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Can Patrik Laine score 50 goals this season?

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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.

Signing Laine and other Jets cap challenges after Wheeler extension

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The Winnipeg Jets answered a big question on Tuesday by signing captain and star winger Blake Wheeler to a five-year, $41.25 million extension. That removes a huge item from the franchise’s to-do list, yet they face plenty of challenges in keeping this talent-packed roster together for the long haul.

Much of the future worries come down to extending Patrik Laine, but there are other considerations that can make an impact on this loaded team’s ability to contend.

Winnipeg’s cap questions are pretty involved, so let’s go step by step.

(Note via Cap Friendly’s numbers: Winnipeg has about $10.24M in cap space as of this writing. They have about $52.48M committed to 11 players heading into 2019-20, which would give them a bit more than $27M to work with in the unlikely event that the cap would remain at $79.5M.)

More Morrissey

GM Kevin Cheveldayoff faces one more big obstacle for 2018-19: hashing out a contract with RFA defenseman Josh Morrissey.

Right now, the tone seems to be “don’t panic,” even though training camp is rapidly approaching.

The Jets are running some risky business when it comes to their young defensemen.

Jacob Trouba may just become hockey’s answer to Kirk Cousins: a player either forced to or willingly choosing to make short-term bets on himself with the goal of a big payday in the future. Winnipeg is lucky enough that, despite that arduous arbitration hearing, Trouba would only be considered an RFA if he makes it to next summer without a deal. Still, it’s tough to shake the impression that the situation will end with Trouba eventually playing for a different NHL team, much like Cousins ultimately left Washington.

Winnipeg must walk a fine line with two young defensemen (Trouba’s 24, Morrissey is 23). It’s easy to see why Morrissey would prefer a “bridge” contract, particularly considering the defensemen who may be forced out with the cap crunch.

Beyond the Trouba turmoil, Tyler Myers‘ contract ends after 2018-19, with both of those defensemen carrying $5.5M cap hits. Morrissey could goose his numbers by naturally earning more minutes next season, but especially so in the likely event that Myers can’t fit under the cap.

Then again, the added security of term could be quite appealing if the Jets decide that Morrissey is worthy of a Noah Hanifin-ish commitment.

(Goalie Eric Comrie is also an RFA in need of a deal.)

While Morrissey’s situation is unsettled, the Jets made substantial investments in other players, for better or worse:

Long-term commitments: the very good, and the troubling

Whether they end up being wise or imprudent investments, Cheveldayoff committed to some serious term in recent (and semi-recent) situations.

Wheeler’s cap hit goes from $5.6M next season to $8.25M starting in 2019-20. As of this writing, he’s a bargain at both rates, but the unavoidable concern is for regression, considering that the American-born forward is already 32. (He’ll be 33 right before his extension kicks in.)

The Jets also made an interesting bet on young goalie Connor Hellebuyck, handing the 25-year-old a six-year contract that carries a $6.167M AAV. It says a lot about how perception can change in a year, as the Jets signed Steve Mason to a fairly healthy two-year, $8M deal heading into 2017-18 thanks to the uncertainty they still faced in net. If Hellebuyck replicates (or at least produces work close to) his strong, steady season, then that cap hit could be a nice bargain. Goalies are risky, though, and the Jets ended up regretting Ondrej Pavelec’s rancid contract for basically its entirety. Maybe the Hellebuyck contract is “the price of doing business,” but that bill could create some buyer’s remorse if last year was a mirage.

Overall, the Jets boast eight lengthy commitments (three years or more) at significant rates* as of this writing: Wheeler, Hellebuyck, Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers, Dustin Byfuglien, Bryan Little, Mathieu Perreault, and Adam Lowry.

Scheifele’s $6.125M ranks on the shortlist of the absolute best bargains in the NHL, especially since it runs for six more seasons. If the Jets manage to wade through this jungle of cap challenges, credit that Scheifele bargain and also locking down Ehlers at an affordable (and potentially steal-worthy) $6M long-term as two key developments.

Some of the veterans might provide problems, though. Little’s been a hidden gem through even the Atlanta Thrashers days, yet the 30-year-old’s $5.292M cap hit already looks dicey, and it runs through 2023-24. Little’s contract may force out a valuable-yet-not-essential player like Perreault, who virtually always shines from an analytics standpoint, and does so at a reasonable $4.125M clip.

Winnipeg’s cap crunch could force out some combination of Little, Perreault, or Lowry, while Dmitry Kulikov may force some LTIR shenanigans.

(Hey, at least other contenders have set a template for how Winnipeg could … “bend some rules.”)

* – Sorry, Tucker Poolman, whose name will forever sound like a fake handle for someone in a fantasy league.

Aiming for raises

All of the situations above bleed into the Jets’ biggest worries: what’s next to come.

Patrik Laine’s rookie contract expires after next season, and Winnipeg can sign him to an extension at any time. Laine already scored 80 goals and 134 points in just 155 games, and it’s tough to imagine his standing in the league falling after 2018-19. The Jets essentially have to hope that Laine will fall in line with other rising stars who’ve signed for relative discounts, as his RFA status only means so much.

Laine is the biggest ticket item, but far from the only player who could rake in big bucks.

Kyle Connor represents a potentially tricky situation. After a minimal, truncated rookie season (5 points in 20 games in 2016-17), Connor broke through last year, managing 31 goals and 57 points.

If you’re Winnipeg, you probably would prefer to sign him to a reasonable extension instead of letting him flirt with even bigger totals in 2018-19, considering that only seven of his 31 goals came on the power play. (Though, to be fair, Connor received pretty healthy reps.)

With Trouba’s situation merely postponed for a year and Morrissey possibly only getting a bridge deal, the Jets could still face some big calls with key players. That’s especially true if management views re-signing Tyler Myers as a necessity rather than a luxury.

***

Overall, the Jets need to try to find value in the next deals for Laine and Connor, while making the right calls with Morrissey and Trouba.

While contenders such as the Chicago Blackhawks have shown that you can get out of a bad deal or two, they’ve also cemented the notion that you might end up regretting being loyal to the wrong players. The Jets handed out no-trade or no-movement clauses to veterans such as Wheeler, Byfuglien, Little, Kulikov and Perreault, which may only complicate matters.

For a GM who inspired puns about “taking the day off,” Kevin Cheveldayoff sure has his work cut out for him.

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.

Three questions facing Winnipeg Jets

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Winnipeg Jets.

Three questions for you to ponder regarding the 2018-19 Winnipeg Jets…

1. Who will replace Paul Stastny on the second line?

The Jets made one of the best deadline rentals in the NHL last year when they landed Paul Stastny from the St. Louis Blues, adding to an offense that was already one of the best in the league. Stastny made an immediate impact and proved to be a perfect fit on the team’s second line between young studs Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers. During the regular season and playoffs that trio outscored teams by a 24-12 margin at 5-on-5, while Stastny put together an incredible postseason individually with 15 points in the team’s 17 games. He turned that performance into a long-term contract with the Vegas Golden Knights in free agency, leaving a vacancy on the Jets’ second line.

It is probably expected that spot will once again be filled by Bryan Little, just as it was last season before the addition of Stastny.

That is going to put some pressure on Little because he is coming off of a down year and did not seem to be a great fit between Laine and Elhers (they performed much better alongside Stastny).

If not Little, another internal candidate could be 2015 first-round pick Jack Roslovic.

The 21-year-old Roslovic got his first real look in the NHL this past season, appearing in 31 games for the Jets, scoring five goals to go with nine assists. Expecting him to take over such a big role at this point may be expecting too much, but he certainly has potential and has been outstanding in the American Hockey League the past two years.

2. Will they be able to keep everybody?

The Jets have a significant chunk of their core signed long-term with Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers, Bryan Little, Mathieu Perreault, Dustin Byfuglien, and Connor Hellebuyck all signed for at least the next three years (Scheifele, Ehlers, Little, and Hellebuyck are signed for at least the next five), while some of them are signed to what can fairly be called “team-friendly” deals under the salary cap.

That is all very good.

[Jets Day: 2017-18 Review | Under Pressure | Breakthrough]

But they still have some big contract decisions coming over the next years as team captain Blake Wheeler, prized goal-scorer Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor, Tyler Myers, and Jacob Trouba are all due for new contracts after this season. Wheeler and Myers are set to become unrestricted free agents, while the others are all still restricted.

It is a given that Laine and Connor are going to get taken care of given their age, production, and potential.

The big questions are going to revolve around Wheeler and, most especially, Trouba.

Wheeler has been one of the league’s most productive — and underrated — wingers over the past six years and has become one of the Jets’ most valuable players. But he is also entering his age 32 season (he actually celebrates his 32nd birthday Today, on Jets’ day) and there is some risk with a long-term contract for a player at that age. He is still great now, but will he be when he is 35 or 36?

Then there is Trouba, one of the team’s best and most important defenseman whose contract saga has been a complicated one for years. It almost seems like a given that he is not going to be a member of the Jets for the long haul and the only question that remains is whether or not he gets traded before the trade deadline or in the offseason.

3. Will they make another run at the Stanley Cup Final?

After going nearly two decades in their existence without winning a single playoff game (and only making the playoffs twice) the Jets came almost out of nowhere last season to finish with the league’s second-best record (a 27-point improvement from the year before) and come within three games of reaching the Stanley Cup Final.

There is every reason to believe that the roster as presently constructed can continue to be a force in the Western Conference.

They are, for the most part, fairly young with a significant collection of their core all still in their peak years, they are incredibly talented (especially at forward) and should have the salary cap flexibility to make another significant splash in-season if they feel they can make a trade to help put them over the top.

The big question is going to be whether or not the goaltending holds out and performs the way it did this past season. If Hellebuyck can continue to be a legitimate No. 1 starting goaltender there is no reason why this team can not be a factor in the Western Conference.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Building off a breakthrough: Kyle Connor

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Winnipeg Jets.

Kevin Chevaldayoff and his staff have done one thing exceptionally well during their time in Winnipeg. They have drafted as well as (or better than) pretty much any other team in the NHL, particularly in the first round.

Since 2011 their first-round picks have included Mark Scheifele, Jacob Trouba, Josh Morrissey, Nikolaj Ehlers, Patrik Laine, and Kyle Connor. That group has not only become the core of what is now one of the best teams in the league and what should be a Stanley Cup contender, but the Jets were able to get them while selecting mostly (Laine and Trouba excluded) in the middle of the first round. They weren’t really relying on lottery picks or tanking to get their franchise-changing players. Even the Laine draft was the result of some good fortune in the lottery (moving up from sixth to second).

In recent years Scheifele, Trouba, Ehlers, and Laine all had their breakout seasons.

This past season, it was Connor’s turn. And he was tremendous.

Playing in his first full year in the league, Connor burst on to the scene for the Jets by scoring 31 goals (most among all rookies) and finishing fourth in the Calder Trophy voting behind Mathew Barzal, Brock Boeser, and Clayton Keller.

[Jets Day: 2017-18 Review | Under Pressure| Three Questions]

After a brief trip to the American Hockey League early in the season, Connor eventually found a spot on a line with the big club alongside Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele, a dominant trio that helped drive the NHL’s second-best scoring offense. Even when Scheifele was sidelined for a significant chunk of the season from the end of December until early February Connor was still able to help drive the offense by scoring six goals (tops on the team) and adding six more assists.

If there was any sort of a red flag for Connor it was the simple fact he didn’t generate a ton of shots on goal (2.53 per game) and had a fairly high shooting percentage (16.8 percent), two developments that could indicate he might be due for a regression. But even that is probably a reach. If you look at comparable performances from recent NHL history it paints a pretty strong picture for what Connor could be capable of in the future.

Over the past 20 years the NHL has seen nine different players under the age of 22 put together a 30-goal season while averaging less than 2.6 shots on goal per game and carrying a shooting percentage over 15 percent (Connor scored 31 goals on 2.53 shots and 16 percent). That list includes Sean Monahan, Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Toews, Bryan Little, Simon Gagne, Mike Comrie, Jordan Eberle, and Connor. The least successful player on that list is probably Comrie, and even he scored 20 goals five different times in the NHL.

In other words, there is really nothing to indicate that Connor isn’t on his way to becoming one heck of an NHL player and being a significant part of a Stanley Cup contender.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

How Jets can continue to contend

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Right now, it’s probably almost all sadness and anger, but eventually, the Winnipeg Jets will look back at this season with mixed feelings.

[Golden Knights eliminate Jets in Game 5]

There are a ton of entries in the “Pros” column. After years of being betrayed by goaltending during the Ondrej Pavelec era, Connor Hellebuyck finished 2017-18 as a Vezina candidate and was mostly great during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Winnipeg went from never winning a playoff game in its Thrashers – Jets iteration to making it to the third round. They finished the season with the second-best record in the NHL and dispatched the top-ranked Predators during the postseason. Budding stars like Patrik Laine and Mark Scheifele took their next steps, while Kyle Connor joined this team’s absolutely bursting list of impressive assets. The future is mostly bright, and so is the present, thanks in part to the patience of the past.

Still, it had to be gutting to lose to the Vegas Golden Knights as a considerable favorite, especially considering how frustrating it was to try – and mostly fail – to solve Marc-Andre Fleury.

It’s easy to assume that the Jets will be a fixture in the West’s top rankings for ages, yet the counterpoint is chilling: what if this was actually their best shot?

Overall, the Jets are in a great position to contend for years. That said, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff needs to churn out some more wins, and some breaks need to go their way. Let’s consider what the Jets need to do to contend next season and beyond, along with some of the bumps in the road that could derail such dreams.

Central casting

In 2017-18, the Central Division was the general pick as the toughest division in the NHL. It’s difficult to imagine it getting a lot easier.

The Nashville Predators pushed Winnipeg to seven games, and David Poile’s not shy about making bold moves to get better. The Stars and Blues have a strong chance to improve next season, while the Blackhawks could rebound. Colorado seems like a young, modern team while Minnesota is, if nothing else, scrappy enough to make playoff spots tougher to come by.

Even if Cheveldayoff makes all the right moves, the Jets may simply lose to some very tough competition in the opening two rounds as long as that’s the playoff format the NHL chooses.

The next steps

It’s up to the Jets to continue to cultivate this robust bounty of talented players.

Patrik Laine is already a deadly sniper; can he become a more well-rounded threat? Nikolaj Ehlers looks great, but he failed to score a single goal in the playoffs. Could Sami Niku round out Winnipeg’s defense and will Jack Roslovic be another breakthrough young forward?

Winnipeg players reaching the next level won’t be easy, but it’s crucial.

And if the Jets’ prospects and greener NHL players can really climb, they might be able to shrug off some of the biggest team-building conundrums …

Restrictions coming

The Jets possess one of the best bargain contracts in the league in Scheifele, a legitimate top-line center in the meat of his peak at 25, only carrying a cap hit a bit over $6 million through 2023-24. Despite postseason ups and downs, extending Ehlers at a precise cap hit of $6M through 2024-25 sure looks forward-thinking.

Cheveldayoff’s biggest tests are coming up during the next two summers. Will he be able to maintain this team’s deadly and versatile arsenal once bargains and entry-level contracts expire?

The most immediate tests come in two RFAs heading for big raises: Hellebuyck and underrated defenseman Jacob Trouba. Things seemed a little tense at times with Trouba, so don’t expect another cheap and strange structure for his next contract. (If the NHL wasn’t such a country club atmosphere, you’d almost wonder if someone might send an offer sheet to Trouba and/or Hellebuyck.)

Anyway, Hellebuyck and Trouba aren’t likely to be cheap. The key will be to find the right compromise, whether that means a shorter deal or lowering cap hits with riskier, longer terms.

July also represents the first opportunity to extend some very big names.

Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor will both see their rookie deals go away after 2018-19. Laine’s cap hit could very well reach the teens in millions, while Connor might not be easy to retain after coming off of a 30-goal rookie season.

Wheeler’s next deal

Maybe the most fascinating situation comes with a pending UFA in Blake Wheeler. The 31-year-old’s been an under-the-radar star at a manageable $5.6M cap hit for years now and should command a considerable raise. That could be a tricky situation, as he’ll be 33 when his next contract kicks in.

All of these factors make it tough to imagine the team bringing back soon-to-be free agent Paul Stastny, who was a seamless addition. That’s especially true as Bryan Little‘s extension could stand as regrettable.

Ultimately, Cheveldayoff must make the right calls. Can he leverage RFA statuses to keep the core together? Will Wheeler and other nice, veteran players be affordable? These questions are mostly a little off in the distance, yet sometimes teams feel the need to be proactive. Simply put, players getting raises means that the Jets will most likely be forced to make choices and tough cuts.

(On the bright side, there’s some cap relief on the horizon as well. Toby Enstrom‘s deal is done. Tyler Myers‘ contract ends after next season. It’s not all bad.)

Backup plan?

When the Jets signed Steve Mason, it seemed like they’d either install him as the starter or as a platoon mate for Hellebuyck. An injury-ravaged season essentially pushed Mason out of the picture, and it’s reasonable to wonder what happens considering that his $4.1M cap hit runs through 2018-19.

Do the Jets try to move Mason and shuffle in Michael Hutchinson or a different backup?

Hellebuyck, even a richer version, is likely to be “the guy.” The modern NHL’s shown how valuable a good backup can be, especially during the 82-game grind of the regular season.

***

Few, if any, NHL teams are constructed to compete in both the present and future as well as the Jets right now. They’re likely to get better merely as the likes of Laine come into their own. (Laine still can’t drink legally in the U.S. at 20 years old, after all.)

On the other hand, promising things can go splat in a hurry, especially in sports. Injuries can happen. Bad contracts can gum up the works. Marc-Andre Fleury could stand on his head again.

It’s up to the Jets to prove that this past run was the beginning of something great rather than their best swing at the fence. They have the power to do just that, but it won’t be an easy task.

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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.