Trade Analysis: Dubois for Laine + Roslovic
Breaking down the Winnipeg/Columbus trade using analytics.
Now there’s a blockbuster. The Jets and Blue Jackets mutually solved their early-season headaches on Saturday, with sniper Patrik Laine and RFA holdout Jack Roslovic headed to Columbus in exchange for Pierre-Luc Dubois. This is one of the biggest exchanges of talent we’ve seen in the NHL since June 2016, and worth taking a deep look at using a combination of metrics from Patrick Bacon and microstats from Corey Sznajder.
Who Did the Jets Get?
Pierre-Luc Dubois is an exceptional player, a superb offensive play-driver since the moment he stepped into the NHL. The point totals haven’t come yet but things look great under the hood: he drives scoring chances for his team, scores goals at an excellent rate, and rates well in terms of high-danger passing as well. As hockey fans saw in the playoffs, he plays a hard-nosed, aggressive game, taking full advantage of his 6’3 218 lb frame. He’s a pass-first player who handles the puck well and likes to carry it into the offensive zone; in this sense he’s similar to Mark Schefiele, and their zone entry numbers were actually almost identical last season.
One of the most noteworthy things about Dubois to me is the difference between his reputation and his analytical profile. Most fans consider him to be a solid top-six two-way centre who’s limited offensively, but the underlying numbers don’t reflect that. Dubois is near the top of the league in terms of driving scoring chances when he’s on the ice, but well below-average at preventing them. Micah McCurdy’s teammate breakdowns suggest that he has been “carried” defensively to an extent by linemates like Nick Foligno, Oliver Bjorkstrand, and the Jackets’ great defensive defencemen. With this in mind, it’s unlikely that Dubois addresses the Jets’ biggest problem, which is team defence. On the other hand, maybe no longer being as relied upon offensively will prompt improvement in his defensive performance.
Dubois presumably will slot in as Winnipeg’s 2nd line centre, meaning he will like see a lot of Nikolaj Ehlers. There’s every reason to believe that they will fit very well together; Ehlers is not only a similarly dangerous offensive driver, but he has an elite shot and loves to use it. With duos of Connor - Scheifele and Ehlers - Dubois, the Jets’ top six should be lethal.
Who Did the Blue Jackets Get?
Patrik Laine is one of the league’s most enigmatic players; there simply is nobody like him. It’s obvious what he’s good at, and that’s scoring goals. His shot is one of the best in the league, he uses it plenty, and it’s made him one of the league’s most dangerous snipers - especially on the powerplay. What he’s not good at is a bit more complicated. His defensive numbers are some of the worst in the league, declining in each of the past three seasons. But shockingly, his offensive scoring-chance-driving is also very poor. When Laine’s on the ice, the Jets’ shots come from beyond the hashmarks, in large part because he’s usually the one taking them. The result is that Laine tends to get caved in quite often in terms of shots, shot attempts, and scoring chances.
I wrote a deep dive about Laine a few months ago in which I pointed out that Laine’s offensive skillset isn’t totally limited to just a shot. He’s an above-average passer and a solid transition player as well, and the small jump in his offensive WAR last season is probably a product of improvements in that area. But his almost singular focus on getting in position to launch bombs from past the circles limits the amount of time his team spends in the offensive zone. While Jets fans were very upset in the past when Laine was not on the first line (although he spent 74% of last season there), the numbers suggest that when he has played with Scheifele and co. he has been a drag on their possession numbers at both ends.
But this is all secondary to The Shot. Laine stepped into the NHL as a rookie and delivered arguably the two most impressive finishing seasons of the analytics era. Here’s a sense of how incredible they were:
By Micah McCurdy’s “finishing talent” model, a Laine shot had a +17% chance of going in compared to an average player in each of his first two seasons. That is a higher number than Alex Ovechkin has ever achieved.
According to HockeyViz, Laine’s wrist shots in his first two seasons were worth 31 expected goals. He scored 61.
It looked like he was going to be a generational sniper, the Alex Ovechkin of his era. But for whatever reason, that didn’t happen. In the past two seasons Laine’s finishing numbers have been great, but not even close to what they were before.
There are some possible explanations ranging from injuries to goalies anticipating his shots better to those one-time passes not being as good as they were before. Either way, the point is that expecting a logical progression from those first two seasons could leave Jackets fans disappointed. At the same time, Max Domi is one of the league’s best playmakers, and if they form a line together we could see the two of them pile up points.
Jack Roslovic is a playmaking two-way middle-six forward who’s listed as a centre but has spent most of his time on the wing. His underlying numbers collapsed last season but were previously above-average, especially defensively. He has put up solid production at 5v5 considering the minutes he’s played and he’s still pretty young. It’s probably unreasonable to expect the former 25th overall pick to break out as a stud top-six forward but he should at least strengthen their depth.
I love trades like this. I wish we saw more of them. There is a very valid argument to be made for both sides of this deal.
The case for Winnipeg as the winner is that Pierre-Luc Dubois is the type of player that almost never gets traded. He’s a legitimate 1st line centre who’s 22 years old and has been consistently excellent throughout his career so far. Even if his defensive game isn’t as strong as his reputation would suggest, his offensive skillset is far greater than you might think if you just looked at his point totals. He’s a much better passer than Laine, and well-positioned to add a much-needed puck possession component to the Jets’ top six. On top of that, he might even help them score more goals at even strength - in the past two seasons he has outscored Laine at evens by 10 and at 5v5 by 7. The Jets are blessed with excellent finishers (Connor, Ehlers, and Scheifele all rank at the 91st percentile or above) which made Laine expendable. Dubois’ floor is far higher than Laine’s and he’s been the better player in each of the past two seasons. To get that for two players who wanted out is a huge win for the Jets.
The case for Columbus as the winner is that Patrik Laine has already shown a ceiling that far surpasses Dubois’. As a teenager, he put together two of the most stunning sniping seasons of the past fifteen years. If he can even approximate that performance again - and he’s still young - there’s a chance the Jackets could have one of the league’s best scorers on their team for years to come. For a team that ranked 28th in goals for last season, that’s a chance worth betting on. They’ve also had a 25th or worse powerplay in each of the past three seasons. Rebuilding their special teams around Laine could pay huge dividends and raise them up in a competitive division. Their defensive system could also be so strong that it somewhat or even mostly negates his problems in that area. Adding another young player in Roslovic (a hometown boy no less) is just icing on the cake.
It will be intriguing to see how these players fit in their new homes. Ehlers - Dubois and Domi - Laine sound like ready made duos that perfectly complement the new acqusitions. But how will the Jets’ powerplay make up for the loss of its focal point? And can the Jackets contend with Alex Texier or Boone Jenner as their second line centre? I can’t wait to find out.