His former coach was a bit worried.
It was a week before the start of the season and Jussi Tapola, who had coached Patrik Laine in Finland’s top league, was talking about pressure, expectations and why some players follow up one good year with a bad one. Basically, he was talking about the sophomore slump.
A year ago, Laine and Toronto’s Auston Matthews — the No. 2 and No. 1 picks in the 2016 NHL Draft — had taken the league by storm as rookies. As they entered Year 2, some were predicting Laine would score 50 goals and that Matthews, who had won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, would challenge for the scoring title.
Tapola, meanwhile, was thinking back to 2014-15, when Laine was dropped down to Finland’s second league and assigned a mental coach after failing to meet his — and everyone else’s — expectations.
“Nobody expected him to do this. There was no pressure of scoring goals and leading the team,” Tapola said of Laine’s first year in the NHL. “But now when he gets the pressure, the mental side of his game is at a whole new level in the second season with everyone now expecting him to score and continue everything. Now we will see what progress we made with the coaching and see how he manages that pressure.”
It’s safe to say that Laine, who has 43 goals this season, has avoided the sophomore slump. And he’s not the only one.
The Winnipeg Jets star is on pace to hit the 50-goal mark and trails Alex Ovechkin by two goals in the Rocket Richard Trophy race. But he isn’t the only one providing fans with an encore performance.
There hasn’t been a one-hit wonder like former Calder Trophy winners Andrew Raycroft or Steve Mason. No one has taken a step backwards like Jeff Skinner did when he followed up a 31-goal rookie season with just 20 goals the following year.
If anything, this year’s sophomores have built on what they did as freshman.
Matthews, who will go head-to-head against Laine and the Jets visit Toronto on Saturday, headed into Friday night’s game against the New York Islanders with 30 goals and 54 points in 57 games. Despite missing 20 games because of injury, he is still tied for fifth in the league with 28 even-strength goals and producing at a better per game rate (0.95 points) than he did a year ago (0.84).
Toronto’s Mitch Marner, who had 61 points last season, has already surpassed that total with a team-leading 67 points. Since the All-Star break, only seven players have produced more. Teammate William Nylander is four points back of the 61 he scored last season, but his plus-17 rating is an improvement over the minus-3 he recorded as a rookie.
Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen went from scoring 38 points as a rookie to 80 points in his second season. Tampa Bay’s Brayden Point had a 22-point increase, while Carolina’s Sebastian Aho had a 14-point increase and Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk had an 11-goal increase.
Toronto’s Connor Brown, who has 14 goals, won’t replicate the 20-goal season he had with the Leafs last year. But it’s not so much a slump as it is a reflection of diminished ice time and opportunity with the addition of Patrick Marleau.
And yet, this wasn’t necessarily a smooth road for last year’s rookies.
Matthews has been sidelined by two different injuries and Marner, who spent time earlier in the season on the fourth line, admitted that he was frustrated when the points weren’t piling up in the first half of the year.
Even Laine struggled. For the first month of the season, the pressure to replicate his rookie totals seemed to be weighing heavily on the teenager’s shoulders. He had four goals on 30 shots in October. And after going four games without finding the back of the net, he told reporters, “It feels like hockey is really hard right now.”
Of course, Laine followed up that four-game drought with a five-game goal streak.
“He puts pressure on himself because I think he enjoys it in some ways,” Jets head coach Paul Maurice told reporters in November. “Filleting himself in front of the world — in the hockey world — somehow gets him going, it drives him. So when he’s not playing well, he’s angry and grumpy. And then he played a little bit harder. So he gets a little bit snarly in the game and things start going for him.”
With 12 goals in his last 14 games, things are definitely going for Laine now. It should bode well for the playoffs. And if you think this season was good, just wait to Year 3.
Auston Matthews, Toronto
82 GP 40 G 29 A 69 Pts
57 GP 30 G 24 A 54 Pts
Patrik Laine, Winnipeg
73 GP 36 G 28 A 64 Pts
77 GP 43 G 25 A 68 Pts
Mitch Marner, Toronto
77 GP 19 G 42 A 61 Pts
77 GP 21 G 46 A 67 Pts
William Nylander, Toronto
81 GP 22 G 39 A 61 Pts
77 GP 17 G 38 A 55 Pts
Sebastian Aho, Carolina
82 GP 24 G 25 A 49 Pts
73 GP 27 G 36 A 63 Pts
Matthew Tkachuk, Calgary
76 GP 13 G 35 A 48 Pts
68 GP 24 G 25 A 49 Pts
Brayden Point, Tampa Bay
68 GP 18 G 22 A 40 Pts
77 GP 28 G 34 A 62 Pts
Mikko Rantanen, Colorado
75 GP 20 G 18 A 38 Pts
76 GP 27 G 53 A 80 Pts
• Email: [email protected] | Twitter: @Michael_Traikos