On Tuesday night, Patrik Laine scored his second hat trick of the season. After Thursday night’s 0-fer against the
Jets Coyotes, his total goals number in 15 games is still a whopping 11.
Here in 2016 we understand this kind of production to be — all together now! — “unsustainable,” but clearly this is a player with an incredibly high skill quotient and a deadly shot. The fact that, 14 games into the season, he’s already a third of the way to 30 goals is hard to wrap one’s head around.
Only 16 times in history has a rookie scored at least 30 as a teenager; Jeff Skinner and Sidney Crosby are the only two to do it in recent memory, with Eric Lindros and Jason Arnott’s rookie campaigns in a much more high-scoring era also making the “You know you’re a ’90s kid when” cut.
I mention 30 goals as a kind of baseline for strong performance because it’s a level only really good players tend to reach on a somewhat consistent basis. Last year only 28 guys did it, about 4 percent of all skaters in the league. So the question is, does Laine put himself into that 4 percent right away.
Based on the early returns, it’s entirely possible. He has 67 games to score just 19 more goals, so even if he slows down significantly, he would have to basically try not to hit 30.
But there are some caveats to this, including exactly how he’s scoring these goals. Of his 11 goals, only five have been at 5-on-5. That clearly isn’t a bad number of 5-on-5 goals to score in 15 games, but it’s worth noting he is personally shooting 25 percent in these situations. Even based on everything from shot location to the types of shots he was taking, he’s still outperforming his expected goals (about 2.2) by a whole hell of a lot.
Elite shooters basically always outperform expected-goal totals, and over short periods they can do so significantly. For instance, Alex Ovechkin’s 5-on-5 goal total since 2007 is 216, but his expected goal number — which are based on league-average shooting probabilities — is only about 181. That’s not to say Laine has an Ovechkin-level shot (though he might), but obviously no one is going to put the puck in the net this efficiently at 5-on-5 over a long period of time.
Of course, a player of Laine’s caliber is going to get a lot of power play time as any top shooter would and should. As has been discussed previously, most high-end goalscorers tend to rack up a lot of their tallies on the power play; it’s hard to score at 5-on-5 and if you have an elite shot, you better be damn sure you’re unleashing it in advantageous situations. Laine has done that, and he’s actually carrying a similar shooting percentage on the power play (five goals on 19 shots, including 1 for 2 with the two-man advantage).
The goal breakdown goes like this: Five at full strength, four with the man advantage, and one each with the two-man advantage and in 3-on-3 overtime.
Thanks to Corsica’s awesome new “Highlights” feature, you can watch them all in one place with ease, and it’s not that hard to get an idea of where and how he’s scoring. This might be important, especially as time goes on, because if he’s a bit of a one-trick pony then defenses might be able to figure him out really (not that anyone ever figured out how to deal with “The Ovechkin Spot”). These are the shot locations and types for all of his goals so far this season:
You’ll notice a whole lot of wrist shots, and if you watch the videos, a lot of them are “Laine straight-up blew it by [insert unfortunate goalie here].” He’s picking out corners from the top of the circle like it’s no big deal in early games. But all of the goals around the net — two deflections, a one-timer, and a rebound — are in his more recent affairs. Are teams taking that Laine Spot away from him already? You’d have to think so, to some extent. But also, he’s just a very versatile, big-bodied, and good player who’s going to score from anywhere he can physically get to on the ice. And based on that size, he’s going to get anywhere he wants.
As you see from the highlights, mixing that in with a shot that scary produces plenty of results. He’s going to slow down, especially as teams get more game tape to work with. Learning a player’s tendencies is crucial to preventing him from scoring or creating chances (and here we must mention that he plays with Mark Scheifele and Nikolaj Ehlers, two incredibly talented young players who can likewise make things happen and free up space). And he now also gets power play time with Blake Wheeler and Dustin Byfuglien, who are incredibly gifted in the attacking zone in their own right.
The Jets haven’t really been limiting his ice time at 5-on-5 but only recently bumped him up to the top power play unit, which likely leads to more offensive opportunities with high-level players. Maybe Paul Maurice starts using him in more key situations as time goes on, but it’s tough to say they’re not putting him in a position to succeed right now. And if he ends up getting the Erik Karlsson treatment, where he only plays a certain number of minutes and Maurice feels it’s better for the team that those minutes be non-defensive, that too would be a wise move.
Honestly, this might just become another Ovechkin situation: You know what he’s going to do, and it simply doesn’t matter. Again, he’s not going to shoot 25 percent or anything close to it. Ovechkin’s career shooting percentage is 12.4. There aren’t many guys in the league with shooting percentages over 12 in 300-plus games played for a reason.
But Laine is looking very much like he could be one of those guys. And here’s the thing: Laine has 45 shots in 15 games, which is a lot. Maybe that number goes up with the better power play group. But already, only 25 guys produced shot volume at a similar rate last season. It’s nowhere near Ovechkin’s career volume — more than five shots a night! — which is how he scores 50 so reliably, but if you’re pumping 250 or so shots on net for an entire season, you’re going to end up with a bunch of goals even if you’re not a high-skill shooter. (Not that being able to get the puck on net that frequently isn’t a skill. You know what I mean.)
But Laine is a high-skill shooter, which means he’s going to put a lot more pucks in the net than the average high-volume guy. If he can shoot in the 13-15 percent range for the remainder of the season (and stay healthy), he’s not only going to break 30 with ease, he’ll threaten 40. And that’s if his shot volume doesn’t go up, which it could as the top power play group gets things going.
Only five guys have ever scored 40-plus as a teenaged rookie: Gretzky, Hawerchuk, Lemieux, Lindros, and Sylvain Turgeon(???). The odds that Laine adds his name to that last are better than you would have expected, even given this raucous head start.
He really might just be that good.
(All statistics via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)