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It didn’t take long for Patrik Laine to get his first goal of the 2018-19 season. Taking a pass from Mark Scheifele just above the high slot, Laine wired a wrist shot off the stick of Blues defenceman Colton Parayko and past Jake Allen just over four minutes into the first game of the season on Thursday night, helping the Jets go on to win 5-1.
The power-play marker was a prototypical Laine goal — hard shot from the high slot near the left-side faceoff dot that was preceded almost immediately by a cross-ice pass.
How easy Laine makes scoring look always makes me shake my head a little bit and I see in his shot the natural successor to Alex Ovechkin as the best goal scorer of his generation.
I don’t say that lightly, because I believe Ovechkin, when adjusting for era, is the greatest goal scorer in hockey history.
Ovechkin never had the chance to play in the NHL as a teenager, bursting onto the scene at 20 years old and scoring 52 goals.
Laine meanwhile, played the entirety of his first two regular seasons as a teenager, a rare thing in the NHL, and only two players in NHL history have scored more goals as a teen than his 80; fellow Winnipeg Jet Dale Hawerchuk with 85 from 1981-82 to 1982-83, and Jimmy Carson with 92 for the Los Angeles Kings from 1986-87 to 1987-88.
The difference between those years and the modern game though, is that Laine faces goaltenders every night that stop 91.3 per cent of shots on average. Hawerchuk faced goalies who stopped 87.4 per cent of shots and Carson faced goalies who stopped 88 per cent of shots. Let’s put that into context a little bit by looking at each player’s shooting percentage.
Both Carson and Laine are high-percentage shooters, but while Carson was a bit more than 150 per cent of a league-average shooter, Laine nearly doubles the league average shooting percentage, something that’s never really been done for a high-end goal scorer.
Most elite goal scorers in the NHL have accomplished their scoring with slightly above-average shooting percentages and a ton of volume, which no one did better than Ovechkin.
The first four years of Ovechkin’s career he averaged nearly 55 goals per season on 448 shots, scoring on just 2.33 per cent more of his shots on goal than league-average shooters.
From ages 20-24, could Laine score that often? So far he is averaging 235 shots on goal every 82 games, meaning he would have to score on 23.4 per cent of those to get to 55, so the shot volume would need to increase, but let’s look at how Laine shoots, overall.
What blows me away most about Laine’s shooting percentage is that so far in his career his shot locations aren’t crazily dangerous for a top-six forward, especially in his rookie season, when he was primarily a perimeter shooter who was beating goaltenders 15 per cent of the time from areas where the expected conversion rate was about four per cent.
As he’s gotten older, he has consistently moved his shot a bit closer to the net, making incremental improvements not just year over year, but as each season wore on.
While Laine was always a better shooter off the rush, he started getting far more involved in the cycle last season, and the Jets’ improved puck movement also helped him receive more passes in the slot that he could turn into goals.
Laine has also started to shoot from the perimeter less often, which has cut his average shooting distance from 11.3 metres out from the goal to 10.5, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but is the difference between the average Laine shot being from just outside the slot to just inside of it.
I don’t think it’s necessary for Laine to get more high-danger scoring chances. It’s not his game to fight for pucks around the net, but considering the fact that his 18 per cent shooting percentage appears to be sustainable, he could hit the 50-goal mark with as few as 280 shots per season.
If he continues to play like he did Thursday, ripping eight shot attempts at the net and five on it, he could be the first player to hit 70 since Alexander Mogilny and Teemu Selanne both did it in 1992-93.
That seems impossible in this day and age, but Laine is a unique talent, and considering what he was able to do in his teen years, don’t be surprised if he blows the doors off the league in his 20s.
Andrew Berkshire is a hockey writer specializing in data-driven analysis of the game.