With the season well down the pipes, the Columbus Blue Jackets tried a completely different approach on Sunday in Vegas. Patrik Laine played the game as the team’s top line center, and while the results weren’t perfect, it surprisingly wasn’t all that bad.
Laine is the team’s second leading scorer with 50 points on the season. Though we think of him as a goal scoring winger, best utilized with his patented one-timer shot from the left circle; we have always wanted more out of the big Finn. Moving him to center may be a way to unlock the obvious potential here.
When he was taken second overall at the 2016 draft, he was viewed as a potential top-line winger that could score 50 goals in the NHL. The latter hasn’t happened just yet, but Laine has played like a true top line winger for the Blue Jackets this season. He’s second on the team in goals (22) and third in assists (28), despite missing 15 games due to injury. Quietly, he’s been a productive player, while also becoming much more effective away from the puck.
On the replay above, he makes a nice play along the boards, finds the open man, then circles out high to put himself into recovery position in case the play turns over. Is he a center? At this point, he’s an awkward one at best. But he has the right frame and is an underrated passer, something he’s never really gotten proper credit for because we’re always just yelling at him to use the big shot.
The tools you typically want in a scoring center are all there: big body (6’5″, over 200 pounds). Can distribute the puck. He’s even been noticeable defensively this year, though admittedly he still needs some polish there. That said, what better time to work on details in the defensive zone, than when the season is essentially over and the games mean nothing?
If the Jackets can get him dialed in on faceoffs and defensive zone positioning, they could be onto something here. Nobody else has really taken the reins in that #1 center role. Boone Jenner has been the best option, but in a perfect world, Boone isn’t playing top line minutes on a competing team. Jack Roslovic is probably the most skilled center they have, but he’s incredibly streaky and hasn’t yet figured out the two-way nuances that will allow him that role on a nightly basis.
Prior to the season we thought Cole Sillinger might be suited for a larger role – but the sophomore slump has been brutal for him, so hard that he just scored his first goal in 45 games. In hindsight, maybe giving Laine a look at center should have been the obvious move from the onset of the season.
Lastly, there are worse things you can do than putting your three best forwards on a line together. In this case, Laine centered leading scorer Johnny Gaudreau and rookie Kirill Marchenko, who I think has been the most consistent forward on the team for the last handful of weeks. While the team lost in ugly fashion, this line was actually pretty good, accounting for both goals (though Liam Foudy scored the second one, with Gaudreau off the ice).
Even if you ultimately move him back to the wing, a run at center might help him better understand how to play two-way hockey. It might open up more passing options for him, or maybe he’ll find some confidence in shooting from new places on the ice. It’s a high reward move, and I can even argue that it’s pretty low risk since the season is out of reach. If it doesn’t work out, you’re only out a few weeks at the end of a meaningless season. If it does work out, Pascal Vincent might deserve a larger role himself.