St. Patrik Laine has Jets looking like perennial contender
By STEPHEN WHYNO
The Winnipeg Jets can thank their own St. Patrik for their success this season and potentially for years to come.
Patrik Laine was the consolation prize in the 2016 NHL draft behind generational talent Auston Matthews. But he has been a cause for celebration in Winnipeg as a franchise-changing superstar at age 19.
Mathieu Perreault saw the power Alex Ovechkin had to alter the direction of the Washington Capitals and turn them into a perennial playoff team and Stanley Cup contender. When Laine arrived from Finland, the winger started doing the same things in Winnipeg.
"The organization wasn't having a whole lot of success, and then they get Ovi as a young kid and he starts scoring goals, and all of a sudden the team starts winning," Perreault said.
"They became a very dominant team for many years. So you kind of sense that here, where the team's been struggling for many years, not making the playoffs. And then you get this young kid coming in and scoring goals for your team and helps your team win games. I think coming up in Winnipeg we'll have a dominant team for many years."
That's because Laine is already a dominant player. With 16 goals and eight assists in his past 14 games, Laine has the longest point streak by a teenager and already passed Wayne Gretzky for the most goals by a player before turning 20.
The best part for the Jets? Laine is just getting started.
"It's really impressive when you factor in he's still learning the game," coach Paul Maurice said. "His scoring has taken off of late, but so has his game, his all-around game. ... He's an impressive young man at 19. At any age, those numbers would be elite. But at 19, that's pretty exciting because there's lot of room as he physically matures, for his game to change and become a power forward and a big, strong man who can score off the rush. Take pucks to the net. There are lots of places Patty is going to improve over the years."
Laine is drawing comparisons to Ovechkin for his shot, which teammates and opposing goaltenders say is even more deceptive than the Russian 600-goal scorer 's blast. Capitals goaltender Philipp Grubauer, who has taken Ovechkin shots in practice for years, said Laine's long stick changes the angle of where the puck is going.
"He shoots it, he pulls it in a little bit weird - long stick - and makes it really hard for us to read," Grubauer said.
As much as Laine looked up to Ovechkin as a kid, the respect is now mutual. When Ovechkin scored twice Monday to reach 600 and get to 42 this season, Laine answered with his 41st and showed he has what it takes to go goal-for-goal with hockey's best.
"He's a great talent and still young and still can produce lots of dangerous (chances)," Ovechkin said.
Laine said it has always been a goal to win the Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy as the league's top goal scorer, and he's in the race to do that. Entering Saturday, he's one behind Ovechkin and one ahead of Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin.
"It's always been one of my dreams to win it," Laine said. "It's good motivation for me."
Laine is also motivated by trying to help set the Jets up for the playoffs and make a long run this spring. Winnipeg has been banged up and secondary scoring has been hot and cold, but Laine's scoring pace has his teammates believing anything is possible.
"You give him one opportunity and it's in the back of the net," Perreault said. "Right now every shot it seems goes in. It helps us win games when he scores like that. It's been fun to see."
Maurice doesn't know what he sees as Laine's ceiling, but doesn't think it matters. As Laine's game rounds out, he'll face different kinds of defensive challenges, and then it'll be up to him to prove he can sustain scoring the way Ovechkin has over the past decade-plus.
"The overall game Patty will play will become far more important than whether it's 40, 50 or whatever that number (of goals) ends up being," Maurice said.
"At some point, Patty is going to play 20 minutes a night. Maybe not at 19, but when that happens, he'll be playing against the `A' group. It's not as easy to keep scoring like Ovechkin has when you move up the lineup and you play more minutes and you play against the other teams' best."
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Updated March 17, 2018