On April 30, the Winnipeg Jets got a gift. It was not wrapped, it did not come in a box, there was no card attached; but this gift has the ability to change a franchise. This gift was a 6-feet-4-inch, 201 pound Finnish forward named Patrik Laine. On that day in late April, the Jets won the NHL Draft Lottery. Well, technically the Toronto Maple Leafs won, but it was the Jets who were the big movers on the draft board.
Heading into the night, the Jets were scheduled into the sixth spot, thanks to a big push which saw the Jets win four games in a row and gain nine of a possible 10 points in the month of April. Winnipeg played themselves out of the basement, and many thought, right out of a chance at one of the top picks in the draft. However, the hockey gods smiled at the way the Jets ended the season, and it appeared karma stepped in. Winnipeg’s numbers were picked, and fell second only to the Maple Leafs who entered the draft with the best chance of securing the first overall pick.
Laine or Matthews
What was at one point a three-man race to be the No. 1 overall pick seems to have dropped down to No. 2. All year, Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine and Jessi Puljujarvi have been competing and making their case to be this year’s top prospect. However, in the last couple months, Laine and Matthews have distanced themselves. Both of course had great World Championships, a tournament that Puljujarvi did not compete in, and Laine had a magical run in the Finnish league playoffs.
“After this season I think it’s really possible to go first. I want to be No. 1 because I want to show everybody that I want to be the best player in this draft.” –Patrik Laine
In fact, Laine’s play recently has opened up a discussion as to who the No. 1 pick should be later this month.
His confidence comes as a surprise to no one, and it was on full display when he spoke to Jonas Siegel of the Canadian Press, who compared the two going forward. For years now, this has been the Auston Matthews draft. The American centerman has been the man to watch the last couple seasons, like Connor McDavid, Aaron Ekblad, Nathan MacKinnon, and many before them, Matthews has been the No. 1 prospect for this draft class since his early teenage years. It was not until this winter’s World Junior Hockey Championships that the two Finns joined the discussion. While Puljujarvi dropped off a little bit, Laine built on that momentum, and since Christmas he has continued to close the gap.
Laine led his team to the Finnish Elite League Championship, where he dominated the playoffs, winning the postseason MVP. He then committed to Team Finland for the World Championships, where both he, and the team, looked unstoppable through most of the tournament. Though the Finns were finally stopped in the finals by Team Canada, Laine ended the tournament with seven goals and five assists in just 10 games and was named the MVP of the World Championships. Over the course of around two months, playing against men, Laine had been dominant, won a championship, won a silver medal and added some personal awards to his trophy case. Had he taken over from Matthews?
Some fan already got a Patrik Laine Jets jersey, does this mean the leafs get Matthews? pic.twitter.com/gwZ7jz78wY
— Beauty Status Hockey Co. ® (@BeautyStatusHky) June 7, 2016
The answer is no. Laine will not be the No. 1 pick. Matthews will be taken by the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Laine will come to Winnipeg and be a part of the Jets. This is to take nothing away from Laine, but more speaks to the skill of Matthews. Reading all of these accomplishments that Laine has amassed this season is impressive, but Matthews is no slouch either.
Matthews made the odd choice for a North American prospect by turning pro a year early. He did what very few have ever done and blazed a trail to Europe. Matthews played in the Swiss League, again not against juniors, but against professional men. His numbers were impressive, 46 points in 36 games, and while his stats in the World Championships were not as strong as Laine’s (six goals and nine points in 10 games), Matthews was playing on a far younger and weaker team. Look at the two rosters; Matthews was among the most well-known players on that American team, while Laine, although great, played alongside many other great players. The biggest difference between these two players is their position. If both were wingers this conversation is far closer, but with Matthews playing center, he adds a whole other desirable asset.
Franchise centerman do not come along everyday. Looking around the league right now, there are not many, but the teams that have that No. 1 guy down the middle are the teams that win. Look no further than the Stanley Cup Final right now: Crosby vs. Thornton. Two of the best in the game. Stamkos, Tavares, Toews — the list goes on, but every elite team has an elite centerman, and the Leafs will hope that they have found theirs. Though you can never be sure, that chance is too big to pass up, no matter how good the next guy may be. So strap in Jets fans, and get excited for Patrik Laine. He’s yours now.
Born and raised Winnipeg sports fan and contributor with The Hockey Writers.