It’s tempting to look at Patrik Laine‘s 44 goals – a pretty incredible number considering how difficult it is to score in the modern NHL – and believe that everything went right for him last season.
That’s not necessarily true.
Such a thought is pretty intriguing as we consider Laine’s drive to score 50 goals in 2018-19.
“Yeah, I think that would be a great milestone and achievement,” Laine told TSN’s Darren Dreger. “But that’s something that comes when you play well. You have to do the small things for the team first. When you work hard the whole season, you’ll get rewarded at some point.”
If you feel like those are bland quotes compared to the often-candid and funny things Laine’s said in the past, you’ve got a point.
Even so, Laine’s comments actually do shed some light on a key factor: to score 50 goals, he’ll probably need to earn more of Paul Maurice’s trust.
Puzzlingly, Laine went from averaging 17:55 minutes per game as a rookie in 2016-17 to just 16:29 per contest in 2017-18. While his power-play ice time was nearly identical (in the three-minute range each season) and his shorthanded duties remained essentially non-existent, Laine’s even-strength ice time plummeted by about 90 seconds as a sophomore.
Maurice probably deserves at least a bit of scrutiny for this, as it’s just difficult to fathom that Laine fails to be a player you’d want on the ice at least as frequently as he was as a rookie, even on a Jets team that improved substantially in 2017-18. Apologies to Bryan Little – who’s often been underrated during his NHL career – but if I were in Maurice’s shoes, I’d want Laine on the ice more often at even-strength.
Some of this revolves around Laine’s inexperience, though, as this can’t be solely chalked up to the bad coaching habit of giving younger players shorter leashes just because. There are times when Laine appears a tad bit one-dimensional (consider his so-so possession numbers), as Oilers Nation’s Kyle Buhler discussed in late June:
The other big issue with Laine’s game is his work along the boards. Laine has an extremely tough time getting the puck out of his own end which is surprising for someone with so much talent. When the puck is rimmed around the boards, it takes Laine too long to bring it to from his skate to his stick and he gets hemmed in by pinching defensemen. When Laine is able to chip the puck past the defender he can’t create odd-man rushes due to his lack of acceleration.
With the addition of another impressive forward in Kyle Connor, not to mention the dominance and chemistry generated by Mark Scheifele – Blake Wheeler, one can understand why Maurice would be a little less eager to put Laine on the ice in all situations. There are worse things Laine can be than an absolutely deadly specialist, as he was in scoring 20 of his 44 goals on the power play (his 20 PPG topped all NHL players).
(It’s also worth noting that Laine blossomed that much more when Paul Stastny came along and completed a deadly line with Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers, so that loss might be a slight detriment to the drive for 50.)
In viewing this collection of last season’s 44 tallies, you can see that Laine is keen on constructing his own version of Ovechkin’s “office.”
Looking deeper at how Laine scored his 44 goals last season, there are some compelling reasons why he will or will not hit the 50 mark:
Health, puck luck, and opportunities
Even with reduced ice time, the already-trigger-happy Laine let pucks fly to a more pronounced degree during his second season in the NHL, as you can see from listings such as those of Hockey Reference.
Over 73 games as a rookie, Laine scored 36 goals on 204 shots on goal (2.79 SOG per game), making for a 17.6 shooting percentage. Hockey Reference puts his total shot attempts at 360 during 1,308 total minutes of ice time.
Laine was healthier last season, playing all 82 games, and his high shooting percentage remained, as he bumped it to 18.3 percent. Few players can maintain such robust percentages, yet Laine’s now done so two seasons in a row, so it’s possible that he simply has rare shooting talent; witnessing his howling release doesn’t hurt that argument.
Still, injuries and/or cold shooting could represent very simple – yet formidable – obstacles in Laine’s quest for 50.
Circling back to his 2017-18 totals, Laine’s 44 goals came via 241 SOG, which translates to 2.94 SOG per game. More games played but with less ice time might skew certain numbers, so it’s worth noting that he fired 466 total shot attempts over 1,351 minutes of ice time in 2017-18.
The Ovechkin comparison
Laine’s 44 goals become extra-impressive when you consider (relatively) limited ice time, and also when you compare his opportunities versus those of Alex Ovechkin, who ultimately pulled away in the Rocket Richard race with 49 goals.
It’s eye-popping to compare Ovechkin to Laine last season when it comes to ice time (20:09 versus Laine’s 16:29) and shooting rates (355 SOG and 653(!) TSA to Laine’s 241 SOG and 466 TSA).
Comparing a shooter to Ovechkin can feel as cruel as expecting an NBA shooting guard to match Michael Jordan, yet it’s instructive that Laine came so close to matching Ovechkin’s output considering the context. This all says a lot about Laine’s shooting prowess, even if it is still fair to at least wonder if he’ll see his shooting percentage sink.
Overall, the biggest hurdles Laine must clear to score 50 goals stand out as: health luck, puck luck, and the luck that comes with earning his coach’s trust. One can only shudder to imagine if Laine’s actually still waiting for that extra push – or green light – to unleash shots at an even more blistering rate.
And, no doubt, Laine’s other big obstacle is himself; if he can improve his all-around game, Laine will give Maurice no choice but to put him on the ice more often. Imagine what kind of damage Laine could do if he flirted with 19-20 minutes of ice time every game for 82 contests?
Heading into 2018-19, one would wager that no one is expected to score 50 goals. Ovechkin fell just short of that mark last season with 49, Sidney Crosby won the 2017 Richard with just 44, and Ovechkin’s the only player to reach that plateau (doing so three times) since the last lockout of 2012-13.
That said, if anyone other than Ovechkin can do it, Laine is the guy.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.