Can Post-Trade Patrik Laine become Post-Trade Brett Hull?

Both were traded early in their careers. Both had scintillating shots and questionable defensive acumen. Will we one day look back on Laine-to-Columbus like we do Hull-to-St. Louis?
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March 7, 1988. The Calgary Flames, stacked but missing out on championships while overshadowed by the Edmonton Oilers dynasty, sought a player to put them over the top. They decided that piece was rugged St. Louis Blues defenseman Rob Ramage, but acquiring him required a major sacrifice as part of a multi-player trade: promising right winger Brett Hull. Already loaded at forward with the likes of Joe Nieuwendyk, Hakan Loob and Joe Mullen, Flames GM Cliff Fletcher decided Hull was worth surrendering, but it hurt. Fletcher predicted in the days after the trade that Hull “could score 50 goals a year for a number of years.”

The Blues, meanwhile, gave up one of their key leaders hoping they could hit big on a home run swing. “Brett Hull has the dimensions to become a franchise player,” Blues GM Ron Caron told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at the time.

The deal ended up being a monkey’s paw for the Flames. Ramage helped them win a Stanley Cup a year later, but Hull became one of the most prolific scorers of all-time. He led the league in goals three straight years from 1989-90 to 1991-92, topping 70 goals all three times and peaking with 86, the most ever in a season by someone not named Wayne Gretzky. In 1990-91, Hull became the fifth – and last – to officially score 50 goals in 50 games during a season. Hull finished his career with two Stanley Cups, three first-team all-star nods and 741 goals, good for the fourth-most all-time.

January 23, 2021. The Winnipeg Jets, having learned towering Columbus Blue Jackets center Pierre Luc-Dubois was available, decided to pony up. They knew Dubois could be their long-term answer at No. 2 center to form a powerhouse duo with Mark Scheifele for years to come. So GM Kevin Cheveldayoff sacrificed his prized young goal-scorer: Patrik Laine, 22, who already has 140 career goals and was the fourth-youngest NHL player ever to score 100.

The Jets got a talented two-way center whose game translates best to physical, high-stakes, playoff-style hockey. But did they sell low on a young man who will eventually become the best goal-scorer of his generation? Will Laine become the next Hull?

The parallels are pretty easy to see.

At the time of his 1988 trade, Hull, then 23, was known as a talented if enigmatic scorer who could elude checkers, find space and uncork a devastating shot from all over an opponent’s zone. One-timer, wrist shot, slapshot – Hull could do it all, and his shot was so powerful and accurate that he could score from a distance. His attention to defensive detail was a question mark, however, as were his fitness and perceived work ethic. Even though he was a sixth-round pick, chosen 117th overall in the 1984 draft, his ceiling was undeniable considering the legend Bobby Hull was his father. It was just a matter of Brett rounding out his game and getting into better shape. After his first full season with the Blues in 1988-89, coach Brian Sutter challenged Hull to get into better shape. He did, and he went supernova starting in 1989-90. That’s when Brett Hull became BRETT HULL.

Laine, almost a year younger than Hull was at the time of the trade, actually carries a higher pedigree than Hull did in 1988. Laine was the 2016 draft’s No. 2 overall pick, and he did remarkable things before reaching age 20, as I wrote a couple years back:

“Laine’s production as a teenager has been historic. Jimmy Carson’s 92 goals are the most by a teenager in NHL history, followed by Dale Hawerchuk’s 85, but it doesn’t take a hockey trivia virtuoso to know Carson and Hawerchuk skated in the league’s peak offensive years. If we adjust for era using hockey-reference.com's formula, Carson’s goal total slips to 77, while Hawerchuk’s shrinks to 65. That puts Laine on top at 85 era-adjusted teenage goals. He’s the best teenage goal-scorer in history.”

At 6-foot-5 and 206 pounds, Laine is a much bigger man than Hull, 5-foot-11 and about 200 pounds in his playing days, but Laine’s best traits call to mind Hull’s, most notably the release and ability to score from seemingly anywhere. Amazingly, the two players’ career shooting percentages are almost identical. Hull’s is 15.20, and Laine’s is 15.23. Hull played much of his career in the Live Puck Era, but he played the back half against Michelin-man goalies in the Dead Puck Era, so the comparison feels fair.

The criticisms of Laine’s game also mirror those Hull received: that Laine’s two-way game needs work and that his commitment is inconsistent. In all but one of his NHL seasons, the Jets were outshot and outchanced significantly at 5-on-5 with Laine on the ice. Some metrics actually grade Laine as one of the worst defensive players in the entire league over the course of his career. Laine has also been prone to equally monstrous streaks and slumps so far in his career, most notably in 2018-19, when he scored 18 goals in a 12-game stretch and 12 goals across the other 70 games. He bucked that trend last season with his most consistent results to date, scoring at least three goals in every month and averaging a point per game or better in four different months.

So if we’ve established that Hull and Laine share some clear similarities in terms of strengths, weaknesses and career trajectories at the time of being traded, does that mean Laine can become the next Hull?

Working in Laine’s favor are that he’s already done more by 22 than Hull did by 23 and that Laine may be even more gifted in terms of raw physical skill and strength. Laine, however, needs to drastically increase his shot output if Saturday’s trade is to become Brett Hull Trade 2.0 someday. Hull led the NHL in shots three times and finished second three more times. He eclipsed 300 shots eight times. Laine’s career high in shots is 245. He’s yet to crack the top 10 in shots in any season. We can blame some of that output on the fact Jets coach Paul Maurice never entrusted him with true top-line minutes until last season, but even Laine’s per-60 shot rate suggests he needs to increase his volume if he wants to break through and become a generationally elite sniper. Across the three seasons preceding this one, among 393 forwards who logged 1,000 or more minutes total at 5-on-5, Laine sat 81st in shots per 60, landing in the 79th percentile. He also relied on his ability to score from far away a bit too much, as he sat 347th in high-danger shot attempts per 60, landing in the 12th percentile.

And yet – Laine still ranks ninth among all players in goals since he debuted in 2016-17. We know his numbers could explode if he upped his shot rate to top-tier levels. What would help him do so is his very own Adam Oates, of course. To be clear, Hull was a legendary talent who would’ve been a Hall of Famer with or without a Hall of Fame center feeding him the puck, but it’s noteworthy that Hull’s peak seasons in terms of goals and shot output coincided with Oates’ 2.5 seasons in St. Louis.

And with all due respect to Max Domi, Laine does not currently have an Adam Oates comparable ready to make magic with him in Columbus. Laine’s supporting cast actually gets a significant downgrade. His most common centers as a Jet were Bryan Little and Mark Scheifele. Domi, the favorite to center Laine once he returns from injury, has more raw offensive skill than Little, but he's no Scheifele.

So can Laine become Brett Hull 2.0? The skill set says yes. The situation, however, doesn’t set Laine up perfectly. He’s also an RFA this coming off-season. So his fate is anything but set.

Advanced stats courtesy of naturalstattrick.com

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