At some point this week, perhaps as soon as tonight, the Stanley Cup will have a new home. It will both conclude an unprecedented season and signal the beginning of an equally extraordinary off-season.
To say nothing of the oddities of unrestricted free agency beginning on Oct. 9, we expect the trade market to be quite busy as well. The National Hockey League, like most other industries around the world, is staring down the barrel of an economic crisis. The league has already signalled a flat salary cap for next season, drastically changing off-season plans for a number of expected Cup contenders.
It goes without saying that such significant cap implications may take hold for more than one season, considering how significant and widespread of damage the novel coronavirus has created.
But that’s just one part of this off-season’s pressure cooker. Because even without such a significant economic shift, a number of teams were already looking to make sizable changes.
If you don’t believe me, look at TSN’s Trade Bait Board, where you can find available impact players at every position imaginable.
The name on the list that most intrigues me is Winnipeg Jets winger Patrik Laine. He is coming off his (pro-rated) fourth consecutive season of 30-plus goals and is just 22 years old – hardly the type of player you see available on the trade market. But Winnipeg knows his current contract – he carries a cap hit of $6.7 million annually – expires at the end of next season, and he will surely be looking at a raise.
Perhaps Winnipeg doesn’t love the idea of a long-term contract for a player who, at times, has had lapses in his defensive play. Perhaps they can’t afford it. Perhaps they think he is the valuable asset they can dangle to sorely improve a battered and paper-thin blueline.
The other interesting part about Laine is that he is something of a known commodity, which should help buyers as they assess his trade value.
He’s an elite shooter and underrated distributor of the puck. Defensively, it hasn’t been pretty at times – I thought he was much more disciplined (on a decisively worse team) attacking puck carriers and retrieving loose pucks in dangerous areas, but that remains a work very much in progress.
And no, he won’t be killing penalties anytime soon (regressions via Evolving Hockey):
Teams interested in Laine have to attack a potential move on two fronts: you have to gauge the cost of acquiring such a disparate (and yet, quite impactful) player, and you have to think about where he slides into the lineup.
Since Laine’s entered the league, his overall contributions have been that of a borderline first-line winger. But that seriously understates his offensive ability, and just as seriously overstates his defensive contributions.
In one way, Laine reminds me of another player traded a couple of seasons back in Montreal Canadiens winger Max Pacioretty. That deal was more nuanced, but the heart of it was quite simple: the Canadiens scored plenty through Pacioretty, but defensively were a mess. And though Pacioretty wasn’t a sole contributor to that issue, he certainly didn’t help the cause either.
The Pacioretty trade was a rather rare “win-win” deal – the Canadiens acquired Tomas Tatar and a pair of promising younger players to continue their rebuild, and Vegas pushed Pacioretty into a late-career renaissance. At the heart of that renaissance? Pairing him with arguably the league’s best defensive forward in Mark Stone in what’s looked like a match made in heaven.
Laine would help just about every team in the league. But you do wonder if clubs like the Columbus Blue Jackets or Los Angeles Kings might be at the top of the list. They both bring back well-structured and disciplined defensive teams that can’t buy a goal at even strength and haven’t iced a dangerous power-play unit in years. Oh, and both have the cap space to be able to not only take on his current contract, but negotiate his next one in the process.
The key thing to keep in mind: there is plenty of room for him to grow, but this isn’t a science project either. Laine can plug-and-play into every top-six forward group in the league; the question is which group of forwards around the league can best amplify his strengths.
Find that team, and the Finnish winger could be the prized acquisition of the off-season.
Data via Evolving Hockey, Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com