Should Blue Jackets give Laine a big contract, or trade him?

Columbus Blue Jackets v Pittsburgh Penguins
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With Patrik Laine, things are rarely just run-of-the-mill. Where other prominent players tend to sign long-term contracts, Laine’s drifted though plenty of uncertainty. Even Laine’s sense of fashion tends to break the mold.

Could the Blue Jackets finally hash out a long-term contract with Laine this summer, or could the 24-year-old experience the turbulence of another trade? Things could swing in drastically different directions for the pending restricted free agent.

From the sound of things, we may not get clarity during the week of the 2022 NHL Draft.

Blue Jackets indicate that a Laine trade wouldn’t happen around 2022 NHL Draft

One key wrinkle for Laine, the Blue Jackets, and his contract/trade situation is the Finnish winger’s salary arbitration rights. If it got that far, a hearing could leave Laine with just a one-year deal, walking him to unrestricted free agency. That would basically be a worst-case scenario for Columbus.

To some, that would indicate that the clock is ticking. Publicly, Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen is playing it cool, though.

On Friday, Kekalainen indicated to Aaron Portzline of The Athletic that if a Laine trade happens, it’s more likely to take place later in the offseason, rather than around the 2022 NHL Draft.

“Like with anything, it takes its course,” Kekalainen said to Portzline (sub required). “If they want to agree, we can do it quickly. If they don’t, it can take time. I don’t think it’s going to affect anything we do (next weekend) at the draft.”

One way or another, this figures to be a busy week for the Blue Jackets. They currently own the sixth and 12th picks of the 2022 NHL Draft.

[Looking back at the 2021-22 Columbus Blue Jackets]

Clearly, it will hinge on finding the right contract for both Laine and the Blue Jackets. In another key quote to Portzline, Kekalainen backed up the notion that a Laine trade would happen if the only option is a one-year deal.

“There’s a lot of time before the season starts,” Kekalainen said. “If for some reason we can’t get anything more than a year, then … well, we gotta make some decisions again.”

“There have been a lot of moves made (in recent summers) after the draft. I think there’s going to be another wave of moves when people strike out on the free-agent market. They may have to turn to the trade market if they don’t get what they want through free agency.”

Innnnteresting.

Much like Laine unveiling fashion worthy of Dan Flashes, there’s a lot to take in here. Let’s explore the most important considerations. What kind of contract might Patrik Laine demand, and what makes sense for the Blue Jackets? Crucially: are the Blue Jackets good enough to progress if Laine reaches his potential, or are they better off making a trade?

Laine: The good, the bad, and possible contract prices

From a production standpoint, Laine enjoyed a remarkable rebound with the Blue Jackets in 2021-22. There’s something so neat-and-tidy about Laine scoring exactly 56 points in as many games.

In particular, it’s promising that Laine didn’t just live off of power-play production. Just five of his 26 goals and 14 of his 56 points happened on the man advantage. An optimist might dream of Laine scoring in both situations, overwhelming any worries about defense.

Zoom in, though, and there are still warts in his game.

As you’ll see in the section focused on the Blue Jackets overall, their results vs. their process can be as misleading as Laine’s redemptive season.

Defensive issues linger

Via Natural Stat Trick, the Blue Jackets generated 117 high-danger chances with Laine on the ice at even-strength last season, while they gave up 187. It’s fair to argue that such numbers aren’t all Laine’s fault. That said, it’s been the theme of his career — especially as his shooting went from otherworldly to merely very good. For multiple seasons, when Laine’s on the ice at 5-on-5, his teams hover around controlling just (roughly) 40% of the high-danger chances.

All things considered, it’s remarkable that the Blue Jackets broke even (42 goals for, 42 against) with Laine on the ice at 5-on-5 last season. Some of that might be skill, but there’s an element of luck. With similar underlying numbers in 2020-21, the Blue Jackets allowed about twice as many five-on-five goals with Laine on the ice (45) than they generated (22).

To be clear: the point isn’t that Laine is a “bad player.” Instead, it’s a question of whether the pros outweigh the cons enough to justify a big contract.

This three-year Evolving Hockey Player Card tells some of the story. Laine is useful offensively, but struggles mightily on defense. (His 2021-22 player card follows these trends, so it’s not as if he turned it all around lately.)

Laine Evolving Hockey Player Card
via Evolving Hockey

If the asking price is reasonable, the Blue Jackets can reasonably talk themselves into a Laine contract. If the price skyrockets, then the risks are likely to outweigh the rewards.

Price and term need to be right

Back in May, Portzline opined that if the Blue Jackets sign Laine to a long-term contract, it could be “the largest contract in franchise history.”

Keep in mind that Zach Werenski‘s big six-year deal with a $9.58M cap hit is just set to kick in next season. If Laine’s contract is comparable — even larger — you’re talking dropping almost $20M on that combo. Both are talented, but that doesn’t seem like a promising value proposition.

There’s a lane for a worthy compromise, however.

Evolving Hockey’s contract projections spit out options that inspire less sticker-shock. Their model projected a five-year deal just under $7M per season. The average term for multiple projections was about four years (4.1) and $6.67M AAV.

Now, you could even quibble with Laine being worth that; The Athletic’s model put his market value at $5.2M. Yet, from a PR standpoint, the Blue Jackets could keep a big-name star with size, a dangerous shot, and hope for improvement at age 24.

They just really need to do some soul-searching. Because, frankly, there’s a big gulf between “not as bad as expected” and “actually good enough to compete.”

Blue Jackets might not have been as “good” as they seemed in 2021-22

Compared to basement-level expectations, the Blue Jackets were a pleasant surprise in 2021-22. They finished 10th in the East with a respectable 37-38-7 record.

Upon further scrutiny, there are clouds hanging over that sunny optimism.

You can bang that drum about the Blue Jackets being the second-best East team to miss the playoffs. You might be doing so to distract people from how large the gap was, though. The final wild card Capitals finished with 100 points, miles ahead of the Blue Jackets’ 81.

The Blue Jackets gave up 37 more goals than they scored, and that wasn’t all about bad bounces. Hockey Viz captures their season well. Their offense was meek, and their defense was terrible. Special teams didn’t help matters, either.

Blue Jackets offense defense Hockey Viz 2021-22
Via Hockey Viz

Annoyed by charts and stats? Just look at the Blue Jackets’ roster and ask yourself if you see a playoff team next season.

Considering how long Jarmo Kekalainen’s been around as Blue Jackets GM, he probably doesn’t want to overtly signal a rebuild. That approach might actually make the most sense for this franchise, though.

Whether you think their farm system is already very promising or more of a work in progress, young prospects present the most hope for actual contention. Particularly if Columbus can add real talent with its two high first-rounders in 2022.

With Laine at age 24, he could be part of a larger Blue Jackets’ solution. It just seems like that solution is going to take more time than some might expect.

So maybe it’s wisest just for the Blue Jackets to trade Laine? Here’s one idea.

Blue Jackets should target a desperate team like the Flyers if they trade Laine

Earlier on Tuesday, I argued that the Kraken shouldn’t go for broke in free agency. Instead, they should use their salary cap space to take advantage of other teams who are desperate to get better.

My favorite example there was to take James van Riemsdyk off of the Flyers’ hands for serious draft picks/prospects.

Such a scenario could be even juicier for the Blue Jackets.

Theoretically, the Blue Jackets could extract an even bigger price if they made Laine part of a JVR trade. You’d demand assets both for taking on JVR’s $7M cap hit, and also handing the Flyers Laine. (After all, Laine and the Flyers have been connected in trade rumors for ages.)

As mentioned in that previous article, JVR can still play, and he costs less than his $7M salary cap hit in real money. You wouldn’t even necessarily be burning everything down for the sake of a rebuild, either. Amusingly, look who ranked alongside Laine in Evolving Hockey’s Expected Goals Above Replacement percentiles:

Laine JVR xGAR percentiles Evolving Hockey 2021-22
via Evolving Hockey

If all prices were equal, you’d take your chances with the much-younger Laine. But the price could be huge for Laine, while JVR’s deal expires after the 2022-23 season. If JVR plays well but the Blue Jackets are as bad as their underlying numbers look, then Columbus could trade JVR down the line for even more assets.

Another trick up Kekalainen’s sleeves?

Naturally, that JVR – Laine trade idea is just one route the Blue Jackets could hypothetically take. A Laine – John Tortorella reunion might not be something either person invites.

But that trade idea is a jumping off point. Theoretically, Columbus could absorb that JVR contract for assets, and trade Laine somewhere else for picks/prospects.

The larger point is that, yes, the Blue Jackets are in a tricky situation with Patrik Laine. They just shouldn’t feel forced to hand out a bad contract.

At times, we’ve seen Jarmo Kekalainen go “outside the box” and enrich the Blue Jackets. Other times, big gambles haven’t always worked out. The Laine contract/trade situation is the latest franchise-altering situation for the Blue Jackets, and it could go in any number of ways.

Much like Laine deciding what to wear each day.