Alright, let’s face it. Auston Matthews is going first overall in this year’s NHL Entry Draft. He’s a big boy with incredible skill and vision and already has professional experience. He’s the blue-chip centreman that is so highly sought but rarely found, a piece the Leafs have been missing for about decade (you did your best, Tyler Bozak). He’ll be the first name called in Buffalo because he fills a serious hole in our roster, not because he’s the sole player worthy of the honour. Had the ping pong balls landed differently, winger Patrik Laine could’ve been the first Finnish player taken number one.
I’ll briefly touch on common knowledge. Auston Matthews (6-foot-2, 216-pounds) spent the 2015-16 season with the with the Zürcher Schlittschuh Club (ZSC) Lions in Switzerland’s top hockey league, National League A. For years, scouts have almost unanimously ranked him atop this year’s draft class; The Hockey News, Sportsnet, NHL Central Scouting – European Skaters, and 8 of 10 TSN scouts even held him there at season’s end (10 of 10 TSN scouts had him there at the mid-season rankings). While all eyes were on Matthews, Laine (6-foot-4, 201-pounds) quietly developed with Tappara Tampere of the Liiga, Finland’s highest professional hockey league.
When being compared to Matthews, one of Laine’s biggest disadvantages is his age. Laine just turned 18 on April 19th (born 1998) and played all but four games this year as a 17-year-old. Those four games were all in the championship series, where he recorded 1 goal and 2 assists en route to winning the Kanada-malja. Matthews, on the other hand, couldn’t start the season with Zurich until his 18th birthday (he was born September 17th, 1997). His 46 points (36 GP, 24 G, 22 A) this year all came at a draft eligible age while the 17-year-old professional Laine put up 33 points (46 GP, 17 G, 16 A) in an arguably superior league.
The seven-month age gap is nearly a full season of development on the hockey calendar. At 17, Matthews wasn’t playing men. He was playing other teenagers in the United States Hockey League (American major junior). Yes, Matthews had an exceptional season ([24 GP, 20 G, 28 A] for the USNTDP Juniors in the USHL, 116 points [60 GP, 55 G, 61 A] for the U.S. National U18 Team apart of the United Stats Development Program) which surely helped him get to the NLA, but Laine was already playing against men at that age. In fact, while he played most of his 16-year-old season in Finland’s second-tier pro league (36 GP, 5 G, 7 A), he did play 6 games for Tappara and recorded one assist. He’s been playing fully-grown men for two years already, and we can only speculate how good he’d be with another seven months of development.
As he aged, his game and his production have improved. Guys like Laine’s Tapparra teammate Nick Plastino have seen him become the sniper that he is, and doesn’t have to speculate about what he’s becoming. “At first, to be honest, he didn’t stand out to me … I didn’t know anything about him and he just looked like a young kid. But during the season, he definitely showed signs of being a special player.”
Laine’s playoff numbers proved his progression. While he put up impressive 0.71 PPG during the season, his productivity shot up to 0.833 PPG in the playoffs (18 GP, 10 G, 5 A), highlighted by scoring the opening goal in the cup-clinching sixth game. Matthews’ playoff rate took a big bump compared to from his season production (4 GP, 4 G, 3 A for a 1.75 playoff PPG, up from his season’s PPG of 1.27) but his playoff numbers are a small sample size. His four games were all losses during Zurich’s quarterfinals sweep to eventual Swiss Cup winners, Bern.
It’s an arbitrary comparison, sure, but Laine’s playoff success did stretch much further than Matthews’. As well as a Championship, Laine was given the Jari Kurri Trophy as playoff MVP. The difference between him winning it compared to winners past – a list that includes Saku Koivu, Niklas Backstrom, Olli Jokinen, and Joonas Donskoi – is that Laine was the youngest player ever to do so. Matthews finished second in MVP voting.
Comparing two different players at two different ages, playing two different positions in two different leagues is a severe “apples and oranges” situation. Let’s put all that aside for a more common – albeit, still arbitrary – denominator: their results from the 2016 IIHF World Junior and World Championship tournaments.
In 7 games at the Juniors, Laine had 13 points (7 G, 6 A) and Matthews had 11 (7 G, 4 A). Each was named a Tournament All-Star, a “Top 3 Player on a Team,” and tied for most goals (7). What really separated the two was was Finland’s gold medal to USA’s bronze.
After winning on the international stage, Plastino saw something new in Laine. “He definitely turned a corner with that junior tournament. You could just see it with his play. He was braver with the puck. He wanted to make plays rather than just dump it in. He trusted his abilities more.”
Five-ish months later at the World Championship, his new bravery showed. Both prospects were again named a “Top 3 Player on a Team,” but Laine was also named to the tournament All-Star Team, named Best Forward, and was the youngest player ever to be the tournament MVP. Matthews had a very respectable 9 points (10 GP, 6 G, 3 A) which landed him 13th in tournament scoring. Laine’s 12 points (10 GP, 7 G, 5 A) tied Mikael Granlund for the team lead, ahead of teammates Mikko Koivu, Jussi Jokinen, and Aleksander Barkov. Laine tied for 4th in tournament scoring, en route to Finland’s silver medal.
It’s an impressive showing, and trophy display, for someone still expected to go second in Buffalo.
We know that Laine’s good on the larger ice surfaces, but we don’t know how that’ll translate onto a smaller NHL rink. It’s certainly worth noting, especially when comparing him to a guy who learned to play on North American ice. We’ll have to wait to see what the switch does to his hands and timing, but one unnamed scout doesn’t think Laine will get knocked off the puck “You watch (Alex) Ovechkin run over (Sean) Couturier (in the playoffs) … That’s the way this kid (Laine) does it. If he doesn’t score, he’ll still hit you” (THN 2016 Draft Preview, p. 28).
Rink size and stats aside, both players hold a lot of intangibles.
It was once an inconceivable thought expecting Laine to become the a mature, young man he is now. At 16, he was sent home from the 2014 Ivan Hlinka tournament for giving his coach the finger and (allegedly) threatening to murder him. That doesn’t sound like someone you’d want to draft, ever, but he says he’s come a long way since that moment.
“I wish I hadn’t said those words, but I’m also glad it happened,” he says. “It showed me the bad side of the media and being in the public eye at a very young age. It was a lot to handle for a 16-year-old. But it helped me grow as a person and a player. As you get older, you think about things from a different angle. Now I know you can’t do any of those things. It was an accident that I’ve put behind me. But it taught me about myself and the media.”
Also mentioned in that article is NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb, who agrees that was a defining moment for Laine. Stubb says the young Finn has grown up.
“He was just a boy,” Stubb said. “Now he’s a man … I’ve watched him play a lot of hockey and I’ve talked to people from his hometown and they say good things about him. I spent some time with him on the flight from Finland to Buffalo and I saw a polite young man who has matured.” The Hockey New’s Ken Campbell also says Laine has done a lot of maturing since that fateful tournament.
Growing up wasn’t the only thing he did to prepare for June 24th. Laine practices his shot every day to be more like Ovechkin and he wants to show the world that he’s “the best player in this draft.”
None of that is to say Matthews isn’t too a determined, skilled, and mature young man, but surely has the upper hand on one intangible. The Finn’s entertaining interviews aren’t a make-or-break drafting quality – obviously – but how nice would it be for fans who are bored of generic statements and media avoidance (although I don’t blame Phil) to wake up to this on SportsCentre:
He’s like a cooler, less crazy Ilya Bryzgalov. With a guy like this talking during the intermissions, we’d never “hefta be mad.”
Despite all of this, it will still be Auston Matthews who is selected first overall in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft. He’s a “well-rounded,”franchise center,”superstar” that the Leafs direly need (THN Draft Preview 2016). Had a team with a lot more centre depth won the draft lottery, it’d be Laine going first. If Toronto already signed a number one centre this offseason (STAMMER?!), management would want Laine. Hell, if William Nylander or Mitchell Marner were big enough to play centre in the NHL, Lou and Shanahan would be hungry for an all-star linemate for both of them.
I’ll put it this way. In 1999-2000, centre Mats Sundin helped winger Jonas Hoglund to a career-high 56 points. Hoglund’s career Points Per Game average was 0.48. In 4 season with Sundin and the Leafs, he had a 0.56 PPG.
Playing alongside Mats, Mikael Renberg had 52 points in 2001-02 (0.71 PPG in 3 seasons with Sundin. Standout rookie year aside [83 GP somehow, 82 points in 1993-94], his career PPG was 0.66) and Nik Antropov had 56 points in 2007-08 (0.64 PPG in 8.5 seasons Leafs, career 0.59 PPG).
Sundin had 73, 80, and 78 points in those years respectively.
Winger Phil Kessel’s three career-high point totals were 82 points in 2011-12, 80 in 2013-14, and 64 in 2010-11. He played with centre Tyler Bozak who had 47, 49, and 32 points in those years, respectively.
Great centremen make the players around them better. Sniping wingers are only as good as their tools.
Edmonton-based Finnish hockey writer Jouni Nieminen explains it best: Toronto is “right to draft Matthews,” because “they need a centre and he’s a cornerstone player. But I don’t think anyone should be surprised if one day they look at Laine and wish they had him. He may turn out to be a very special player in the NHL.”
You’re welcome Winnipeg, you’ve never had to make an easier decision.