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NHL’s best players under age 25 for 2017: Goal machine Patrik Laine is No. 4

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The No. 2 pick in the 2016 NHL draft ranks No. 4 on our list of the game’s best young players.

Winnipeg Jets v Toronto Maple Leafs

Note: This is SB Nation NHL’s top 25 players under age 25 series! We’ll be covering each player from No. 25 to No. 1 over the next few weeks leading up to training camp time. See the complete list and information on how the rankings were compiled.

The 2016 Calder Trophy race should’ve been obvious given how good Auston Matthews was in Toronto, but Patrik Laine didn’t make it easy. The No. 2 pick in the draft blew up with 36 goals and 64 points to generate a heated, season-long debate over who was the NHL’s best rookie.

In the end, Laine didn’t get the hardware for his impressive performance, as the vast majority of voters sided with Matthews. Toronto making the playoffs behind its new star center while Winnipeg stumbled to another losing season likely has a lot to do with that.

But even without being the top rookie in his class, Laine still established himself as one of the very best young scorers in the league as an 18-year-old. He went toe-to-toe with players much older and more experienced than him. Only a select few are talented enough to make that kind of impact at such a young age. It’s usually a strong indicator for future superstardom.

There are still things Laine needs to work on. He’s a pure scorer at this point without a ton of other elements to his game. He doesn’t kill penalties or drive possession at even strength. He’s benefited from sharing the ice with great playmakers: Two of his most common linemates, Mark Scheifele and Nikolaj Ehlers, also made this Top 25 Under 25 list. The coaching staff also eased him in with an offensive-heavy role.

Still, few players get the opportunities Laine got at his age, and even fewer take advantage of them like he did. The list of players in NHL history who have scored as many goals as him at the same age can be counted on one hand.

The league has seen some pretty special scorers over the past few years, from Alex Ovechkin to Steven Stamkos to Vladimir Tarasenko. Laine is next in that lineage of guys with a special knack for putting the puck in the back of the net.

Past accomplishments

The Jets selected Laine with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2016 NHL draft, giving Matthews a run for the spot at the top of the class. He played his draft year with Tappara of the Liiga, Finland’s top professional hockey league, and recorded 33 points in 46 games.

Laine also turned heads in the international game representing Finland in 2016. He won gold at World Juniors after recording 13 points in seven games, then won silver with the senior team at the World Championships with 12 points in 10 games. He was held pointless at the World Cup of Hockey, but Laine was showing he belonged before he even played an NHL game.

Then came an age-18 season that goes down in the history books. Unlike Matthews, who turned 19 before his rookie year began, Laine played his entire debut season as an 18-year-old. In NHL history, only four players that age have scored more goals than Laine’s 36. Here’s the list, via Play Index:

1. Dale Hawerchuk, 1981-82 Jets, 45 goals
2. Sidney Crosby, 2005-06 Penguins, 39 goals
3. Steve Yzerman, 1983-84 Red Wings, 39 goals
4. Jimmy Carson, 1986-87 Kings, 37 goals
5. Patrik Laine, 2016-17 Jets, 36 goals

Yes, there are some caveats here. Matthews, Ovechkin, Mario Lemeiux, and others didn’t debut in the NHL until they were 19 or older. Wayne Gretzky scored 46 goals as an 18-year-old in 1978-79, but that was the Oilers’ final year in the World Hockey Association. The next season, Gretzky scored 51 goals as a 19-year-old in the NHL, and three years after that, he scored 92 goals (which still seems almost impossible).

But Laine’s performance at 18 years old is still special and a reason to be excited about what’ll come next.

Future impact

The Jets should continue to be one of the NHL’s best offensive teams for years with Laine, Scheifele, and Ehlers leading the show. There’s a lot of hype about the trio of young stars in Toronto, but Winnipeg has also assembled a group that should make opponents dizzy.

One area where Laine will need to progress to keep up his scoring level is shot generation. He took 2.79 shots per game last season, which is quite good, but not at the rate he’ll need to be a consistent 40-goal scorer. Last season’s top shooter, Brent Burns, took nearly four shots per game.

Laine may be an above-average shooter who can convert chances at a higher rate than lesser players, but he’ll have a hard time sustaining a 17.6 percent success rate. Among players to play at least 100 games in the past five seasons, only four of them have shot over 17 percent. One of them is Stamkos, who could be the comparable for Laine, but he’s also averaged 3.2 shots per game throughout his career.

Getting more minutes will be one way for Laine to up his shot volume, and improving his all-around game will be the easiest way to do that. However, he doesn’t come close to peers like Matthews, McDavid, and Jack Eichel in terms of generating even strength shots on goal. So he’ll need more than just extra playing time to take his production to the next level.

Is this ranking too high or too low?

It’ll be hard to claim this ranking is too low if Laine is racking up 40-plus goals every season. There are only a select few players in the entire league with the kind of scoring talent that he possesses, and there’s nothing more important in hockey than putting the puck in the back of the net.

But given that Laine is a pure scorer, there will also be a lot of pressure on him to get those numbers in order to make an impact. He won’t be helping the Jets on the penalty kill, and he still needs good playmakers to help put him in favorable positions to get scoring chances. Some superstars can be deployed in almost any manner and find ways to thrive. Laine may not be that kind of player, and if he’s not scoring like a madman, he won’t have the same impact.

Highest rank: No. 3
Lowest rank: No. 12