Puljujarvi vs. Matthews is the Wrong Debate

With mid-term ranking for the 2016 NHL draft slowly trickling out, the debate between Auston Matthews and Jesse Puljujarvi is gaining steam following Puljujarvi’s historic performance at the 2016 World Junior Championship.

After a performance like that, any NHL scout would be remiss to skip the conversation of Matthews vs. Puljujarvi. But it seems unlikely, barring an unexpected Matthews slump, that we’re going to see any shift atop the rankings.

Matthews was far from having a bad tournament, putting up impressive totals as well. Though it shouldn’t be ignored that Puljujarvi is a fair amount younger than Matthews, who only missed the cut off for the 2015 draft by a couple of days.

The debate we’re missing coming out of World Juniors is Patrik Laine vs. Puljujarvi for the number two overall spot. Laine may have done more than any other player over the last month to cement a positive perception of his play.

Matthews vs. Puljujarvi

What Puljujarvi did at World Juniors was astonishing. But it was just seven games against players around his own age. His 17 points in seven games was record-setting and helped him become the youngest player to be named MVP of the tournament. He posted more points than any U18 player besides Jaromir Jagr in 1990.

Outside of the tournament, both Matthews and Puljujarvi are playing in European pro leagues and, while the Finnish Liiga and NLA aren’t the exact same thing, there’s an easier comparison there than if one was playing major-junior.

In the NLA, Matthews is tied with Julien Sprunger as the league’s leading goal-scorer, despite the fact that he missed time with injury. He’s scored 19 goals in 26 games. Teams have played as many 39 games and he’s still in the lead. His 33 points in 26 games ranks 10th.

Add that he’s a center with a solid defensive game, using his size well, and he’s a dream scenario for many GMs.

Meanwhile, Puljujarvi hasn’t had that kind of success in Finnish Liiga play. For a 17-year-old, there’s nothing at all wrong with his six goals and 14 points in 36 games. He can hang with the best in the league, but he’s not turning in the dominant performance that Matthews is.

There’s an argument for Puljujarvi following World Juniors about showing up on the big stage. That’s true, but it hasn’t been universally true. He’s been notably absent in Champions League play, currently sitting with no goals and a single assist through 11 games, despite seeing power play time on the team’s second unit. (There’s a willingness to go with young players from the Karpat coach too, as 19-year-old Sebastian Aho centers the team’s top power play unit.)

With Matthews’s versatility, proven play against men and being a center, there aren’t many scouts who should come out of the debate favoring Puljujarvi. (And you’ll see that in the chart below.)

Laine vs. Puljujarvi

The debate we maybe need to have is whether Laine has not only become number three with a bullet in draft rankings, but whether he’s surpassed Puljujarvi.

Laine gets a little extra size on Puljujarvi and is a versatile player. Some scouts have even speculated that a team that drafts him might try him out at center. He’s 6-foot-4, 209 pounds at 17 and had a huge impact at World Juniors as well with a great shot and excellent physical play. His performance nearly equalled Puljujarvi’s offensively and may have been better in the defensive zone.

Laine is also seeing good time in the Finnish Liiga, playing for Tappara Tampere, where he’s out-pacing Puljujarvi with eight goals and 18 points in 27 games. Laine and Tappara have been knocked out of Champions League play, but his two goals and four points in eight games showed a continued ability to be present in big games, no matter the age of the competition.

The seeds of this debate are starting to appear already. Future Considerations scouting director Dan Stewart noted in advance of their mid-term ratings that Laine is approaching Puljujarvi (and that both are approaching Matthews). “Sure, Laine has the better shot, is a little more edgy physically and has shown an improved willingness to put forth an effort in his own zone, but Puljujarvi is a constant driver of the play wherever it is on the ice and just makes things happen.”

That last bit is likely a nod to Puljujarvi’s seemingly endless creativity, which can be hard to define. When he’s on the ice he has that special ability to see gaps and find ways to skate into them, move the puck through them or make himself visible to teammates using them.

But while Laine’s creativity may not be quite at the same level, he’s got incredible offensive ability and strength along the boards that could make him a real impact player in the NHL.

Talking about Laine’s talent with Sports Illustrated, Central Scouting’s Mark Seidel said, “He’s a pure scorer. He loves to shoot. He has a big body … [and he] showed some of the nastiness that scouts love.”

Heading Into the Stretch

The Puljujarvi vs. Matthews debate is worth having, but a result that favors Puljujarvi may be leaning too heavily on his World Juniors performance — which was spectacular. This isn’t to say that Puljujarvi isn’t a special player. He’s massively talented and dumbfounding-ly creative. But that debate may be ignoring a debate where there could genuinely be shake up near the top of the draft rankings.

Many rankings are placing Puljujarvi in second in a dead heat with Sarnia defenseman Jakob Chychrun, while Laine tends to be in the third or fourth slot. It’s an upward adjustment for Laine from the beginning of the season. But as all leagues move down the stretch into some big games and we get a full season of Matthews, Puljujarvi and Laine playing against men in Europe, Laine vs. Puljujarvi is a debate that should puck up and be monitored in the absence of a severe slump from Matthews.

Here’s a look at where rankings stand in advance of Tuesday’s release of NHL Central Scouting’s mid-term rankings.

Craig Button/TSN Future Considerations HockeyProspect.com ISS McKeen’s Hockey
Auston Matthews 1 1 1 1 1
Jesse Puljujarvi 2 2 3 2 5
Patrik Laine 4 3 2 4 4
Jakob Chychrun 2 4 5 5 3
Matthew Tkachuk 5 5 4 3 9
Alexander Nylander 6 6 13 6 7
Olli Juolevi 13 10 6 14 10

Puljujarvi highlights from Finnish Liiga play:

YouTube player

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