The Columbus Blue Jackets dropped the St Louis Blues by a 5-3 margin on Monday night at Nationwide Arena, bringing their preseason record to an even 2-2-1. There were plenty of positives (and negatives) from last night; but one that stood out to me was Patrik Laine, playing another game at center.
Last season, the Blue Jackets experimented with Patrik at center for a couple of games while head coach Brad Larsen was away from the team due to personal reasons. We talked a lot at that time about him looking energized and more engaged on both sides of the puck. I even went as far as saying that Pascal Vincent could look like a genius if it worked out.
This season, it’s Vincent’s team, and he’s looking to make his own mark on things. And if the preseason is any indication, it’s possible that he’s really onto something with this adjustment. Last night, Laine centered the team’s top line; playing alongside star winger Johnny Gaudreau and sophomore Kirill Marchenko. The end result? Laine played 16:13, registering 1 assist, 3 shots on goal, a +2 rating, and carrying a 57.1% win percentage in his faceoffs.
Again, he looked more energetic and engaged, working hard on both sides of the puck while seemingly understanding and accepting more of a two-way role. It certainly wasn’t perfect; he’ll need to grow into the role on the defensive side of the puck. There were still some questionable decisions with the puck (including an ugly turnover early in the second period); but the overall result is pretty positive.
Laine is an underrated distributor of the puck, and I think that playing him at center gives him a better chance to show off that attribute to his game. Teams have long been aware of his ability to score with his shot – it’s that elite weapon that made him the second overall pick at the 2016 NHL Draft. But the question that has been asked of him ever since he was drafted, has been: “How can we unlock more of his potential?”
Pascal Vincent may have discovered the key to unlocking that potential. When paired with a couple of high end wingers; Laine is not expected to carry the puck as much, which allows him more opportunity to get himself into better scoring areas. The Jackets don’t yet have a center to pair him with, that gives him that freedom. Let’s be honest, he’s not the best skater out there. These extra couple of seconds without the puck make a lot of difference for a player like Laine to get into a shooting position. Also, as the center, he’s naturally staying above the puck, which is allowing him to see the offensive zone as a whole – making the game flow a little bit easier. At least, that’s what it looks like from above.
At this point, I think they almost have to continue this experiment into the regular season. Even with Adam Fantilli coming into the organization, the team still needs another top-two line center. They can try Laine there for a few games and if it works, problem solved. If not, you move him back to the wing and lose nothing. Personally, I’m really interested to see if he continues to thrive in that role.