Patrik Laine and Auston Matthews are destined to be forever connected to one another as first and second overall picks in the same year. The only question now is in which order they will go.
Yes, what was once seemingly a crystal-clear decision for the Toronto Maple Leafs has gotten murkier in recent weeks, as suggestions begin to pour in from various corners of the hockey world that Laine has overtaken Matthews as the top prospect for this year’s entry draft. While some of this can be put down to the chatter of hopeful Winnipeg Jets fans, some of the chatter comes from sources too highly placed to simply shrug off.
McKenzie: A number of teams have told me their European scouts – all season long, not just playoffs – have had Laine ahead of Matthews.
— Chris Nichols (@NicholsOnHockey) May 3, 2016
And yes, if you’re wondering, the McKenzie being quoted in that tweet is Bob of TSN. When he speaks, people listen, and the hype train for Laine has been all but unstoppable. His recent scoring tear at the World Hockey Championship, which ranks among the best all time for 18-year olds, has only fueled the fire.
Most points (5) by a U18 in Laine at a single World Championship in 25 years (Jagr). All-time is 6 points.
— Corey Pronman (@coreypronman) May 8, 2016
By now Laine has tied the record set by Jaroslav Drobny in 1939, and he did so in four fewer games. In the modern era, the record is (was) held by Jaromir Jagr, who had five points in 10 games. Laine took just two games to better those totals.
Which leaves the Jets in something of a conundrum. The nature of picking second overall is you are totally dependent on the team picking first for your draft strategy, but Winnipeg had the enviable position of knowing more or less for certain who was going to be available, and that they would get an exceptional player anyway. Might that have changed? Might the Leafs do the unthinkable and pass on Matthews in favour of the skilled Finnish sniper?
A Perfect Problem
Before Leafs fans sharpen their pitchforks and light their torches and descend on my home in a furious mob, let me qualify that statement. First of all, if you’re a Leafs fan and you’ve been looking forward to drafting Matthews, you’re likely still safe. While some have worried the team might trade the pick, a worry quickly shot down by local columnists as unfounded, the team is likely keeping it. As for the Matthews vs. Laine debate, Matthews has the priceless and irrevocable advantage of being a natural centre. The Leafs have done a good job stockpiling wingers in their prospect cupboard, and the opportunity to give Mitch Marner and William Nylander a big, skilled centre like Matthews is almost certainly going to be too much for the Leafs to pass up. Still, Laine’s recent play has created some speculation.
As the Toronto Sun article points out, the decision between the two young men isn’t as clear cut as maybe it first appeared. Doubts are starting to creep in, though as is always the case, you wonder how much of that is generated by media and how much by scouts.
From a Winnipeg perspective, this represents a perfect problem. You don’t know which of the two world-class players is going to fall into your lap at No. 2. Say it ain’t so! That sound you hear is 28 other NHL teams playing tiny violins in the world’s smallest all-string orchestra.
The contest between Finland and the United States on May 9, which featured both young players, did not feature them at their best. Matthews didn’t generate much offense, though he did put up an assist, and while we did get to see Laine’s impressive shot on the power play, he saw very little ice time in the third period.
Matthews/Laine were both good not great today. Worst draft class in a century, TOR & WPG are doomed.
— Corey Pronman (@coreypronman) May 9, 2016
That said, it’s only one game, and it’s one game for 18-year olds against grown men in one of the most prestigious international tournaments of the year. Matthews has a very young team to work with. Laine had very little ice time to work with. Neither player was at their best on that day. Their stats from the rest of the tournament, and indeed the rest of the year, show that poor showing for the aberration that it is.
Both players have been alternately solid and stellar essentially the entire tournament, so one bad showing isn’t going to doom either of them. Really, all the Laine vs. Matthews hype of recent days has done is show the Jets that whoever they end up with, they’re going to be a better team for it.
There is no wrong answer to the question “Laine or Matthews?” and whatever answer the Leafs choose is going to give the Jets a chance at the other right answer. The Jets are going to get a tremendous player either way, and their unlikely lottery win could be a franchise-saving moment.
The only thing left to be determined is which franchise-altering player is going to slip on their jersey. It’s going to be hard to wait until June 24 to find out.