Photo Credit: Bruce Fedyck/USA TODAY SPORTS
I think we can all agree that today’s National Hockey League is one essentially run by its young talent. The game is getting faster and more systems reliant, meaning that those with the quickest skilled reflexes to break through holes are the ones that are reaping the rewards.
But in a season of youth, only one name matters.
Patrik Laine has broken hockey. He is what we’ve all been waiting for, a player who is scoring like no player has ever scored before, especially not a rookie. It is a one of a kind performance watching him pick corners and dazzle crowds with a remarkable 21.8% efficiency in his cannon. That’s a very high number, one that if sustained, puts him on pace for third all-time and first among active players by a considerable margin (yeah, I wouldn’t have guessed Alex Tanguay as the active leader either, but at 1.4 shots a game, he might be the pickiest shooter we’ve ever seen).
His teammates seem to think it’s possible that he can sustain it, pumping his tires whenever asked. The fans seem to believe it, pointing out that the last time someone did this in Winnipeg, Teemu Selanne broke the rookie goals record.
As you probably won’t recall, Selanne went on an absolute tear right around the time he broke the record and took stick-rifle shots at his flying glove. Just look at this stretch!
Most impressive there is that shooting percentage. 31.7%! Maybe he should’ve traded celebrations with Alex Ovechkin; that twig of his was definitely on fire. Especially when you consider that, after 76 in 84 happened, Selanne “only” shot at 14.6% for the rest of his career. So weird, right?
It’s actually pretty common, even in recent times. “Nobody has ever done this before” is a heck of a lot of recency bias; it’s happened to rookies who have become great, and rookies who were also-rans by their third year. Let’s take a look at some more examples:
Man, Bobby Ryan looked like he was going to be a bust for a while, forever known as “that guy picked after Sidney Crosby”. But then he really showed us in his rookie year, having a stretch where he scored like nobody has ever scored before. In his years since, he’s… not quite repeated that 51 goal pace, but has been a relatively good Tier-2 winger for Anaheim and Ottawa that shoots at about 12%.
Evgeni Malkin’s first few games were something to behold; ones that made is go “welp, the Penguins are here faster than we thought they’d be”. He scored like no rookie has ever scored before, giving us “Shades of Mario” and everything. He slowed down afterwards but made up for it with assists, and for the rest of his career, has been a consistent but not as dominant shooter. It didn’t matter, though, because as he went back to normal, a third Penguins centre went on a run..
Save some for the rest of us, Jordan! Staal’s run in his rookie year, where he actually finished the season with a league-leading 22.1% shooting percentage and seven shorthanded goals, made us think that maybe we had underestimated the whole Staal family. That 31 game stretch didn’t just make us all buy into the Penguins having three elite centres, but that Marc and Jared must’ve been better than they were and that any cold streak Eric had would come along. It propped up four players on four teams. Jordan Staal has shot 10.9% since.
Jordan plays in Carolina now, where Eric called home before signing with Minnesota. But hey, that’s where Jeff Skinner is! You remember Jeff Skinner, right? He made the Canes in his Draft+1 year, and had 63 points! Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin, the 1st and 2nd overall picks from that draft only had 64 combined; people were starting to wonder if maybe Skinner was the real crown jewel of the draft.
His career high since is 54 points. Still quite good, but Taylor Hall is the second or third-best left winger on earth and Tyler Seguin is a dominant centre in Dallas. Interestingly, Skinner is the only one who stayed with the team who drafted him, but Peter Chiarelli hasn’t had his hands on the Hurricanes yet.
Or hey, remember when Petr Prucha and the late Marek Svatos scored mad goals in 2005/06? Yeah, most don’t; these two faded into hockey obscurity shortly after. Neither came close to these plateaus ever again, and took advantage of a sudden spike in goals per game after the lockout and found areas to park themselves on the powerplay, scoring goals like nobody has before.
Michael Grabner is making headlines this year for scoring 12 goals in 20 games, firing at a 26.1 SH% that’s made Leafs fans jump out of their seats and scream “WHERE WAS THIS ON EVERY BREAKAWAY EVER?”. Grabner was extremely self-aware of his shooting percentage struggles in recent years, taking to Twitter to make fun of his… actually still slightly above league average 9.2% from 2014 to 2016. But it felt like less, especially after his 34 goal rookie season in 2010/11, which included this over a goal per game stretch that was unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.
Conversely, sometimes even the top rookie forward in the draft doesn’t score sometimes.
|Year||Player||Goals||Longest Drought||5+ Droughts|
|2004||Alex Ovechkin||52||6 Games||3 (6, 5, 6)|
|2005||Sidney Crosby||39||7 Games||4 (7, 5, 5, 5)|
|2006||Jordan Staal*||29||10 Games||3 (5, 10, 7)|
|2007||Patrick Kane||21||14 Games||5 (6, 14, 9, 8, 6)|
|2008||Steven Stamkos||23||13 Games||5 (8, 13, 11, 6, 7)|
|2009||John Tavares||24||17 Games||5 (5, 6, 9, 17, 6)|
|2010||Taylor Hall||22||7 Games||4 (7, 7, 5, 6)|
|2011||Ryan Nugent-Hopkins||18||12 Games||4 (5, 12, 5, 11)|
|2012||Nail Yakupov||17||16 Games||2 (9, 16)|
|2013||Nathan Mackinnon||24||10 Games||4 (7, 5, 10, 7)|
|2014||Sam Reinhart*||23||13 Games**||5 (13, 6, 10, 6, 8)|
|2015||Connor McDavid||16||7 Games||3 (5, 5, 7)|
Staal being on both lists is a great example of how finicky this stuff is; as is Yakupov, who finished the season with 17 goals in 81 shots, a total that matched similar flame-out prospect Fabien Brunnstrom a few years prior and lines up closely with Laine’s current run of 17 in 78 (albeit, in many fewer games played).
So What Does This Mean?
I’m not a huge fan of the constant pitting of Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine against each other. That made sense, as someone who primarily writes the about the Toronto Maple Leafs, as a discussion point from the day the lottery was won until Draft Day, because the pick was still to be determined and there’s an understandably big focus on making the most of your assets.
Now that they’re on different teams, though, it really doesn’t matter. There’s nothing to be gained from justification now; being better than the other is great for social media arguments but when you want to win hockey games, the focus is on the player you have being the best version of themselves that they can be.
I wonder if we’re doing a disservice to both players by putting so much emphasis into how hot or cold their sticks are in the infancy of their careers. Laine clearly has an extremely good shot, one that will stack up with some of the best of the last generation or so. But even those guys don’t shoot at 22%; Alex Ovechkin, Laine’s idol, is a career 12.4%. Ilya Kovalchuk, who’s play style he perhaps actually mirrors most, shot at 14.1% in his NHL career. Phil Kessel, with the deadliest snapshot in the game, fires at 10.8%. Steven Stamkos, who may have most purely great shot that hockey has seen in it’s history to date, flies in at 17.1% – after shooting at just 6.3% in his first 50 NHL games!
The best scorers aren’t defined by shooting percentage. Players who load in shooting percentage are usually the ones who are picky and grab occasional rebounds in front of the net. Tyler Bozak was a 20% shooter in the Randy Carlyle era of the Leafs because he’d do this with Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk. Elite scorers are the players who can shoot from anywhere, do a lot of shooting from everywhere, and still manage to eclipse the league average shooting percentage. In many respects, the 12% scorer who takes five shots a game is better than the 21% scorer who takes two.
Laine will become that guy in due time, I’m sure; he’s too good of a shooter not to at least attempt it. But he’ll have to work on his skating and his positioning to make that happen, and just as importantly, not get psyched out by people screaming Selanne and Sustainable into his ear every day; a challenge in its own right. Tell a person they’re invincible enough and they start to worry about backing that claim up. That could become a problem for Laine, especially when many of these initial tallies have come from lower percentage areas.
The same level of over-expectation crosses over a province east to Matthews. Despite putting up borderline elite possession numbers while scoring at a 36 goal, 62 point pace as a 19-year-old, we’ve seen the media talking about him “hitting walls” and running out of gas whenever he goes quiet for a few games, and second guessing as to whether the Leafs made the right decision. But even he’s shooting at a relatively normal 11.8% shooting percentage; one that feels like it could be more due to his knack for getting into the higher danger areas.
Ultimately, we’re looking at two spectacular players who couldn’t fit the organizations they joined any better. The Leafs live for creating close range opportunity and battling for pucks they don’t have, and Matthews looks to be the ultimate physical specimen for driving that. The Jets have an immensely creative forward core that can cycle the puck like nobody’s business but lacked a forward who could make a habit of regularly burying trickier shots, and Laine’s that and then some. I believe that both teams were happy with the draft order, because they both got to pick the best player for them while still picking the best all-around player available.
By trying to make judgement calls on these two players based on how lucky they’ve been with their shots, you’re doing a disservice to both of them. Great players have gone cold, even as rookies. All sorts of different players have gone hot; even at their very beginnings. By labelling Laine’s run as historic and something that only he can do, you run the risk of putting massive pressure on him and his manufactured rival the second they go into a slump.
Unless Laine really is the best goal scorer in hockey history by a significant margin, that time will come soon, and I worry that he’ll get demonized for something completely normal and statistically expected. Hopefully, it doesn’t come to that. Or, even better, I hope he’s actually broken hockey because even my overly cautious self is enjoying the hell out of his run.