What's Patrik Laine Worth?

Diving into Laine's analytics - even his goal scoring - reveal some red flags.

Winnipeg Jets sign Patrik Laine to two-year contract

Ever since Patrik Laine perplexed the hockey world by delivering a bizarre FaceTime interview on draft lottery night in 2016 he has been one of the most enigmatic and fascinating players in the sport. Whether it’s his barnstorming first two seasons, his Fortnite addiction, his snakebitten slumps, or his defensive woes, few players have earned the attention that Laine has. Now that the Jets’ window seems suddenly on the verge of slamming shut about a decade sooner than expected, he’s the biggest name on the trade market.

He’s got the type of pedigree that commands a huge return: 22 year old 2nd overall picks with a 40 goal season under their belt don’t wind up on the trade block often, and teams will be lining up in the hopes that they can repeat the notorious Hall-for-Larsson deal. But Laine isn’t Taylor Hall, and diving into his underlying numbers reveals some valid causes for concern - and no, I’m not talking about his defence. Laine’s job is to generate enough offence to far outweigh the poor play in his own end, mostly through scoring a lot of goals, and there are three major red flags that stand out to me:

  1. Laine’s goalscoring has dramatically fallen off in the past two seasons both in terms of total goals and finishing numbers.

  2. Unlike every other comparable young sniper of the cap era, Laine has a major negative impact on his team’s ability to generate quality scoring chances.

  3. Laine has been fortunate enough to play with some of the league’s top playmakers and finishers in his career, which has papered over those first two issues.

In this piece I’m going to provide an overview of Patrik Laine’s on-ice impact, including some areas of his game aside from his shot (including defence, passing, and transition play) before breaking down those three red flags.

A Quick Profile of Patrik Laine

At a glance, this is how Patrik Laine profiles right now based on his performance in the past three seasons. He is a force on the powerplay, a driver of goals for at even strength, and a respectable but not top-level goal scorer and finisher. His defensive impact is abysmal, as is his impact on his team’s ability to generate scoring chances. His projected Wins Above Replacement is 1.6, which translates to roughly a $6.8M estimated cap value. On the graphs on the side, you can see that Laine’s goals for impact has always far outstripped his expected goal impact, and that 18-19 represented a major down-season for him.

Is Laine Just a Good Shot and Nothing Else?

I’m going to talk a lot about goals in this piece, so why not start out with a quick overview of the non-scoring things that he does (and doesn’t do), working from his own zone outwards.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Laine is a horrible defensive player. Even in a season where he apparently tried a lot harder to hustle back and contribute in his own end, his defensive metrics were worse than ever. Oftentimes with offensive players you can say that effort is the main thing preventing them from playing strong two-way hockey, so this points to a fundamental lack of defensive ability. Being bad defensively doesn’t preclude a player from being effective - the five worst defensive players of the analytics era by Wins Above Replacement are Phil Kessel, John Tavares, Thomas Vanek, Patrick Kane, and Alex Ovechkin - and I don’t think anyone has any misconceptions about what kind of player Laine is and will be in his own end.

While things don’t look so good in the Jets’ end, Laine is very effective carrying the puck out of it on the breakout. Based on Corey Sznajder’s microstat tracking, Laine ranked near the top of the NHL in terms of the frequency with which he exited the Jets’ zone with possession of the puck. While it should be noted that this is inflated by how much the Jets’ system relies on forwards to lead the breakout (they justifiably do not trust their defencemen with that task), it’s clear that Laine acquits himself well in this role.

In the offensive zone, Laine doesn’t just stand still waiting for one timers. Well, not all the time, anyway. A lot was made of Laine’s increased assist totals this season, but this is somewhat deceiving. He had the same number of primary assists (17) as he did in 2018-19, but 13 more secondary assists. While it’s easy to write off secondary assists as noise, microstats suggest that he has become a more active playmaker as his career has gone on. This season for the first time in his career Laine contributed an above-average number of shot assists, an encouraging sign that he was more holistically engaged offensively than he had been before.

Do pretty good passing and a lot of breakouts make Laine an elite all-around player? No. But it does show that he has more to offer than just a shot. Which is encouraging, because recently that shot hasn’t been what it once was…

Something Happened to Laine’s Scoring

Expected goals are a stat that analysts use to estimate how likely a given chance is to go in based on past results. They’re often used at a team level to measure how well teams generate and prevent scoring chances for and against, but they can also be useful to measure how good players are at finishing their chances. If a guy can consistently outperform expectations, it’s a good sign that he’s a really talented scorer who can be relied upon to capitalize on his chances at a higher rate than the average player.

It’s difficult to express just how good Patrik Laine’s finishing was in his first two seasons, but I’ll do my best:

  • 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.

  • By EvolvingWild’s “shooting goals” model, Laine accrued 28.4 expected goals above replacement based purely on finishing talent in his first two seasons combined. The next highest player had 17.

  • According to HockeyViz, Laine’s wrist shots in his first two seasons were worth 31 expected goals. He scored 61.

He would pound shot after shot from the high slot, and a lot of them went in. His shot attempts were low-percentage chances, but it didn’t matter; he scored 36 goals in 2016-17 and 44 in 2017-18, validly raising questions about whether the NHL had a new generational goalscoring talent.

But something happened after that. After scoring 80 goals in his first two seasons (2nd), he scored only 58 in his next two (28th). Being a 30 goal scorer is nice, but if scoring is almost all that you bring to the table it’s not good enough. If he had had a single down-season it would have been easy to right off as bad luck, but this year’s repeat is a real red flag.

A lot of words have been written about Laine’s (relative) scoring slump, but to me the most compelling explanations aren’t from the “gripping the stick too hard” or “playing too much Fortnite” schools of thought but a more logical explanation: Laine’s got a trick, and goalies and defencemen know how to plan for it. As Harrison L. of Arctic Ice Hockey puts it:

For PK units, [focusing on Laine] is a pretty natural adjustment. When Wheeler starts spying the far left-side near the face-off circle, the goalies usually know what follows. As a result, they’ve been cheating to Laine’s side a lot quicker, sealing off the near-side post from Patrik’s shot.

That his finishing fall-off continued through this season provides pretty strong evidence that it’s not safe (and might even be foolhardy) to expect any more 18% shooting % seasons from Patrik Laine again. In his piece this week, Jack Han stresses that trying to force Laine to change his game would be a waste of time and talent:

Here is a list of all the things [Laine’s new coach] should not be doing:

  1. Change Laine’s positioning on the powerplay

  2. Tell Laine to dump & forecheck at 5v5

  3. Force Laine to stand at the net in OZ play (rather than acting as a rover looking for seams and open space)

  4. Stress out about Laine’s defensive positioning or effort

I agree with all of this, but I am less optimistic than Jack that he’ll be automatically good for 35-40 a year moving forward if he continues to play the way he does. Something has clearly shifted in Laine’s finishing as goalies and defences have figured him out. That means that if Laine is this committed to shooting from long range and unwilling to go to the net I have a difficult time seeing how he’s going to really grow from here unless he can somehow mechanically improve his shot. That seems pretty unlikely to me.

What Happens If He Moves?

Now that we have a sense of what Patrik Laine is in Winnipeg, there’s a bigger question at stake: what happens if he’s traded? Will he be able to pick up where he left off with a new team?

Laine has been a poor quality scoring chance driver in every single season of his career. The notable snipers of the cap era (Ovechkin, Vanek, Kovalchuk, Stamkos, Heatley, Nash, etc.) were all very strong expected goal drivers throughout the early stages of their careers, but the complete opposite is the case with Laine. This is because he sticks to the perimeter and high slot, doesn’t try to get chances from in close, and isn’t making a lot of passes to the slot. It means that he’s essentially generating goals without generating offence. That would be fine if it was all his doing - at the end of the days goals are what actually matter - but I’m not so sure it is.

RAPM is a metric created by EvolvingWild which estimates a player’s isolated impact on a number of on-ice stats. The graph above shows how Laine’s impact on driving on-ice goals for and on-ice expected goals for has changed over time. As you can see, his goal impact is much higher than his expected goal impact each year, well above average (0.0) in three of four seasons compared to his well below-average xG impact.

When a player consistently outperforms their on-ice expected goals by a solid margin, there are three possible (non-exclusive) explanations:

  1. The player in question is such a talented finisher that they are singlehandedly leading their team to score far more than expected when they’re on the ice.

  2. The player in question is such a talented passer that the scoring chances they create are better than expected goals can predict (e.g. Patrick Kane)

  3. The player in question plays mostly or exclusively with extremely talented finishers or passers - or both.

Now, we know that Laine is a talented scorer, but we also know that his finishing has been relatively unremarkable in the past two seasons to say the least. So while there is some of #1 going on, it doesn’t seem like it’s the whole story. We’ve established that Laine’s passing has improved but it’s pretty clear he’s okay at best in that regard, so it’s safe to say it’s not #2.

The interesting option for me is #3. In the past two seasons, Patrik Laine has shared the ice with one or more of Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers, or Kyle Connor in 82% of his 5v5 minutes. Each of those players is in the top 15% of finishers in the NHL over that time period. Scheifele, Ehlers, and another frequent linemate Blake Wheeler also rank in the top 10% of playmakers according to SportLogiq’s proprietary data (per Andrew Berkshire). This is a perfect storm for outscoring expected goals.

I’ve recently looked into repeatability numbers for these metrics to see how predictive they are for future performance, specifically splitting players into two camps: those who have remained on the same team, and those who have joined a new team. Encouragingly, overall expected goal impact appears to be relatively unaffected by changing teams. But goals for impact is markedly less predictive when a player joins a new team, suggesting that teammates play a non-negligible role in influencing it for better or for worse. This is the outcome that concerns me for Laine: he moves to a new team, plays with guys who have significantly less finishing and playmaking talent, and his overall offensive impact plummets until he becomes (dun dun dun)

Mike Hoffman. In the past two seasons, Hoffman has scored more goals, assists, and points than Laine, and has done so while being an absolute negative force in all other areas of the game. He doesn’t drive on-ice scoring chances or goals at even strength (to say the least); he scores goals himself and that’s it. When he’s on the ice, the Panthers are a worse team in almost every respect - but he gets his goals. Keep in mind that in this time period Hoffman actually has better play-driving impacts than Laine does, as well as better finishing.

Would you trade a king’s ransom for a 22-year old version of 2020 Mike Hoffman? Because I don’t think it’s out of the question that that might be what a team is about to do, as crazy as it sounds.

Conclusion

I’ve seen people take it as a given that Laine is going to be a 40-50 goal scorer in this league based purely on the fact that he scored 44 in his second season. I’m not so sure. His attachment to that long-range cannon has reaped diminishing returns as defences and goalies have been able to adjust to him, and the fact that his finishing numbers have been just pretty good in consecutive seasons is cause for concern. At only 22 years old there’s room for improvement (although age curves tell us that players generally peak offensively at around 23), but expecting an explosion seems overly optimistic to me. On top of that, Winnipeg has been kind of a perfect setting for him, as he’s been able to play with some of the most skilled passers in the league almost every night. With a game so oriented towards scoring on one-timers and off the rush, how much will a move away from Scheifele, Ehlers, and Wheeler affect him?

As I’ve shown, Laine’s more than just a shot. An acquiring team should encourage him to continue to develop his puck skills to make an impact in transition and the offensive zone. If he can strengthen his overall offensive game he can transcend the pure sniper label. But at this point he is such a poor driver of offence that this isn’t a given.

A team trading for Laine needs to ask themselves a few questions:

  1. Are we willing to fully run our powerplay through him, and do we have the passers to do it?

  2. Do we have top end playmaking talent that can match or at least approach what he’s used to in Winnipeg? Do they drive play offensively?

  3. Are we willing to trade 45-goal-scorer type assets for a guy who might just be a ~35 goal scorer moving forward?

  4. Are we so desperate for goals that we are willing to commit over $8M per year long term to a guy who will probably be a major drag on possession and defensive liability?

If the bidding war becomes a battle royale, the last team standing could be taking on a major risk.