Going into the 2016 IIHF Men’s Worlds, the main storyline was the battle between Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine, and unfairly so. One tournament isn’t going to change the opinions scouts have spent years developing, nor should it, but many watch the spectacular goals Laine scores and start believing that, perhaps, the Leafs need a flashy winger instead of the reliable and strong centre. Patrik Laine has openly said that he would be extremely disappointed if he isn’t selected first overall, and is willing to do whatever he can to hear his name called first in June by Toronto while Auston Matthews has been very nonchalant about the draft, saying he’ll be happy to go to whichever team wants him (mind you he’s known for nearly 3 years that he’s been the decided best player in his draft class). I’m not saying that flashy wingers aren’t needed on a team to win championships. I’m saying that, in this draft, you simply can’t pass on THIS centre.
I had the privilege of watching both Matthews and Laine quite a bit over Christmas, and they’re both great. They’ll both have long, successful NHL careers. But, in my opinion, there really isn’t any doubt in my mind as to who the Leafs should be picking with their first overall choice. I watched Auston Matthews every day for two weeks, practices, morning skates, games – the works, you could say, and I can say with all certainty that the only other player I’ve seen in person that worked harder than him in practice, at his age, was Connor McDavid. That’s some pretty good company to be in. I’m a firm believer in the theory that players will have more success if they practice the same way they would play a game. Matthews does just this. In Finland, he underwhelmed in games – especially if you had expectations of seeing the highlight reel goals he had been scoring in Zurich all season. But what completely hooked me on how great he really is was the tenacity with which he practiced. He was always one of the first players on the ice, one of the last off. He went for it every shift, all in the name of getting better. That isn’t to say Laine’s lazy. He’s anything but. He was jaw dropping in the games I’ve seen, with the exception of the USA-Finland game at Mens Worlds, he’s just never hooked me in the way that Matthews has – at least not on his own. Laine with Puljujarvi and Aho was tantalizing, Laine on his own, offensively, is unreal – on a whole other level, but, in my opinion, simply not the absolute best option for the Leafs with their first overall pick in the upcoming June draft. I think Matthews would fit in better within the Leafs current prospect pool, and would help to fill a very important void that’s currently plaguing them. The need a strong centre. Matthew’s big frame, speed and ability to seemingly score at will is something they have needed for a long time.
But, for wandering minds, in this tournament alone, it’s unfair to compare Laine and Matthews based solely on their circumstances. Laine’s on a line with Alexander Barkov and Jussi Jokinen. Matthew’s is centring Patrick Maroon/Frank Vatrano and Jordan Schroeder. A player’s linemates will always play a part in their success during a game, having established and uber talented linemates is obviously going to help make a player look great. Although being able to have a great game despite being more naturally talented than your linemates does give a player the slight edge in terms of being more impressive. Despite the fact that Patrik Laine was on such a great line, he still had a pretty tough game against the Americans. He had one very bad turnover – to Matthews no less, and saw his minutes continue to decrease as the game wore on. He was parked on the bench with about 4 minutes left in the game while Finland was trying to defend their lead.
Patrik Laine on facing Auston Matthews: “I think this was the worst game for me in a long time and I don’t know why.”
— Michael Traikos (@Michael_Traikos) May 9, 2016
Matthews, however, was a big part of USA’s attempt to push the game into overtime. He took several key faceoffs in the offensive zone as the minutes started winding down, set up the Vatrano goal that cut Finland’s lead in half, and had several grade A scoring chances. Despite his efforts, Matthews and team USA lost to Finland 3-2 and moved in 4th position in their group based in St. Petersburg. Canada sits in 1st, while Finland is in 2nd.
Auston Matthews on facing Patrik Laine: “We lost, so it didn’t turn out well. They’re tough.”
— Michael Traikos (@Michael_Traikos) May 9, 2016
Lost in all of this is Jesse Puljujarvi who, for much of this past season, was considered to be the next best option after Matthews. He, too, is a winger but plays a much different style than Laine. Laine’s more of a sniper while Puljujarvi’s a strong skater with a bigger body and unreal vision and ability to handle the puck (as seen below)
He has great reach, speed and the ability to score at will – a similarity to Matthews in that sense. However, he wasn’t available to play for Finland at Worlds and it seems as though many are forgetting that there is a very real possibility that he could be a strong fit in Winnipeg, who currently holds the 2nd overall position.
The Americans have had a tougher start to the three week event, having played both of the toughest teams in their group in the first 3 games while Finland’s had more time to find their groove as a team, which has, undoubtedly, had a major effect on how Laine and Matthews have started the tournament. Both players have played relatively well to start the tournament. Laine’s certainly scored more goals, beauties at that, but Matthews has shown how his game was able to grow and develop into being strong not only in the offensive zone but also defensively as well – it’s been showcased well on the larger ice surface. From an individual standpoint, I’ve been far more impressed with the way Matthews has played – strong, reliably, showcasing his great shot, than Laine although he’s had moments where you can’t help but shake your head. Presumably he’s going to have a great career in Winnipeg, but, I don’t think he’s the best fit for Toronto right now.