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New Sultan of Snipe: Laine aims to overtake Ovechkin as goal-scoring king

As Laine enters Year 3 of his already prolific career, we’re set to see a top-scorer succession.

The comparisons were inescapable. Patrik Laine was big, powerful, brash and armed with a devastating, heavy, freakishly accurate shot he could unleash from anywhere. The kid may as well have showed up at the 2016 draft screaming “I’m the next Alex Ovechkin!” into a megaphone.

So it was only natural to juxtapose Laine’s numbers with Ovechkin’s the minute Laine stepped onto the ice as a Winnipeg Jets rookie in 2016-17. Laine was extremely impressive, sniping 36 goals in 73 games and finishing second in Calder Trophy voting. He followed up with 44 goals as a sophomore. Laine had emerged as an elite goal-scoring threat. But he wasn’t Ovechkin-good on paper. The Capitals superstar ripped off 98 goals across his first two seasons. If we adjust for era with help from hockey-reference.com, he spikes to 100 goals, while Laine lags behind at 85.

Yet, tabbing Laine to win the Rocket Richard Trophy in our THN staff awards picks for 2018-19 was one of our most lopsided, least-debated votes. Why are we so confident picking Laine over Ovechkin, who won it for the seventh time last year? It’s not just a matter of Laine progressing and Ovechkin regressing in his early 30s. It’s a matter of understanding just how sneaky-amazing Laine has been so far. He debuted in the NHL at 18. Ovechkin did so at 20. So before we declare Laine off Ovechkin’s trajectory, let it soak in that Laine got 80 goals before his 20th birthday. Ovechkin lost what could’ve been a teenage season because of the 2004-05 NHL lockout, so Laine is 80 goals ahead of this generation’s greatest scorer.

Laine’s production as a teenager has been historic. Jimmy Carson’s 92 goals are the most by a teenager in NHL history, followed by Dale Hawerchuk’s 85, but it doesn’t take a hockey trivia virtuoso to know Carson and Hawerchuk skated in the league’s peak offensive years. If we adjust for era, Carson’s goal total slips to 77, while Hawerchuk’s shrinks to 65. That puts Laine on top at 85 era-adjusted teenage goals. He’s the best teenage goal-scorer in history.

So it’s a little early to declare that Laine is lagging behind Ovechkin’s trajectory. And there’s evidence to suggest Laine takes the league’s goal-scoring crown this year. Natural progression and comfort with the NHL game already provide reason to expect Laine’s 44 goals to swell. But what happens if he shoots the puck more?

Ovechkin averages an incredible 4.88 shots per game in his career, scoring 12.4 percent of the time. He is a volume machine. Laine shot the puck just 2.87 times per game across his first 155 contests, with an incredible 18.0-percent success rate. Laine is a much more accurate shooter, but he’ll never reach Ovechkin’s lofty shot totals, as Ovechkin prefers the puck on his stick while Laine is more of a receiver who likes to find lanes, in the manner of Brett Hull or Mike Bossy. But if Laine can make even incremental increases in his shot total, it will combine with his eagle-eyed accuracy to produce some truly prolific goal numbers. We’re talking 60-goal potential.

And there’s reason to expect Laine will indeed shoot the puck more. His shots per game rose from 2.79 to 2.94 last season – even though his ice time decreased from 17:55 per game to a paltry 16:29. Laine averaged 0.16 shots per minute as a rookie versus 0.18 as a sophomore. Let’s say Jets coach Paul Maurice entrusts Laine with a boost to 18 minutes of ice time per game in Year 3, which is realistic for the team’s top goal-scoring threat. If Laine shoots the puck as often as he did last year, he’d spike to 263 shots. Multiply that by his career shooting percentage and you get 47 goals in 82 games, a new career-high for Laine and just two fewer than Ovechkin scored last season. Factoring in that Ovechkin turns 33 in September, partied hard with the Stanley Cup all summer and became a new dad, it’s logical to predict a slight regression, meaning Laine likely leapfrogs him.

Better yet, if Laine did a better job firing the biscuit in Year 2, isn’t he a strong bet to keep improving in Year 3? If his shots per minute increases incrementally to, say, 0.20 and we make the same predicted ice-time increase, you get a 53-goal season. Sounds about right. Consider that our official prediction. Ovechkin has enjoyed the most dominant goal-scoring run in league history, but he’ll finally pass the torch in 2018-19…to a player who will be same age in Year 3 as Ovechkin was in Year 1. Popcorn, please.

THE WINNERS WILL BE...

The Hockey News’ staffers voted on their top five picks for major NHL awards, and these are the cumulative results. McDavid was a runaway winner for the Hart and Art Ross, as was Laine for the Rocket Richard. The other trophy races were much closer. The Calder and Jack Adams, for instance, were far from a consensus among our voters.

HART TROPHY - Most Valuable Player
1. Connor McDavid, Edm
2. Nikita Kucherov, TB
3. Mark Scheifele, Wpg
4. Sidney Crosby, Pit
5. John Tavares, Tor

ART ROSS TROPHY - Most Points
1. Connor McDavid, Edm
2. Nikita Kucherov, TB
3. Nathan MacKinnon, Col
4. Claude Giroux, Phi
5. Mark Scheifele, Wpg

ROCKET RICHARD TROPHY - Most Goals
1. Patrik Laine, Wpg
2. Alex Ovechkin, Wsh
3. Auston Matthews, Tor
4. Nikita Kucherov, TB
5. John Tavares, Tor

NORRIS TROPHY - Best Defenseman
1. Seth Jones, Clb
2. Victor Hedman, TB
3. Erik Karlsson, SJ
4. P.K. Subban, Nsh
5. Brent Burns, SJ

VEZINA TROPHY - Best Goalie
1. Andrei Vasilevskiy, TB
2. Sergei Bobrovsky, Clb
3. Connor Hellebuyck, Wpg
4. Frederik Andersen, Tor
5. John Gibson, Ana

CALDER TROPHY - Best Rookie
1. Casey Mittelstadt, Buf
2. Elias Pettersson, Van
3. Rasmus Dahlin, Buf
4. Andrei Svechnikov, Car
5. Miro Heiskanen, Dal

JACK ADAMS AWARD - Best Coach
1. Bill Peters, Cgy
2. Mike Babcock, Tor
3. Mike Yeo, StL
4. John Tortorella, Clb
5. Bob Boughner, Fla

This story appears in the Season Preview 2018-19 issue of The Hockey News magazine.

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