Blue Jackets hanging in playoff race despite ice-cold Laine

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Columbus Blue Jackets and Detroit Red Wings. Blue Jackets-Red Wings stream coverage begins at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

When the Blue Jackets acquired Patrik Laine, people couldn’t help but chuckle about how Laine would mix with John Tortorella like oil and water. By just about every measure, Laine has indeed not been a great fit.

To be fair to Torts and the Blue Jackets, though: they’re hanging in the playoff picture (ugly or not) even with Laine being a square peg in a round, grit-and-defense-centric hole.

Following an overtime loss where Laine was benched (or non-benching, depending upon Tortorella’s mood), Torts emphasized the fact that the BLue Jackets squeezed a point out of the game. At the time, it seemed kind of comical, as if Tortorella was a dog enjoying its coffee with its house aflame. In retrospect, Torts brought an element of Nostradamus to his usually tense and/or terse press conferences.

“We’ll be OK. We’ve got to keep growing,” Tortorella said, via NHL.com’s Craig Merz, following that March 11 overtime loss to the Panthers “Although we don’t get a full result tonight, we get a point. We’ll take the point. We’ve got a lot of good things going on. We’ve got to focus on that.”

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With all the attention from upsets over the Maple Leafs and especially the Lightning, it’s easy to lose track of how down-to-the-wire most Tortorella-era Blue Jackets playoffs run have been. This isn’t just a team that’s never won its division; the Blue Jackets, as a franchise, have never even finished second.

They’re used to getting there ugly (aside from maybe 2016-17). And this season might set a new standard — if they can squeeze into the playoffs.

Heading into the weekend, six of the Blue Jackets’ last seven games went to overtime. It’s been a mixed bag of wins and losses, but they’ve kindly accepted “charity points.” Especially since the Blue Jackets simply are not getting many points from Patrik Laine.

Laine still not having much success under Tortorella, with Blue Jackets

It must sting the Blue Jackets a bit to watch Pierre-Luc Dubois find his footing with the Jets while Laine languishes in Columbus. That’s not to say things have been perfect, as the-now-lifted Canadian quarantine seemed to inhibit Dubois. But he’s now finding some promising chemistry with Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor.

Laine? He’s a mystery … or just a flop. At least so far.

You can see that merely in the counting stats — often where Laine looks the most like a star.

Heading into Saturday (the first of two Blue Jackets games vs. the Red Wings), Laine only scored one goal from Feb. 25 – March 25. In a dark bit of comedy, that was the Panthers OT loss where Laine got benched.

Beyond already-troubling point totals, it’s the lack of chances that are alarming. While Laine hovers around a career average of three shots on goal per game, he’s been averaging closer to two so far in Columbus. Some of that could be design — the Blue Jackets might not want him firing shots and missing the net wildly. But it doesn’t exactly speak to a high level of confidence, either.

His defense really is that bad

Now, it’s plausible that the Blue Jackets could find ways to goose more offense out of Laine. The problem is that the rewards might not justify the risk.

Take the idea of lining him up with Max Domi, for instance. On paper (or maybe in the polygonal world of video games), it might make sense to pair them up. The elevator pitch goes something like … “For all of their flaws, Domi’s a talented passer, and Laine is a talented shooter. Maybe they can make it work?”

Unfortunately, those flaws are glaring. Both players can create a black-hole-like effect on defense, so together it would probably be something Tortorella wouldn’t want to stomach. Laine’s Evolving Hockey RAPM chart for this season — limited sample or not — should load come with a horror movie scream.

Laine Blue Jackets Evolving Hockey RAPM
via Evolving Hockey

Now, it’s worth noting that the Blue Jackets haven’t really tried that Domi – Laine combo all that often. But, considering how small the margins for error have been for a Columbus team seemingly content to crawl past regulation, do you really want that lab experiment blowing up in your face?

Some good faith to Tortorella’s efforts with Laine, maybe no good Blue Jackets fit

On one hand, Torts has made things harder on himself by benching Laine (and others) in really dramatic ways. Is it really wise to glue a guy to the bench for the rest of a game after a mistake? Sports games are littered with players atoning for their errors with big plays.

But beyond that, Tortorella’s been willing to put Laine in positions to succeed since he was traded to the Blue Jackets.

Laine is starting the vast majority of his shifts in the offensive zone. Logically enough, he’s not being placed in high-leverage defensive situations. And his “fancy stats” still look atrocious.

Torts has also been wise to be reasonably positive about Laine. Take his recent comments, via Aaron Portzline of The Athletic (sub required).

“We’re trying to put him in spots to succeed,” Tortorella said, “but it also falls on the player to try to get his game back. I’m sure Patty’s trying to do that.

“But if we’re going to have any chance (to make the playoffs), he has to be a big part of this. He’s gotta try to find a way. I’m going to help him. The coaches are going to help him.”

So far, it seems like that’s going to be easier said than done.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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