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Patrik Laine’s still a Rocket long shot, but he’s blasting his way into elite company

Patrik Laine is the hottest goal-scorer in the NHL right now with 10 tallies in his past eight games. It's enough to vault him into the Rocket Richard conversation -- but even if he doesn't take home the hardware, he’s set to join a rare club.

Patrik Laine was tied for 10th place in the Rocket Richard Trophy race at the beginning of February – with 23 goals, he was seven back of NHL leader Alex Ovechkin. By mid-month, Laine's chances of entering the Rocket conversation appeared slim. He’d fired home two goals in six games and had fallen into a tie for 13th in the league, eight back of Ovechkin.

But anyone who has watched the way Laine can score, watched the way he can strike at a moment’s notice, should have known that he always had the potential to make a late charge at the hardware. And that’s exactly what he’s done.

On Feb. 16, Laine scored against the Colorado Avalanche. The next time out, this time against the Florida Panthers, Laine scored again. And he followed that with a goal against Los Angeles Kings, another against the St. Louis Blues and then a pair against the Dallas Stars. Then, for a brief moment, Laine’s goal streak was halted, but he got back on track with two tallies in a meeting with the Detroit Red Wings and continued his remarkable run with another pair against the Carolina Hurricanes on Sunday. Add it all up and Laine has scored 10 goals and 16 points during what is now an eight-game point streak.

The white-hot streak has done wonders for Laine in terms of the Rocket race, too. Over the past two-plus weeks, he has surpassed Auston Matthews, Brock Boeser, John Tavares, Tyler Seguin, Anders Lee and Nikita Kucherov, among others, to move into a tie with William Karlsson for third in goal-scoring. Meanwhile, he’s one goal back of Evgeni Malkin for second spot in the Rocket race, and even Ovechkin, who leads the league with 40 goals, has had his lead over Laine trimmed to five. So, can Winnipeg’s wunderkind do the unthinkable and go on a run that wins him the Rocket?

Well, let’s look into that. At their current paces, Ovechkin, Malkin, Karlsson and Laine are projected to finish first through third in the goal-scoring race with totals of 50 goals, 45 goals and a matching total of 44 goals, respectively. Thus, in order for Laine to win the Rocket, 50 goals could very well be the low-water mark. And given Laine has 17 games remaining in his campaign, he would have to go on a near goal-per-game tear and register 15 goals to end the season. That's not entirely out of the realm of possibility — Malkin and Patrice Bergeron both scored 15-plus goals in 17-game spans in recent weeks — but there are a few hurdles facing Laine.

First, Laine has had the benefit of a Midas-like touch. He’s scoring on everything from everywhere, shooting at 45.5-percent efficiency since mid-February. That's ridiculously high and unsustainable – it's nearly three times his season and career average. We could reasonably expect his shooting percentage to come back down to earth over the next 17 games. So, for argument’s sake, let’s say Laine’s goals-to-shots rate dives down to 20 percent over the final month of the season. Scoring 15 goals would require Laine to take about 75 shots over the final 17 games of the season, or about four shots per game. 

For the game’s high-volume shooters such as Ovechkin, that kind of number isn’t out of the question. In fact, Ovechkin, Seguin, Nathan MacKinnon and even Laine’s teammates Nikolaj Ehlers and Blake Wheeler are in the four-shot range over their past eight games. But Laine’s shot volume isn’t all that close to that level. Across the eight-game streak that has him in the Rocket conversation, Laine has averaged less than three shots on goal per outing — 2.75, to be exact. At that volume, the lowest Laine’s shooting percentage could fall over the final 17 games it is roughly 32 percent. That’s a Herculean task even by the standards of the high-flying 1980s NHL.

Realistically, that would suggest Laine is at best a long shot for that Rocket despite his recent run. But even if Laine falls short of catching or surpassing Ovechkin, the Jets sniper will likely have achieved something remarkable. As noted earlier, at his current rate of scoring, he will score nine more times before season’s end and finish the campaign with 44 goals. That's significant for two reasons. 

At present, Laine has scored 71 goals as a teenager in the NHL and, as he's not set to turn 20 until mid-April, he stands to finish with 80 regular season goals before he leaves his teens. Doing so would make Laine the third-best teenaged goal-scorer in league history, as he has only recently surpassed Steve Yzerman’s mark of 69 goals as a teen and is on pace to eclipse the 75 goals scored by a teenaged Sidney Crosby and the 76-goal marks reached by Brian Bellows and Wayne Gretzky during their teens. At that point, only Dale Hawerchuk (85) and Jimmy Carson (92) would have scored more goals as a teenager than Laine.

Beyond that, though, Laine would enter a truly special club by firing home his 80th goal by the time he completes his sophomore season. In the post-lockout era, only two sophomores have finished their second season with 80 goals in their young careers: Ovechkin, who had 98 after the 2006-07 season, and Malkin, who completed his second year with exactly 80 tallies. Maybe more impressive is that Laine would join a group that, since 1990, has welcomed just five members. Besides Ovechkin and Malkin, Pavel Bure, Eric Lindros and Teemu Selanne are the only players to score 80 goals in the first two seasons since the 1990-91 campaign. Additionally, only 18 players in NHL history have managed to reach the mark, including Hall of Famers such as Gretzky, Hawerchuk, Mike Bossy, Mike Gartner, Mario Lemieux and Luc Robitaille.

So, while the Rocket may have to wait, Laine’s entrance into incredibly elite company seems to be on the horizon, and that would make for one heck of a consolation prize.

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