30 Thoughts: Patrik Laine and the Finnish league theory

With his second career hat trick and a rookie leading 16 points, Patrik Laine earned himself his third rookie of the week nod.

When Buffalo drafted Joel Armia 16th overall in 2011, then-general manager Darcy Regier said part of the attraction was that Armia had 67 points in 102 games in the top Finnish league before he turned 19.

“That’s a man’s league,” Regier said at the time.

I’ve always wondered if that was true — if there was something to back it up. More and more research is being done, trying to figure out if certain leagues are predisposed to turning out legit NHL players. (The Colorado Avalanche and Florida Panthers are among the teams taking a deep dive.)

Of course, no one will talk about it.

Looking at the numbers from 2000-10, I counted approximately 25 Finns drafted into the NHL who played in their country’s top league at age 17. How many played 100 NHL games? Eight (assuming I counted right).

How many go to 200? Six.

That’s a really good percentage, compared to everywhere else. The problem is that the sample size is too small. There are so many more potential CHL draftees in that league at 17. But it does give Regier’s theory some credence — enough to make teams take a longer look.

Anyway, this popped into my head because of Patrik Laine’s shooting. I can already see the Trumpian-level hatred hockey fans are going to have for Calder Trophy-voting journalists in June.

Laine vs. Zach Werenski vs. Auston Matthews vs. Mitch Marner vs. William Nylander vs. everyone else?

Yeah, everyone’s going to be so united with the result.

Laine averaged 0.7 points per game last season in Finland. For someone who didn’t turn 18 until the season ended, that’s really good.

Jesse Puljujarvi (a month younger) was at 0.56, which is also very good. But I don’t know if anyone expected him to have the same immediate impact as Laine.

The 2016 No. 2 pick is such a spectacular talent, with such a spectacular shot. But there were still a ton of questions about the adjustment. People wanted to be conservative, because you never know how someone will adapt.

After 21 games, Laine is shooting 21.1 per cent. A rookie shooting that well used to be a fairly regular occurrence: Joe Nieuwendyk shot 24.1 per cent; Eric Lindros hit 22.8; Luc Robitaille 22.6 and Steve Yzerman 22.

Since the rules changed in 2005-06 to emphasize scoring and speed, those numbers actually dropped.

Only two players have reached 20 per cent in at least 60 games: Petr Prucha was at 23.1 in 2005-06 and Jordan Staal 22.1 the next season. No one has done it since 2006-07.

The Finnish league keeps track of overall shot attempts (Corsi). Last season, Laine scored on fewer than seven per cent of all his attempts. This year? He’s at 12.

By comparison, Connor McDavid, who was obscene when he played in 2015-16, was at 10.

That’s a ridiculous number.

I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes. Laine is incredibly talented, but it is so freaking hard.


1. An example of Mark Scheifele’s improved skill level? The pass that set up Laine’s hat trick goal on Nov. 8. Scheifele worked to improve the zip of his backhand passes, and that’s a perfect example. That puck gets to Laine with some juice.

2. Not sure about the timeline to a finish, but the San Jose Sharks and Brent Burns have made serious progress on a contract extension. That’s going to disappoint a lot of suitors hoping for a summer of 2017 romance.

UPDATE: The Sharks have signed Burns to an eight-year deal.

3. Jonathan Toews, asked by Scott Oake on After Hours if he, like Alex Ovechkin, will play at the Olympics no matter what:

“I’m not going to sit here and make any bold statements right now. But I definitely think as players and the league as well that we should keep pushing the issue, that…we can find ways to work it out. The best players in the world should be representing their countries at the Olympics. It’s great not only for the Olympic Games, but for our sport as well.”

We’ve seen this dance before. I’m one of those people who believes the NHL eventually decides to go. But, I have to admit, I’m more pessimistic this time than normal.

4. Michael Leighton is up with the Carolina Hurricanes as Eddie Lack recuperates from a concussion. Should the NHL not go, he’d be the kind of player in line for a shot on the Olympic team.

“It would be awesome,” he said. “It’s the one thing I’ve never had a chance to do, play for Team Canada. But I still think (the NHLers) are going.”

Then, he added, “Tell them I’ll be the fifth goalie.”

5. The NHLPA will respond to the NHL’s offer of Olympic participation in exchange for a three-year CBA extension in time for the Board of Governors’ meeting, which begins Dec. 8. I’m curious to see if it is a flat no or if there is a formal counter-proposal.

There are some agents (and probably union employees) who think the NHLPA should not be discussing anything until they see what the new NBA CBA looks like. That’s expected shortly. To me, it’s an opportunity to see what you can accomplish, just like the NHL tried.

One source said the players — who cannot stand the uncapped escrow — should take a run at teams who place money “outside the system,” like Toronto. The Maple Leafs’ maneuvering is 100 per cent legal (and one of the few remaining places they can flex their financial muscle), but having big-salaried players like Nathan Horton, Joffrey Lupul and Stephane Robidas collecting their money away from the game is an escrow killer. Teams would fight back hard, because it makes an inflexible cap even more restrictive. I’d be curious to see how the league felt.

6. The easy answer is for the players to ask for what their NBA compatriots got: a maximum 10 per cent escrow payment per cheque.

It’s not that easy.

There are protections built into the NBA CBA in case the players still “owe” money because their share of the revenues is too large. NBA owners can dip into the players’ “benefits pool” to equalize things. If that’s not enough, they have the right to lower the next season’s salary cap. Nothing comes without a trade-off.

7. I did ask a couple of agents if any players would prefer an uncertain escrow to losing whatever percentage of their contracts to a lockout somewhere down the line. Not a lot of support for that thinking.

8. The conversations about a 19-year-old draft did not get as much attention last week as the Olympic conversations, but the more research I do, the more I’m impressed by Pat LaFontaine’s vision.

The conversation involves the NHL, NHLPA, CHL, NCAA, Hockey Canada, USA Hockey and the USHL. (If I forgot anyone, it’s because my ability to keep a list ends at seven.)

What he wants to create is a North American development model that has the best 16-year-olds in an elite midget league, 17-19 year-olds in Major Junior and 20-year-olds either in the NCAA or playing professionally. It’s tricky, (LaFontaine prefers not to discuss it at this time), but the sense I get is we’re getting to the point where the various leagues are going to have to make some concessions, change the way they do business. I think they’re prepared to do it, but it’s almost as if everyone is saying, “I’ll will, but I want to make that other person will, too.”

9. Some issues: Will the NCAA allow those who’ve played in the CHL to skate for their schools after their junior career is done?

Right now, dressing in one exhibition CHL game ruins your NCAA eligibility. I don’t think it’s ever going to happen for anyone who signs a professional contract, but if you don’t, it’s up for discussion.

Nick Kypreos reported USHL teams may get a shot to compete against CHL clubs for the Memorial Cup. I was surprised by that, but get it now. The NCAA and USHL were worried American-born players would all jump to Canada, but this gives an incentive to stay Stateside. That’s important to them.

Will “exceptional players” have an exemption? That sounds like the plan for both 16-year-olds at the major junior level and 18-year-olds in the NHL Draft. There are a lot of moving parts, but they’re talking. In a perfect world, a lot of people want this to happen because they think it’s best for the sport.

10. Obviously, the NHLPA could block it. I wondered if the Olympic situation could be a negative influencer, but another stakeholder said he didn’t get that sense — yet — and the union is listening.

“They’re asking as many questions as we are,” he said.

But we’re going to find out soon. If you look at almost every CBA signed in the last 20 years in MLB, the NBA, NFL and the NHL, rookies get hammered. They have no representation and veterans don’t want them making the money. What I don’t know is how strongly NHLPA leadership feels about it.

11. Here’s what it sounds like happened with Vancouver, Buffalo and Evander Kane: There were a lot of assumptions the price would be low, that the Sabres would be so desperate to do this that the Canucks would get a steal.

Sabres GM Tim Murray made it clear that would not be the case. (Neither team would comment.)

If you look at the blockbuster with Winnipeg, the Sabres were willing to grow the deal to increase the return, and I would assume that happened here, too. One of the things I’ve heard Buffalo is looking for is speed, both up front and on the blue line. There are not a ton of logical fits. As mentioned last week, Vancouver is not giving up either Brock Boeser or Olli Juolevi unless the return is massive. And I don’t think Buffalo was too interested in anyone off the main Vancouver roster other than maybe Chris Tanev. In the end, the Canucks weren’t willing to do it.

12. Had a chance to talk with a few people to evaluate Kane as a player. He is really respected as a forechecker — among the best in the NHL. He’ll go after anyone, and hard. The main criticism is his shot. If he could develop a better one-timer, it would improve his stock. Takes him a little too long to release, and defences are very good at taking away your time.

13. American Thanksgiving is another critical point on the NHL calendar. Since the NHL expanded to 30 teams, 78 per cent of those in playoff positions as of that date reach the playoffs. As a result, teams have a better idea of what they are and what they need.

Some of the wishes are obvious. Colorado and Detroit are looking for defencemen that can make a difference, although it’s not as if you can grow them in Toews’ garden. (The Avalanche are looking for more than one, likely two.)

As mentioned, the Sabres are looking for speed. Calgary is open for business. Bruce Boudreau half-joked he had “four checking lines” on Monday, as Minnesota eyes a scorer.

14. The Montreal Canadiens and St. Louis Blues are a little different. They have legit championship aspirations and search for more pieces of that puzzle. I’ve mentioned before the Canadiens are looking at their blue line, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if GM Marc Bergevin eyed a powerful forward or two as well. It’s “all-in” for Montreal.

15. Chicago Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman said on the weekend that if he adds anything, it is a winger. He’s got enough defencemen as it is.

“But I’d like to take some time,” he added, “and see what our younger forwards give us.”

Nick Schmaltz got his chance with Toews and Patrick Kane the last two games. Coach Joel Quenneville uses Kane and Toews with Artemi Panarin after penalty kills from time to time, and those three look dynamite. Panarin and Toews aren’t together often, but by my count, when united at five-on-five they haven’t been on for a goal against. Not sure Quenneville can do that all the time, though.

16. We’ve talked a lot this season about the grind of the compressed schedule and the World Cup of Hockey, but there is one player who definitely benefitted from the extra action: Marian Hossa.

“In some of those games, he was playing 23 minutes,” said Bowman, part of Team North America’s management group. “We were staying at the same hotel and I asked him if he was okay with that. He said, ‘I feel great.’ We’d talked about resting him during the season, but now? We’ll see how it goes.”

Hossa said he benefitted from the Blackhawks’ unusually long summer and, at age 37, plans to play the four remaining years of his contract.

17. An OHL source had a good tip: When the Arizona Coyotes made the decision to send Dylan Strome back to junior, they did it a little differently.

GM John Chayka and head coach Dave Tippett took Strome to a local Over Easy restaurant for breakfast and a 90-minute conversation. They thought doing it in that environment would make it easier on Strome, who apparently appreciated the approach.

Just trying to figure which one of them ordered the breakfast poutine.

18. The Tampa Bay Lightning‘s Andrei Vasilevskiy is the first to wear the new, slim-fitting goalie pants. With them, he shut out the New York Islanders and Philadelphia Flyers, probably earning him two quiet ovations in NHL offices.

The league continues to receive complaints that the new fit will expose the hips in certain positions. We’ll see if Vasilevskiy’s success changes anyone’s mind. It never hurts when the first guy in the pool loves the water.

19. One netminder who switched equipment last summer? Cam Ward. Ward went to Bauer pads and found them to be lighter than his previous ones. For an aggressive, active goalie, it’s a subtle but important change. He’s got a new glove, too, and, apparently an adjusted off-ice routine.

(He wasn’t available to chat about it Tuesday morning in Toronto, as he is starting that game.)

Ward is coming off a phenomenal stretch where he’s beaten Montreal, San Jose, Washington and Winnipeg. When he’s on his game, you can tell shooters have no idea what he’s going to do.

20. The challenge for Carolina’s defenders in front of Ward is you have to think differently than you’ve been programmed. The Hurricanes set it up so Ward is responsible for the shooter and the defence must take the weak-side. So there will be situations where an opponent is coming at the net with the puck, and a defender instinctively wants to go at him, but isn’t supposed to. Those are smart young D learning to adjust.

21. How impressive has Paul Byron’s start been for Montreal? Heading into last Friday’s game in Carolina, 12 teammates had points on goals Byron has scored or assisted on this season. This was equal to McDavid, Ovechkin, Tyler Seguin and John Tavares. That’s really something. (The leader was Scheifele with 16. Jakub Voracek had 15 and Matt Duchene 14.)

Putting him on waivers last year was a hard decision for the Flames. They liked him, but wondered if he’d be this much of a finisher. They suspected Montreal’s interest.

22. Florida’s Vincent Trocheck had a great line about teammate Jaromir Jagr. Trocheck’s first NHL goal was an empty-netter against the New Jersey Devils in March 2014. There is a photo of the future Hall-of-Famer chasing the young centre as he scores. When Trocheck told him that, he said Jagr replied, “What were you doing on the ice in a one-goal game?”

23. Nick Bjugstad’s return should make a difference for Florida. If opponents have one critique about the Panthers, it’s that they are a bit small. “[Jonathan] Huberdeau was starting to become a beast, too,” said one coach. He’s due back in the New Year.

24. Six years ago, Mike Vernace played the last of his 22 career NHL games with the Lightning.

But, as he said Monday, “I love to play hockey. You watch Sidney Crosby, he’s only getting better and he’s a year younger than I am. If he wants to get better, why can’t everyone else? That’s my mindset, truthfully.”

Now 30, Vernace is playing for the ECHL’s Brampton Beast, his second season in that city after trips to Germany and Sweden. Eventually, someone will drag him off the ice, but as he continues to compete, he is among a growing group getting involved in skill development.

It began a few years ago with his cousin, Justin, asking him to go through some game tape.

“He asked me for feedback, and then a few others on his team followed. I had no intention of going back to them, but they came to me [the next] summer, asking ‘Can we do this again?’” he explained. “The main thing I looked for was the same thing scouts graded me on: one-versus-one battles, puck races. Do you win your battles? We track them. We do Corsi now as well, and pair that with bread-and-butter notes. It’s what we would get from our teams.”

25. Justin, who is 18, now plays for the Toronto Junior Canadiens. Vernace decided to stick with this work.

“The main reason: the amount of improvement we saw in the kids we were working with. Some improved by leaps and bounds…we didn’t think they would play past Midget AAA.”

His company, Shifted Hockey, is small — partially because he wants to make sure he’s doing a good job and partially because he and brother Daniel are still active. (Daniel plays for the Fayetteville FireAntz of the Southern Professional Hockey League.)

How much of a family business is this? Wife Claudia wrote the business plan as part of her Master’s Degree while they were in Germany.

26. Vernace played for two current NHL coaches while in the Lightning organization: Guy Boucher (NHL) and Jon Cooper (AHL).

“With Coop, we would always play in Charlotte, one of our biggest rivals, at three in the afternoon, be done by 5:30. He’d say, ‘OK guys, the bus is not leaving until midnight.’ One thing he did well, he gets guys to be a team, do stuff together.”

He also played for Boucher at AHL Hamilton.

“Intense, fiery. Whether you play three minutes or you play 35 minutes, he wants everyone to stay engaged.”

He laughed when thinking of Boucher’s intensity.

“We had a great team. But I remember one player at a practice asking, ‘Guy, what do you want me to do here?’ and he said, ‘Hey, when we’re on the ice, I’m not your friend, I’m your coach.’”

No one called him “Guy” after that.

27. The KHL is going through some issues, with president Dmitry Chernyshenko saying last week he thinks “it’s possible that the league could contract if the board takes that decision.”

It sounds like leadership also is wrestling with another issue: competitive balance. Less than 35 games into the season, the difference between No. 1 (St. Petersburg) and No. 29 (Metallurg Novokuznetsk) is 64 points. That’s a huge number so quickly into the season, and a look at the standings shows an obvious split between haves and have-nots.

So, what is being weighed is cutting teams not only for money, but also to improve the quality of play. The better the teams, the better the product, the better the rivalries. The second-tier Russian league (comparable to the AHL) set an attendance record last weekend when 9,765 fans showed for a game between two clubs from St. Petersburg. Word is, however, that many teams in trouble are from other countries, which makes this a political challenge. There are some tough decisions to make.

28. Upon returning to Russia, Pavel Datsyuk completed his Bachelor’s Degree in Sports Management from Ural Federal University.

His final thesis: “Management of Sports Preparation of Young Hockey Players on Sports and Fitness Stage and Initial Stage of Preparation.”

I’m sure that’s less wordy in Cyrillic.

29. The Dallas Stars’ director of goaltending development, Mike Valley, is releasing a new book with Justin Goldman, who runs The Goalie Guild website. It’s called Embracing the Grind. Via text, Valley said what stands out for him is “how honest the goalies we interviewed are…you can have all the skills in the world, but if you cannot control your mind you will never fully succeed.”

As someone who has embraced the thinking preached in The Obstacle is the Way and The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a $&%*, I’m looking forward to the messages.

30. It is impossible not to be moved by the outpouring of emotion for Craig Cunningham, fighting for life after collapsing prior to an AHL game last Saturday.

I don’t know him well, but we all know someone like him — someone who’s not the biggest, or the strongest. They are, however, the toughest and most determined.

Privately, we think they won’t beat the odds, then smile when they do because we were stupid enough to doubt them. Most of that comes from within. But some of it comes from knowing others believe in you, too.

We’ve learned that person is his mother, Heather, who raised three boys after husband Alvin died in a 1996 car accident. They are strong people, and I hope that strength carries them now.

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