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Laine could take aim at 50-goal mark with Blue Jackets this season

Playing on line with Gaudreau 'should hopefully bring out the best in me,' forward says

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

COLUMBUS -- The Columbus Blue Jackets have high hopes for Patrik Laine, thanks to a new contract, a strong offseason and the arrival of Johnny Gaudreau.

The forwards skated on the same line during the Blue Jackets' first day of training camp Thursday, with Laine on the right, Gaudreau on the left and Boone Jenner in the middle.

In theory, the formula is simple: An elite shooter in Laine plus an elite playmaker in Gaudreau equals lots of goals.

"Obviously, we'll have to see," defenseman Zach Werenski said. "Chemistry is a weird thing, right? But if they can build their chemistry pretty early in the season, I have no doubts [Laine] could touch 50 this year."

Fifty would be a feat.

Four players reached the 50-goal mark in the NHL last season: Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews (60), Edmonton Oilers center Leon Draisaitl (55), New York Rangers forward Chris Kreider (52) and Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin (50).

Laine's NHL career high for goals is 44, set in 2017-18 with the Winnipeg Jets. 

The Columbus record for goals in a season is 41, set by Rick Nash in 2003-04 and tied by Cam Atkinson in 2018-19.

Could Laine hit 41, 44 or more?

Laine said he had no numbers in mind, those milestones meant nothing to him, and his only goal is to be a better player than he was last season.

But he also said this with his trademark dry delivery: "Yeah, it would be fun to hit those marks. I just don't want to score 40. You know, been there, done that. I obviously want to reach high, and always got to kind of measure yourself, how good you can be."

 

[RELATED: Gaudreau focusing on new home with Blue Jackets, arrival of first child]

 

Laine hasn't necessarily been at his best in Columbus.

The No. 2 pick of the 2016 NHL Draft behind Matthews, Laine scored 36 goals in 2016-17 and finished second to Matthews for the Calder Trophy, which goes to the NHL rookie of the year as voted by the Professional Hockey Writers Association.

After his 44-goal second season, he scored 30 goals in 2018-19 and 28 in 2019-20. He scored two goals in one game for the Jets in 2020-21, then was traded to the Blue Jackets on Jan. 23, 2021.

He has scored 36 goals in 101 games since, including 26 in 56 games last season.

But Gaudreau could give Laine something he hasn't had. Gaudreau tied for second in the NHL with 115 points (40 goals, 75 assists) last season with the Calgary Flames and signed a seven-year, $68.25 million contract (annual average value $9.75 million) as an unrestricted free agent July 13.

"I think that's probably the best offensive guy I've ever had a chance to play with, no offense to anybody that I've played with," Laine said. "… It should hopefully bring out the best in me, and I'm obviously [going to] try to make the best I can to make it work and do what I can on the ice. Obviously, I think we can benefit each other out there."

Video: Top 5 Patrik Laine Plays from the 2021-22 Season

Laine signed a four-year, $34.8 million contract of his own as a restricted free agent July 22, giving him peace of mind.

"Hopefully now I can just relax, not in a bad way," he said, "but just playing more relaxed and at the same time work as hard as I've ever worked and approach it that way and hopefully get some more freedom out there and don't have to worry about that stuff." 

Laine said he wanted to pick it up even more in the offseason. He looks thinner, though that could be his new, close-cropped haircut.

"I've [gotten] so many chirps over the years for my hair, so I decided to cut it off, and we'll go with this," Laine said. "It's more aerodynamic, so I'll be hopefully quicker out there."

Seriously, though.

"Hopefully I got thinner," Laine said. "Hopefully it's not just the hair."

Asked if he's in the best shape of his life, the 24-year-old said, "I would say so." 

The Blue Jackets have noticed, all the way up to president of hockey operations John Davidson, who said, "It's like he's fired up about making a statement."

Werenski said Laine dominated informal skates.

"I've never seen Patty look this good," Werenski said. "He had a good summer. He's scoring on every shot. He's shooting with confidence. He's making plays with confidence. I think if you throw Johnny in there with him, [Gaudreau] can get him the puck as much as he gets other guys the puck. I can see [Laine] scoring 50, like, no problems."

Informal skates are one thing. NHL games are another.

But there is so much potential at even strength and on the power play. Laine said the Blue Jackets already are talking about who will play where on the power play, and the coaches are giving the players a lot of responsibility and freedom to lead it themselves.

"Obviously, [Laine is] a really, really smart player," Gaudreau said. "He can see the ice really, really well, and his shot's just off the charts. I kind of see myself as a pass-first guy, so hopefully I can find him somewhere in the slot or in the zone, and it'll probably go in if he has a second or two to get the shot off."

That's the plan. Now it's up to them to make it happen.

"On paper, you would think it should work, and obviously, I'm hoping for that as well," Laine said. "But like I've always said, good players always find a way to make it work, and I still consider myself as an all right player, so I'm sure we can find a way to make it work."

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