For as long as I can remember, there has always been some form of competition between the players drafted first and second overall. Every player in his draft year wants to be the one to hear his name called out first so that he can walk up the steps and throw on the jersey of his new team for the first time.
There is a certain pride associated with being the No. 1 overall selection. Sometimes, there is a huge debate over which player should go first overall. Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin back in 2010 was a spirited contest that saw Hall go first overall to the Edmonton Oilers, while Seguin went second to the Boston Bruins.
Six years later, both have now changed teams. Hall is now a New Jersey Devils forward and Seguin patrols the ice for the Dallas Stars. The debate still rages on about which is better, with many giving a slight edge to Seguin at this point in time. Don’t forget all the talk about Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel during their selection year, as well.
Last year’s draft saw the top selection go to the Toronto Maple Leafs. The franchise had only picked first overall once and that pick resulted in Leafs great Wendel Clark. This time around, they went with Auston Matthews, the centre who spent his draft year playing in Switzerland. The Winnipeg Jets then selected hulking and extremely talented winger Patrik Laine second overall.
A couple months into both of their young careers, there is already a huge controversy about which player is better. The debate should be a non-factor, and I’m going to break down why.
They Play Different Positions and Styles
Both of these players play an extremely different position. Matthews is a centre and Laine is a winger. Anyone who has played or watched hockey before knows that both of these positions come with an incredibly different set of expectations. A centre is expected to take faceoffs for his team, something Matthews is learning how to do at the NHL level. Laine has none of that responsibility.
Both players are deployed very differently by their respective coaches. Laine is in a great situation out in Winnipeg, as he has had the opportunity to flank established NHL centres like Bryan Little and Mark Scheifele. He’s also a dangerous weapon on the power play that loves to filter pucks to the top of the dot where Laine waits for the one-timer.
There will be games where Matthews plays better than Laine and seasons where Laine plays better than Matthews and vice-versa.
— Jonah Hoyos (@HoyosJonah) December 13, 2016
Matthews has spent most of his ice time paired with Zach Hyman and a combination of William Nylander and Connor Brown. These players are not scrubs, but Winnipeg takes an edge in talent on this one. Matthews has also been given power-play time and rarely looks out of place.
Mike Babcock is a smart coach. He wants to win this season, but he’s also in the process of developing the young talent on the Maple Leafs. That is his priority. He is making sure that Matthews is a legitimate two-way presence for years to come. Learning to play centre is hard enough and Babcock wants to make sure his young charge has every opportunity to succeed.
Too many people look at goals and assists as an indicator of who is the better player. Sure, goals and points are definitely nice, but they often don’t tell the whole story. As it currently stands, Laine has 17 goals and 25 points in 32 games. That is an astounding pace for the rookie, who has one of the most lethal releases in the NHL today. Matthews has 13 goals and 22 points in 28 games so far this season.
Whenever Matthews is on the ice, he generates a bevy of chances and shots. He is currently generating 3.6 per game whereas Laine sits further back at 2.6. Laine has been able to convert on 20.2 percent of his shots, which is an insane amount for the young Finn. However, that shooting percentage is simply unsustainable.
I’m not knocking Laine here. He has a fantastic shot and has used it to perfection in his first NHL season. If your goal scoring is solely dependent on your release, sooner or later you will fall into a slump once your percentage comes back down to earth. You can have the best release in the world and simply not score every game. Phil Kessel, when he was with the Maple Leafs, was a prime example.
On the flip side, Matthews is converting his chances at a rate of 12.4 percent. That is well within a level of sustainability. Matthews has an above-average shot and loves to create chances in close with it. He scored a goal against the San Jose Sharks this year by faking the pass and quickly slipping one past an unsuspecting Martin Jones.
It’s Not A Debate
The debate should be moot. Both players are fantastic talents that are primed to have exciting careers. Both are completely different players who line up in different positions and are in vastly different situations.
Laine is a terrific winger with a shot as gorgeous as it is dangerous. He has speed to burn and is already racking up goals for his highlight reel. Matthews is on his way to becoming a two-way threat and has already impressed with his passing and ability to generate shots and chances. Elite centers are an extremely valuable commodity. Just ask Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews and Anze Kopitar.
It’s way too early to declare one player better than the other. It’s time to sit back and watch how both develop this year and in the coming seasons.