Laine’s 3.08.
This is a major issue for Laine that he needs to work on, and while I wouldn’t come anywhere close to agreeing with Burke that Laine brings only goals to the table, it would help if he was a bit more careful in his own zone.
Andrew Berkshire is a hockey writer specializing in data-driven analysis of the game.