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 email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck