Patrik Laine might turn out to be a lot more than a quick fix to the Columbus Blue Jackets’ Pierre-Luc Dubois headache.
That will depend mostly on whether the 22-year-old right wing will make the long-term commitment to the Blue Jackets that Dubois didn’t want.
But there is reason for optimism in Columbus after the trade that brought Laine and center Jack Roslovic to the Blue Jackets and sent Dubois and a third-round pick in the 2022 NHL Draft to the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday.
“I think the best trades are always the type of trades that help both teams and I think in this case that’s what happened,” general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said before the Blue Jackets’ 5-2 victory against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Nationwide Arena on Saturday. “They’re going to get a good player. We’re going to get two good players and we both move on.”
The Blue Jackets were in a tough spot with Dubois, a 22-year-old center who was a restricted free agent and expressed his desire for a change of scenery before he signed a two-year, $10 million contract Dec. 31. Under less-public circumstances, Kekalainen could’ve patiently searched for the best trade, but Dubois’ play created more urgency.
Dubois had one goal and seven shots on goal in Columbus’ first five games this season and was benched by coach John Tortorella for the final 46:32 of a 3-2 overtime loss to the Lightning on Thursday. That made it clear taking more time wouldn’t help.
Fortunately for the Blue Jackets, they found a perfect trading partner in the Jets. Seeking a top-line role he didn’t get consistently with Winnipeg, Laine also wanted to be traded, as did Roslovic, who was sitting out as a restricted free agent before agreeing to a two-year $3.8 million contract with the Blue Jackets on Saturday.
“It’s awesome to be part of the Blue Jackets organization right now and happy that they wanted me onboard,” Laine said. “I couldn’t be more excited. It’s always a new chapter and kind of going to a new place, meeting new guys, [I’m] kind of scared, but it will be fun.”
Kekalainen has long been aware of Laine’s talents They are both from Tampere, Finland and Kekalainen was GM of Team Finland at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey when Laine played in the tournament as an 18-year-old.
And Laine was selected by Winnipeg with the No. 2 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, one spot before Columbus surprised many by taking Dubois with the No. 3 pick.
“And we would’ve given a lot to move up from three to two at that time,” Kekalainen said.
The Blue Jackets hope Roslovic, a 23-year-old Columbus native, can help fill the hole created by the departure of Dubois, a burgeoning first-line center. But it’s Laine that can make this trade a game-changer for the Blue Jackets, who were 28th in the NHL in averaging 2.61 goals per game last season.
Laine, who has been out with a lower-body injury since getting two goals and one assist in the Jets’ 4-3 overtime win against the Calgary Flames on Jan. 14, replaces the top-line offensive skill Columbus lost when Artemi Panarin left to sign with the New York Rangers in 2019. Laine is the Blue Jackets’ best pure goal scorer since Rick Nash, who scored at least 30 goals seven times, including two 40-goal seasons, in his nine seasons with them from 2002-2012.
Laine’s 138 goals over his first four NHL seasons tied with John Tavares of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks for seventh in the League over that span. He finished second in the NHL with 44 goals in 2017-18 (behind Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, who scored 49).
“He’s such a prolific goal scorer,” said Tortorella, who acknowledged spending some time after the Blue Jackets’ win Saturday trying to figure out the best fit for Laine. “…It’s a team here that has struggled to score some goals and, in this type of position that we were put in, this is a really good deal for us.”
Laine will be a welcome addition to Columbus’ power play, which ranked 27th in the NHL at 16.4 percent last season and is 1-for-13 in six games this season. Laine’s one-timer from the left circle helped him score 43 power-play goal over the past three seasons, including a League-high 20 in 2017-18.
“We have a weapon for our power play that we may have not had before,” Keklainen said.
So it sounds like a perfect fit for the Blue Jackets, who envision themselves as Stanley Cup contenders. The caveat is that Laine is in the final season of a two-year, $13.5 million contract and can become a restricted free agent when it expires.
Although Laine will be two years away from being eligible to become an unrestricted free agent, getting him to agree to long-term contract before next season is the key to making this trade a success for the Blue Jackets. The last thing they want is to end up with another player who is unwilling to commit and worrying about whether he’ll want to leave.
Kekalainen has already begun the process of trying to avoid that with Laine.
“I spent a good amount of time on the phone with him and that was one subject that I told him, that I want to build this into a long-term relationship with him,” Kekalainen said. “So we’ve started, and it’s going to start once he gets here even further.”
After that initial conversation with Kekalainen, Laine sounded at least willing to consider putting down roots in Columbus.
“I’m open [to it] for sure,” Laine said. “Hopefully that’s going to be a spot where I’m enjoying life and enjoying playing hockey. Everything I’ve heard about the organization and the city, it’s only positive things. They have a good young team and hopefully I can bring my kind of playmaking abilities and my shooting abilities into the team and work as hard as I can and hopefully build something good.”