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Laine a victim of lousy luck, more bench time

Patrik Laine has never been quite as streaky as he has this season. (Trevor Hagan / Canadian Press files)

Patrik Laine has never been quite as streaky as he has this season. (Trevor Hagan / Canadian Press files)

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 6/3/2019 (457 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

After the worst slump of his career, Patrik Laine is scoring again with five goals in his last six games and eight points in his last seven games. The scoring has coincided with an increase in Laine’s ice time, playing more than 18 minutes a game in his last five after playing fewer than 15 minutes per game the previous seven games as Paul Maurice seemed to grow frustrated with the struggling winger.

Laine is a bit of a unique case because when he stops scoring, the warts in his defensive game tend to be a lot more obvious — and he’s never been quite as streaky as he has this season.

If you were to take the long view and see that Laine is on pace for 36 goals over an 82-game season, while his shooting percentage is three percentage points lower than his career average, it’s tough to throw too much criticism his way, offensively. It's just that the way he's done it is... absurd.

Laine has scored 13 times when playing five-on-five. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but per minute played it ranks third on the team, so it’s not exactly bad. The weird part is that Laine went 17 games without scoring five-on-five, then scored eight goals in seven games, and then just five in the following 41 games.

Scoring can be streaky for all shooters; even the best players aren’t at their peak every game. Performance, as a rule, is highly variable.

That doesn’t just go for point totals or goals either. The things players do in order to create those goals and points can be highly variable. The question I have with Laine is whether his goal scoring has been randomly distributed or more performance-based?

One thing we have to control for is ice time, as Laine gets less when he’s not scoring, which makes it tougher to bust the slump. So, let’s look at his shots on net and goals scored at five-on-five every 60 minutes of ice time, using a five-game rolling average. That means each point on the graph represents five games worth of ice time, and it gives us a better idea of how things trend over time.

Examining Laine’s rolling averages, his bumps in goal scoring seem to line up pretty well with his shots in a few places, but the first section of his season looks extremely unlucky. Through the middle of the season, while Laine was inconsistent in his shooting performance, his shot peaks did not coincide with an increase in goals, and things look a bit more random.

The question then becomes, what kind of shots was he taking? An increase in shots can be less effective if a frustrated player is just throwing pucks on net from the perimeter, so let’s look at the same shot data, but split up by location.

It’s likely not a coincidence that Laine’s biggest goal-scoring streak of the season at five-on-five came while he was shooting from the inner slot or high-danger area more than at any other point, as shots from that location beat goaltenders about 20 per cent of the time at even-strength.

Thus far in his career, Laine has been more of a high-slot shooter, which makes sense for someone with his talent. Snipers tend to prefer the high slot for a few reasons: they have a bit more room to receive passes and evade shot-blockers, they have a bit more time before sticks get into lanes to put pressure on the shooter and they’re less likely to have their stick tied up.

Most goal-scorers of Laine’s stature shoot far more often in the high slot than the inner slot and, for whatever reason, he hasn’t really seen much of a benefit at even-strength this season for shooting from there.

With his struggles dragging on, Laine started to get his shots more into the inner slot again around Game 51, and eventually he broke his goal drought and seems to be playing much better now.

But, I think it’s important to talk about Laine’s performance in context, as well.

Looking at Laine’s rolling averages from this season alone gives us an idea of how widely variable his performance has been, but on the whole compared to past seasons, he’s shooting from better locations on average, sacrificing shots from the perimeter for shots from the slot, and scoring less often.

There’s no doubt that there have been issues with Laine’s game this season on the defensive side, but it’s clear to me that his inconsistent goal scoring has more to do with converting on high-slot shots than a player who is genuinely struggling to create opportunities for himself.

The combination of not converting on his usual bread-and-butter chances and a severe decrease in ice time starting around Game 35 left Laine without a leg to stand on to score at even-strength. He ranks 82nd this season in five-on-five goals per minute played, which is a far cry from his fifth-place ranking in his first two years, but remains comparable to Tyler Seguin.

Despite his inconsistency and defensive struggles, the biggest factor in his drop in goal scoring at even-strength this season is just bad luck. He’s doing the right things to score — more than he has the last two seasons, but the puck just hasn’t bounced the right way for him.

Andrew Berkshire is a hockey writer specializing in data-driven analysis of the game.

Andrew Berkshire

Andrew Berkshire

Andrew Berkshire is a hockey writer specializing in data-driven analysis of the game.

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