Let’s play a little blind resume guessing game. Sometimes there’s value in stripping the numbers from the name as part of a thought exercise, because our brains can sometimes be biased in the way they see things they already know something about.
Here’s a random list of notable players who jumped straight into the NHL at age 18 in this century, and how they did in those first two full seasons prior to turning 20.
|Player||Games Played||Goals||Power Play Goals||Shots on Goal||Shooting %|
Player A is Sidney Crosby, Player B is Steven Stamkos, Player C is Ilya Kovalchuk, Player D is Patrik Laine, and Player E is Tim Connolly.
The last one was included solely to make sure that you were still paying attention. And also because nearly 20 years later, it’s hard to believe Connolly was once a fifth overall pick who was immediately thrust into the league. He only actually missed just three games in his first four seasons, before it all went to hell for him on the injury front.
The point of this exercise is to show we’re currently witnessing something incredibly special in Winnipeg with what Laine is doing as a teenager. Currently averaging more than a goal every other game, he’s one of only 32 players to ever do so for their career — and many of the others played in an era with entirely different netminding and scoring norms.
Of the bunch, the names Kovalchuk, Ovechkin, and Stamkos stand out from the pack, because they’re ones Laine has already drawn comparisons to for a variety of reasons. They’re also particularly useful comparisons when thinking about Laine’s accomplishments and trying to contextualize them.
Ovechkin wasn’t included in that guessing game above because he was already 20 years old by the time he stepped into the league, which throws off the trajectory. But it also feels unfair to compare anyone to Ovechkin because he’s such an entirely different animal in so many ways. Still, it’s easy to see the connection between him and Laine, particularly when you see how they set up shop on the left circle with the man advantage. That bond is solidified by the Rocket Richard Trophy race they’re both embroiled in, which should make for a fun subplot in the closing weeks of the season.
While Ovechkin currently holds a one-goal lead over Laine, it’s worth noting the latter has actually been the more efficient of the two on a per-minute basis. That efficiency stands out not just compared to Ovechkin this season, but also when you put it up against every other individual NHL season since 2006, aside from Crosby’s preposterous 41-game bender in 2010-11 prior to his first concussion:
|Player||Season||Goals Per Hour|
Stylistically, the link between Laine and Ilya Kovalchuk in his prime may be more apt, if only from the perspective of how they present opposing defenders with the dilemma of having to account for them in the offensive zone. It’s akin to how Stephen Curry took the NBA by storm by using his previously unheard of range to punish defences that made the mistake of sagging back and thinking he’s too far out to be a legitimate threat. The fact Laine’s shot plays so well from far out of the slot is an issue for teams.
That shot is what makes Laine a cheat code personified. Similar to what Stamkos was routinely doing during his peak offensive years, Laine is now stretching the outer boundaries of what we typically expect players to be capable of when it comes to consistently converting their shots into goals — especially when it comes to the combination of volume and efficiency.
Since Laine came into the league last year, no one has had a greater difference between their actual output and what we’d theoretically anticipate from their statistical profile — he comically doubles his expected goal total. In the process, he’s breaking Corsica’s expected goal model:
|Player||Actual Goals||Expected Goals||Difference|
One final note that seems relevant here:
When the Jets acquired Paul Stastny at the deadline, the fit between himself as a playmaker and Laine as the trigger man seemed like an obvious one. It’s only been a handful of games, but so far that match made in heaven on paper has translated into terrific on-ice results.
In the games since Stastny’s arrival, he and Laine have played just north of 60 minutes together at five-on-five. In that time the Jets are controlling 59.6 per cent of the shot attempts, 59.3 per cent of the shots on goal, and 57.4 per cent of the scoring chances, while out-scoring the other team 10-1. Assuming Mark Scheifele’s injury isn’t serious enough to keep him out for long, the top nine Winnipeg boasts up front is as lethal as it gets this side of Pittsburgh.
That bodes well for the Jets’ hopes to not just settle on being happy to return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2015, but to actually make some noise.
If you think Laine’s combination of goal scoring ability and unkempt beard is frightening now, just imagine what they could look like deep into the Spring.
Data in this piece was compiled using various sources, mostly notably including the invaluable Corsica, Natural Stat Trick, Hockey Reference.