If you haven’t heard of Auston Matthews then you probably haven’t really followed Ice Hockey properly for the last year, or you just have very little interest (which is why you’ll have closed the web browser before finishing this paragraph.)
Matthews is the consensus number one pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft in Buffalo this summer, the 18-year old from Arizona took the unusual route of spending his draft year playing professional hockey rather than US or Canadian Junior, joining ZSC Lions where he registered 46 points in 36 regular season games for the Swiss side, proving his incredible abilities against men already.
So there’s been a lot return about this American centre who’ll likely be wearing an NHL sweater next season for whoever wins the draft lottery, but let’s get to know one of his closest competitors to be the number one selection on June 24th.
There’s two wingers from Finland who’ve been turning heads all year, and it looks like Patrik Laine from Tampere (and playing for his home town team Tappara) will be Matthews closest contender.
Laine has been tipped to go in the top 10 all year but his incredible year has seen him overtake fellow compatriot Jesse Puljujarvi to be the projected second overall pick this summer. In 46 regular season games, Laine put up 33 points in 46 regular season games, adding an extra four points in the Champions Hockey league, but it’s his post-season performance which has really skyrocketed the 18-year old sniper.
He notched 10 goals and five assists in 18 post-season games for the eventual Liiga champions with his goals the most by any player in the playoffs, helping him pick up the SM-Liiga Jari Kurri award given to the best player in the playoffs.
Laine was also instrumental in helping Finland to their fourth gold medal at the World Juniors where he put up 13 points in 7 games, including a goal and an assist in the gold medal game before Maple Leafs prospect Kasperi Kapanen netted the overtime winner to give the hosts the gold medal.
It’s all good talking about his stats, but how does Laine play?
Well he’s a pure goalscorer to say the least, while Puljujarvi is a more rounded two-way player, Laine is the flashy winger who’ll get the goals for you, drawing comparisons to St. Louis Blues winger Vladimir Tarasenko, and if he can bring his goalscoring talents to the NHL it won’t be long until a team rewards him with a similar contract to the one Tarasenko signed in July 2015.
At 6’4” and 209 lbs, Laine already has the build to survive in the NHL if he makes the jump immediately, and after posting 17 goals in the Finnish Elite League this season and a rookie high 33 points. While he probably won’t come in and straight away command a spot in the top 6 on his future employers, his wicked wrist shot and cannon one-timer could see him become a huge power play threat, something he and the Finns excelled at during the World Juniors, operating at 37.5% efficiency.
It will definitely be a last chance effort for Laine if he’s to overtake Matthews as the potential number one selection of whoever wins Saturdays NHL Draft Lottery, first he needs to be selected by Finland for the senior World Championships to give himself one last chance to prove his worth to NHL GMs.
Over the next few days it’ll become clear whether or not Finland coach Kari Jalonen has been impressed enough to bring Laine into the squad as Finland go searching for their first World Championships gold medal since they mounted a huge third period back in 2011, scoring five times on route to a 6 – 1 win over rivals Sweden.
Even if Laine doesn’t change the feeling over Auston Matthews heading into the draft, theres very little doubt that both players, along with potentially Jesse Puljujarvi will be the top three selections and have a very real chance at cracking an NHL line up come October.