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Laine has rekindled passing ability, and goalies should be very afraid

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It was 11:24 into the first period of Thursday’s 4-3 win against the Boston Bruins when Patrik Laine was presented with a conundrum.

Bearing down on goal with the puck on his stick, and with linemate Mark Scheifele angling hard to the Boston net off to his right, the Winnipeg Jets forward had a choice to make: try and pick a corner, the preferred method of a 20-year-old superstar who has 109 goals in two-and-a-half years in the NHL or slide a perfect pass to Scheifele, who’d meet it at the back door behind a helpless Tuukka Rask.

For a guy born with the gift of snipe, the decision in front of him (and the one he’d eventually make) seemingly perplexed the young Finn.

“Yeah, I thought I was going to shoot, too,” Laine said while fielding questions after the game.

Laine chose Option B, making that perfect pass to Scheifele, who was, predictably, sitting on the back doorstep waiting to receive.

Never one to shy away from being brutally honest, Laine explained his strategy.

“If I don’t know what I’m doing, I don’t think the goalie’s going to know what I’m doing,” he said. “I thought first I was going to shoot it, I was pretty close. But then I saw [Scheifele] back door so might as well pass it, sometimes.”

Might as well.

Laine’s gone from a goal-scoring prodigy to an elite passer (while still also being a goal-scoring prodigy). But we always knew he could.

Laine’s game has flourished since linking up on a line with Scheifele and Blake Wheeler. Before, Laine was so far down in the gutter that some pondered trading him, or at the very least, shipping him down to the American Hockey League to “teach him a lesson.”

Trading nor demoting Laine was ever going to materialize, but the concern over Winnipeg’s prized possession was reaching hysteria levels as Laine’s goal drought reached 15 games.

Laine-Scheifele-Wheeler had been experimented with in the past but results were average. Laine’s defensive game was never up to snuff, and playing on a line tasked with lining up against the NHL’s best demanded all three parts of the trio playing in both ends of the ice.

This time around, it’s clicked. Two months of floating around and looking bewildered with his lot in life has simply vanished. In its place is a Patrik Laine who backchecks, who can be found behind his own net digging out a puck and leading a rush up the ice. He’s adapted to the way both Scheifele and Wheeler play.

“I think what guys realize about me and Wheels is it’s never one guy’s the passer, one guy’s the shooter,” Scheifele said. “We all do the work, we all do what needs to be done. When you’re the guy to score, you’re the guy to score. When you’re the guy to pass, you’re the guy to pass. That’s the way we’ve always worked.”

Laine is now working within those parameters. Part of that is having no choice in the matter. You play north-south with intense pace like the other two or you play on a different line. The other part is that Laine has adopted the line’s mantra, as Scheifele explained.

“I think they’re good at creating spaces, kind of empty spots on the ice and it’s just easy for me to try to read off them, what they’re doing and where the open ice is going to be,” Laine said. “Now, I’m starting to learn where they want to go, and where do they want me to go. So it’s been kind of a learning process, learning every game and every practice. But it’s getting more and more comfortable.”

Winnipeg’s top line features three right-handed shots, a mixture that head coach Paul Maurice has liked. And why wouldn’t he? The line combined for seven points against the Bruins and his best shooter has unleashed a more well-round version of himself.

“It’s a completely different style of game,” Maurice said. “I’ve got three right-handed shots there, so when [Laine] opens up, he’s got two guys that are very, very fast. So Blake [Wheeler] just drives the pace and Mark [Scheifele] is very good at finding holes off that.

“It’s a different game if it’s a lefty there. There’s just different kinds of plays that get completed. It puts Patrik, because of the off-side speed that he’s playing with, it puts him in position, when he gets it, to have those passing options that he wouldn’t have had before. It also puts him in a more difficult place to shoot the puck. It’s more of a challenge how he gets the puck coming on that side of the ice, but he’s starting to put those numbers up.”

Maurice said himself Thursday that Laine’s game is night and day better the moment he moved to the left wing on Scheifele’s line.

“One, because he’s smart and he wants to make it work,” Maurice said. “But he also has an appreciation now that when you’re playing against – and tonight we ran [Adam] Lowry against [Patrice] Bergeron – but on nights when their best are playing [against Scheifele’s line], you don’t get to make two mistakes on one shift or it’s in the back of the net. The same as it is going the other [way]. We put him there, as much as we thought it would be an offensive grouping that we liked, to teach him that part of the game.”

Laine’s gone from the kid barely passing in the back of the class to the astute learner with his hand up in the front row.

And his game has evolved.

In the past, a stretch of points for Laine would look like betting odds: several goals and one or two assists. At the moment, he’s bucked that trend with four goals and eight assists in his past 11 games.

A Patrik Laine with a shot possessed by few and the vision to match? Tuukka Rask got a taste on Thursday. All he could do was guess with Laine bearing down on him. Like Laine, he didn’t know what was going to happen either.

“All the options are right there, obviously, but when it’s one of the best shooters in the league you don’t want to cheat on that so I just didn’t make the push on time,” Rask said.

Good luck, goalies.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Trade: Penguins send Olli Maatta to Blackhawks for Dominik Kahun and draft pick

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Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford made it clear that changes were coming to his team this offseason.

On Saturday evening he made his first one.

The Penguins announced that they have traded defender Olli Maatta to the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for forward Dominik Kahun and a 2019 fifth-round draft pick that originally belonged to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

It is a trade that accomplishes quite a bit for both teams.

First, from the Pittsburgh side, it clears up a log-jam the team had on its blue line with as many as eight NHL defenders either under contract or under team control (Marcus Pettersson is a restricted free agent) for this season. That alone made it seem likely that someone was going to be on the move, and especially after the team’s defensive play regressed again this past season and had a particularly brutal playoff run against the New York Islanders. By trading Maatta, it not only clears a roster spot but also sheds more than $3 million in salary cap space given that Kahun is still on an entry-level contract and counts only $925,000 against the cap for the 2019-20 season.

It also gives them some much-needed youth at forward.

Even after Maatta’s departure the Penguins still have a lot of questions to deal with on defense, where Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson are still taking up more than $7 million in salary cap space over the next few seasons (not ideal!), while Justin Schultz is an unrestricted free agent after this season. Will more players be on the move to address that position? Or does this just make it more likely the returning players take on bigger roles and are more set in the lineup? Based on what we have seen the past few seasons more changes are going to be needed.

The 23-year-old Kahun scored 13 goals and added 24 assists for the Blackhawks in 82 games this past season, his first full year in the NHL.

The addition of the draft pick also gives the Penguins six picks in this year’s draft: A first, a fourth, two fifths, and two sevenths.

As for Chicago, Maatta joins a defense that has needed an overhaul for a few years now and provides a fresher, younger face in the lineup. Even though Maatta has six years of NHL experience under his belt he will still only be 25 years old when the 2019-20 season begins. His career has gone through some extreme ups and downs. When he made his debut during the 2013-14 season he looked like a player that had legitimate top-pairing potential in the NHL could be on his way to becoming a cornerstone player in Pittsburgh. But in the years that followed he had to overcome cancer and an extensive list of injuries that sidetracked his career and led to some pretty significant regressions across the board. Injuries have still been an issue before him in recent seasons, but he seems to have understood his limitations and adjusted to the sort of game he has to play to make a positive impact.

He is not going to bring much speed to the Blackhawks’ blue line, and he tends to play a more conservative game when it comes to defending entries at the blue line, but he is a sound player in his own end and while he lacks top-end speed, is still very good with the puck on his stick. When he is at his best, he plays a clean, quiet game that will not get noticed (and there is nothing wrong with that; not everyone is going to be Erik Karlsson).

The problem is he is still prone to getting beat by faster forwards and when it happens it can at times look bad, which then leads to criticism.

He appeared in 60 games for the Penguins in 2018-19, scoring one goal and 14 total points. He averages around five goals and 25 total points over 82 games.

He has three years remaining on a contract that carries a salary cap hit of just over $4 million per season. He alone is not going to fix all of the Blackhawks’ shortcomings on defense, but he is not a bad addition, either.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Blues parade Stanley Cup down streets of downtown St. Louis

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Rain or shine, as they say. And the rain wasn’t going to put a damper on this parade.

And while the wet stuff poured down prior to the parade proper in St. Louis on Saturday, it let up as to allow quite the sight, one a half-century in the making.

St. Louis fans lined Market Street just days after their Blues hoisted their first Cup in franchise history after defeating the Boston Bruins 4-1 in the Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.

The parade route began at the intersection of 18th and Market, went down past Enterprise Center — the home of the Blues — and ended at Broadway and Market, a couple blocks from the famed Gateway Arch along the Mississippi River.

The celebrations continued as players, coaches and alumni led a ceremony under the Arch.

“This is incredible,” Craig Berube said. “I knew that there was going to be a lot of support out here today. People are excited and happy and deserving because they love the game of hockey here. The fans are unbelievable. And they finally got a championship.

Brayden Schenn called it the best day of his life. Schenn wore a firefighter hat, honoring his father who is one and was on the back of one of the fire truck floats.

Rookie sensation Jordan Binnington called the moment surreal, and hardly looked nervous as he let loose and soaked the whole experience in.

Ryan O'Reilly, meanwhile, grabbed the Cup and took it down the street near the thousands of fans lined up, allowing those close enough to touch it as he went by.

Former Blues great Brett Hull, who has two Stanley Cup wins to his name, but never with St. Louis, labelled Saturday as the greatest day in the history of the city.

Hull was one of the first people on stage. Not sober, Hull wanted to change the chant from, ‘Let’s go Blues’ to ‘We went Blues’.

“We don’t have to say, ‘Let’s go’ anymore because we already did it,” Hull said.

Of course, the Blues parade wouldn’t be complete without Laila Anderson, a part of the team’s inspiration during their run to the Cup.

Anderson was surprised with Game 7 tickets and got to watch the Blues hoist Lord Stanley. She told Fox Sports Midwest that she thought her mom was pulling a prank on her when she said she was getting to go and be part of the championship parade.

“I’m just glad I could help them,” she said. ” I don’t know what I do but I’m just glad the whole city supports me so much.

Yesterday, the Blues took the Cup to OB. Clark’s, a neighbourhood sports bar and restaurant.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Kings buy out Dion Phaneuf

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Dion Phaneuf‘s time with the Los Angeles Kings has come to an end.

The team announced that they were buying out the 34-year-old’s contract on Saturday afternoon, the first day of the buyout window that lasts until June 30.

[RELATED: Buyout Frenzy: Five candidates to have contracts nixed from the books]

Phaneuf’s name had been circulating in buyout discussions for a while, so it’s hardly surprising that the Kings have elected to do so.

Phaneuf is a shade of the player he used to be and is on the back nine of his career. He’s got two years remaining on a deal and the Kings will save $2,833 million over the course of the buyout, including shedding over $4 million of cap space next year.

Phaneuf’s cap hit over four years will $8.375 million, with the Ottawa Senators retaining 25 percent or $2.791 million per the transaction the two teams made in 2018.

Trading Phaneuf was never likely. He had six points in 67 games last year and the Kings, who were dreadful, healthy-scratched Phaneuf down the stretch.

The Kings acquired Phaneuf prior to the trade deadline in 2018. He’d appear in 93 games over the past two seasons, recording 16 points.

Phaneuf, a first-round pick in 2003, played his 1,000th game during this past season. He’s six points shy of 500 for his NHL career.

The Kings have 10 picks in the upcoming 2019 NHL Draft, including the 5th overall selection in the first round.

MORE: Flyers waive MacDonald, set to buy him out


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Flyers waive MacDonald, set to buy him out

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Well, that didn’t take long.

The Philadelphia Flyers put defenseman Andrew MacDonald on unconditional waivers for the purpose of buying him out, according to the club on Saturday. The Flyers can buy MacDonald out on Sunday after he clears waivers.

Today marks the opening of the buyout window where teams can shed bad contracts (for the most part) and save a little money when it comes to the salary cap. MacDonald’s name was written on the wall on Friday, however, after the Flyers and Washington Capitals swapped Radko Gudas for Matt Niskanen, a defenseman.

[RELATED: Buyout Frenzy: Five candidates to have contracts nixed from the books]

MacDonald had a year remaining on his six-year-, $30 million contract he signed prior to the 2014-15 season. The Flyers will save $3.833 million next year, reducing the cap hit from $5 million to just $1.66 million.

“It was a difficult decision,” Flyers GM Cliff Fletcher said. “It was solely cap related…This guys is a constant professional. He did whatever we asked him to do…He’s just a quality person & a guy who played an effective two-way game for our team.”

MacDonald’s play has tanked in recent times and his minutes followed. He had no goals and nine assists last year in 47 games where he averaged around 16 minutes a night, six less than when he was acquired by the Flyers in 2014 from the New York Islanders.

A shortened season became commonplace for MacDonald, often through injury as well as being healthy scratched. He’s never played a full 82-game schedule in his 10-year NHL career.

MacDonald’s buyout is the first foot to fall.

There are several more candidates who could follow the same path over the next two weeks.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck