Patrik Laine is living his best life -- and it's about time.
The Blue Jackets winger had been stumbling ever since the Winnipeg Jets traded him to Columbus in January 2021. That transaction -- which swapped Pierre-Luc Dubois for Laine and Jack Roslovic -- was meant to be a fresh start for Laine, but it had mostly been fresh pain. At least, until lately.
Laine landed in Columbus with all the expectation of a high draft pick (Winnipeg took him second overall in 2016) who'd scored 140 goals in his first 306 games. It was the business side of the game, including a protracted contract negotiation prior to the 2019-20 season, and a slide to the second line that season which ultimately led to Laine's change of scenery.
Upon his arrival with the Blue Jackets, Laine looked like a shell of his former self. The 23-year-old managed just 10 goals and 21 points through 45 games in 2020-21, bafflingly low production for a player of his talents.
Laine was a restricted free agent last summer and accepted his qualifying offer (one year, $7.5 million) in July. Now he had another season to prove that first season was a fluke. Only this time -- another contract year that would end with him as a restricted free agent -- didn't start any better. Laine tallied only five goals and 13 points over 17 games through mid-January. He looked lost, while also grieving the loss of his father.
But looks can be deceiving. Laine was about to become unstoppable.
Gradually, Laine began picking up his pace. And then he was ripping through defenses again, grabbing 13 goals and 21 points in his last 13 games. Only Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner have exceeded Laine's point total since Jan. 27, and Laine paced all skaters in goals over that stretch through Sunday's games.
It's no coincidence that Columbus has caught fire right along with Laine, going 9-3-0 over that stretch since late January.
So, what changed exactly? How did Laine get his groove back, and pull the Blue Jackets along with him?
"When you're feeling it, you're feeling it. It's a weird feeling when it's on," Laine said last week. "But you still have to work and do all the other things on the ice to be a helpful player. If you get a chance, it's great if you score. But right now, there's not the frustration that comes in [if you don't], because you feel like you'll get another chance and there's a good chance it'll go in. So that's the difference."
Laine admitted this span "probably feels like the best I've played [in Columbus]" but that individual success means more when it's adding to the team's improved standing.
"Since we're winning, it's a lot of fun," he said. "As a top-line guy, I'm expected to perform. It's great to put some numbers up on the board and help the team that way, it's good for your confidence. But it's a lot of fun to win. It was a tough year for everyone last year, as a team and as individuals, but right now it's a lot of fun to be in the playoff hunt, when every game matters."
It wasn't long ago that a postseason berth seemed out of the Blue Jackets' reach. Now they're gunning for a wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, within 10 points of Boston and Washington ahead of them.
While Laine can't be given all the credit for Columbus' current run, he's been an undeniable spark. Knowing there's another contract negotiation looming doesn't seem to be weighing on his mind so much now, though. Winning is the ultimate cure-all, the silencer of doubts. All Laine has to do is keep firing. The rest will take care of itself.