Getty

Can Patrik Laine score 50 goals this season?

1 Comment

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.

Uneven

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 ScheifeleBlake 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 phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Tavares on ’emotional roller coaster’ decision to sign with Leafs

2 Comments

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Washington Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Things can change over time, especially when it comes to star players, but as of Wednesday, it sure feels like John Tavares‘ return home to the Toronto Maple Leafs – and, thus, his decision to leave the New York Islanders – is working about as well at it could for everyone involved.

From an individual standpoint, Tavares is thriving in Toronto. He’s already scored 30 goals in his debut season with the Buds, and it isn’t even February yet.

The Maple Leafs are already faring quite well. While they’re way behind the Lightning – which, frankly, everyone else is – they’ve looked like a dynamic team. They’ve done so even with Auston Matthews and Frederik Andersen missing time with injuries, and the protracted contract negotiations involving William Nylander. There are reasons to dream of big and better things, even if Tavares’ bedsheets are no longer adorned with Maple Leafs logos.

(As far as we know?)

Refreshingly, things have been splendid for the Islanders under Barry Trotz. Tuesday ended a five-game winning streak, and they’ve been red-hot in general lately. They’re still on top of the Metropolitan Division, an outcome even the organization likely didn’t expect if you shot Lou Lamoriello with truth serum.

So, with the Maple Leafs hosting the Washington Capitals on Wednesday, it’s a great time for Tavares to look back at that decision, as he did in an interview with NBCSN’s Ed Olczyk. Enjoy that clip above, if for nothing else than to soak in the excited atmosphere in Toronto, and get another look at Tavares’ sweet childhood setup, which mixed Maple Leafs and “Star Wars” in a splendid way.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Gord Miller (play-by-play), Brian Boucher (analyst) and Ray Ferraro (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Something in the water: Oilers’ issues go beyond Chiarelli

Getty
6 Comments

The Edmonton Oilers have been sending a lot of mixed signals before and after the firing of Peter Chiarelli, but it’s difficult not to make this read from Bob Nicholson’s press conference on Wednesday: “We still don’t get it. We still don’t know what we’re doing.”

Of course, that’s not what Nicholson said while addressing the media.

No quick fix

On one hand, it’s promising that Nicholson emphasized that the team doesn’t want to make the type of panic moves that many (PHT included) feared that Chiarelli might make at the trade deadline with his job on the line.

“We’re not going to trade away any of our assets for a quick fix,” Nicholson said. “We’ll make some trades at the deadline, if they’re the right trades to get us in the playoffs, but not giving away the future.”

Hey, that’s good. Nicholson later stated that he wants prospects to be developed until they’re “over-ripe.” There are pitfalls to waiting too long to develop young players, yet when you realize how many times Edmonton’s bungled rookie contracts and otherwise struggled to bring talent along, the slow-and-steady approach sure beats one step forward, two steps back.

But, again, there’s this tug-of-war between acknowledging reality, while also emphasizing that this front office sees things differently than many others in the hockey world.

While high-end organizations tend to weather storms and stick with plans, the Oilers often feel all over the place. After all, Nicholson himself indicated that the Oilers would allow Chiarelli to sink or swim based on whether or not Edmonton made the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Then he reversed course and fired Chiarelli soon after stating his preferences.

While Nicholson doesn’t seem to have his finger on the pulse of the actual problem, it’s at least a small victory that he recognizes that something’s wrong.

” … There’s something in the water here that’s not right,” Nicholson said. “And we got to get that figured out …”

Yet, moments later, Nicholson railed on about finding “chemistry” and “character” in the locker room, not exactly taking a much more scientific approach than Chiarelli, who hammered the old-school hockey term “heavy” 23 times during his introductory news conference.

Look, it’s great to have strong chemistry and hearty, gregarious folks in your locker room, but it would have been far more promising if Nicholson lamented, say, the lack of skill around Connor McDavid and a select few other useful players.

Don’t ask the old boys’ club about the old boys’ club

Then again, how much can anyone cope when exact problems are placed under a magnifying glass?

Nicholson bristled at the (very reasonable) criticisms of the Oilers organization being an “old boys’ club,” one that’s still dominated by relics from their past glories in the ’80s. While Nicholson said that such talk is “not true at all,” the bottom line is that Keith and Wayne Gretzky are both prominent in the organization – with Keith serving as interim GM – and maybe most troublingly, Kevin Lowe remains a high-ranking figure. Lowe’s titles have changed over the years since becoming GM in 2000, but either way, it doesn’t exactly send a message of front office accountability when failed executives merely seem to be shuffled off to different positions.

It says a lot that Craig MacTavish remains with the Oilers, while they also employ Scott Howson, who didn’t exactly set the world on fire as Blue Jackets GM.

Chiarelli’s history shows that he’s had a terrible knack for trading away high-end talent for dubious returns, with mistakes stretching back to giving up the likes of Tyler Seguin and Blake Wheeler during his Bruins days. So Chiarelli wasn’t just a scapegoat; he made some big, forehead-slapping blunders. The punchlines were justified over the years.

Yet he’s not the only problem in Edmonton, and what evidence is there that this team is really learning from its mistakes? Do they even think they’re making any mistakes?

On one hand, it was nice that Nicholson said:

  • This isn’t a rebuild. (Oilers fans can’t be expected to endure another stitled reboot.)
  • That there are some good elements to this team. That’s not untrue.

But it would have been nice if Nicholson mixed in:

  • That the Oilers fundamentally failed to embrace both Connor McDavid and the larger trends in the NHL by emphasizing speed and skill. It was frustrating not to hear much of that, but a lot about the “real good” elements of the team and front office. (Warning: do not take a shot every time Nicholson says “real good.” If you do, you will not feel real good.)
  • At this point, it would be refreshing for the Oilers to explicitly state a greater interest in analytics, rather than merely saying that this isn’t an old boys’ club, and that they’ll listen to other voices. Maybe there’s a soft subtext there, but in desperate times, sometime you want people like Nicholson to flat-out state “we’re going to get fancy with our stats.”

Nicholson’s press conference wasn’t all doom and gloom, but only a few comments inspire confidence that this organization is learning from its mistakes. After all, things were messy long before Chiarelli became GM, and there’s an unsightly mess to clean up now that he’s gone.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering: yes, people are running with that “something’s in the water” line.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Golden Knights favorites hosting Predators on Wednesday Night Hockey

Leave a comment

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Nashville Predators and Vegas Golden Knights. Coverage begins at 10 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Disparate divisional trends and a strong bounce-back pattern seem to be riding with the Vegas Golden Knights.

The Golden Knights are the -130 home favorite on the NHL odds with the Nashville Predators coming back at +105, while there is a 6.0-goal total for their matchup on Wednesday at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com.

The second-year Golden Knights, who are 9-4 in their last 13 regular-season home games against the Central Division, will be looking to avoid their first back-to-back home defeats to teams from the other half of the Western Conference after losing 4-2 against the Minnesota Wild on Monday. The Predators are 0-5 in their last five road games against Pacific Division teams, but prior to that had won six in row dating to January 2018.

The Predators are 29-18-4 this season, including a 13-9-4 road record, but are just 2-4 over their last six games according to the OddsShark NHL Database with one of the victories being a 4-1 win on Monday against the Colorado Avalanche, whom they have long dominated.

Only two goals have been scored in the first periods of the last four Predators-Golden Knights contests, so it is not out of the realm that Nashville’s top scoring threats such as center Ryan Johansen and right wing Viktor Arvidsson will have to be patient to wait for opportunities. Another challenge for Nashville is that its power play, converting at a 13.3 percent clip, is 29th in the 31-team NHL whereas the Golden Knights’ penalty kill is fifth (83.8 per cent).

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 10 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

The Predators are among the NHL teams moving toward a true two-goalie system. Pekka Rinne handled their most recent game but has had a below-par month, going 3-3-1 with a 3.33 goals-against average and .896 save percentage. Juuse Saros is 3-2 with a 1.58 average and .947 save percentage.

The Golden Knights are also 29-18-4, but are 16-5-3 at T-Mobile Arena. While Vegas has been in win-one, lose-one mode with a 3-3 record across its last six games, some positive signs are that they haven’t dropped two in a row, or allowed more than four goals in any of the losses.

The Golden Knights, whose leading scorers are right wing Alex Tuch and left wing Jonathan Marchessault, roll four lines with speed and often create an edge in offensive zone pressure and shot attempts. Whether that lends itself to scoring a lot of goals can depend on the quality and the form of the opposing goalie. The Golden Knights will have an 18th-ranked power play (18.5 percent) facing Nashville’s 16th-ranked penalty kill (79.9 percent).

Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury is 5-3 with a 2.28 goals-against average and .913 save percentage in eight games so far in January.

The total has gone OVER in eight of Nashville’s last 10 road games at sports betting sites. The total has gone UNDER in four of Vegas’ last seven games as a home favorite.

For more odds information, betting picks and a breakdown of this week’s top sports betting news check out the OddsShark podcast with Jon Campbell and Andrew Avery. Subscribe on iTunes or Spotify or listen to it at OddsShark.libsyn.com.

Kenny Albert (play-by-play), Eddie Olczyk (analyst) and Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Nev.

Trotz beginning to change culture for New York Islanders

3 Comments

By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

Barry Trotz didn’t scan the rafters for the banner.

Back in Washington, he never once looked up for the championship flag hanging high above the home ice of the Capitals. Yet when he turned around for the national anthem, Trotz said he saw the big white letters standing out on the red banner: ”STANLEY CUP CHAMPIONS 2018” around the Capitals logo.

When the anthem was over, he turned back to the visitors’ bench and got back to work on trying to earn some more banners to hang – in New York.

After delivering the Capitals’ first championship in franchise history, Trotz is well on his way to changing the culture in his first season as Islanders coach and bringing that proud organization back to prominence. By implementing the same discipline off the ice and structure on the ice he did in Washington, Trotz has the Islanders in first place in their division past the halfway mark of the NHL season for just the second time in the past 28 years.

”It feels very similar to the first year (in Washington),” Trotz said. ”We were building something. We started with the structure and trying to make every moment count, the accountability, how we play, professionalism – all those things that make a pro athlete on and off the ice. We try to involve that with our organization as we did here. They’ve carried it on to the Stanley Cup, and we’re in the infancy stages.”

Modest to a fault and not eager to accept praise, Trotz considers the Islanders a ”work in progress.” But a lot of things are working:

They have won five in a row and 12 of 14. Their goalies lead the league with a .920 save percentage after ranking 28th last season. They have allowed the fewest goals a game in the league after being the worst in that category last season.

All this after point-a-game center John Tavares left in free agency to sign with his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs. The Islanders were expected to struggle, to say the least.

Instead, they’ve thrived.

”I think a lot of guys took it as a little bit of an insult when we were starting to get ranked to be the worst team in the league after he left,” fourth-line winger Matt Martin said. ”(Trotz) gets the best out of everybody. … He gives everybody the role and responsibilities, everyone’s playing similar minutes every night, getting a real good opportunity to play. As a player, when you’re getting those opportunities and you feel emotionally invested, you feel involved.”

It could take a while for the Islanders to become a perennial Cup contender like they were four decades ago. But the building blocks are being put in place under first-year general manager Lou Lamoriello and Trotz’s staff that includes longtime goaltending guru Mitch Korn.

Trotz’s former players aren’t the least bit surprised at the early success.

”If you ask him, I’m sure he’s not surprised either,” Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said. ”I actually think they’ve got really good players there. But he’s got that tendency to bring in a good system and to make sure you focus on the right things and he’s always pushing guys to get better.”

Reigning Calder Trophy winner Mathew Barzal is on almost a point-a-game pace in his second season, captain Anders Lee is on the way to a 30-goal season, and Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss are stopping the puck at some of the best rates of their careers. Lee said he believes one of the Islanders’ strengths is how someone different seems to step up every night, a result of Trotz balancing ice time and making them feel like a cohesive unit.

”He does a wonderful job of rolling with guys that are feeling it or lines that are doing well that night and giving them matchups and getting everyone involved,” Lee said. ”He has a really good sense of how the game is going, the flow of it, and he can make those quick decisions in-game that makes him so effective.”

Lamoriello knew what he was getting in Trotz, who’s fourth all-time in NHL coaching wins and had an impressive resume from Nashville and Washington even before winning the Cup. The Islanders lucked out in getting Trotz, who left the Capitals in a contract dispute in June days after the championship.

”There’s no question that Barry Trotz is one of the elite coaches over the past X number of years in the National Hockey League,” Lamoriello said. ”He came with a group that had a very sort of down year for a lot of different reasons last year. We added some unique people as far as what they bring as far as character as well as abilities. I think that everybody just has made a total commitment from ownership through management that we were going to do everything that was necessary to have success, and either people were going to be on board or they weren’t going to be.”

Defenseman Brooks Orpik said it took some time a few years ago for the Capitals to understand why Trotz wanted some things, including the same set of rules for every player. The respect Trotz earned from Alex Ovechkin on down is growing with the Islanders.

”He’s been awesome,” winger Josh Bailey said. ”As a group, you’ve got to be able to trust your leadership, which is our staff and Barry’s the head of that for sure.”

After Trotz got his Cup ring earlier this season and before he coached his first game back in Washington, he told Islanders players he wants to have the same championship experience with them.

”It’s a day-to-day process,” Trotz said. ”You hear coaches use that, stay with the process. Just stay and keep growing as a team. And we don’t know where we’re going to end up.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports