We’re just days away from the draft lottery drawing, which will take place on Saturday at 7 p.m. ET, and the gap between the favorite to go first overall, Auston Matthews, and his challenger Patrik Laine is closing ever-so quickly.
The team who holds the first overall pick is going to have quite the decision to make with those two at the top, however if a team like the Edmonton Oilers wins the lottery — which, at this point, might actually start a riot — they are unlikely to take yet another centerman in Matthews and will instead go for the Finnish scoring winger, Laine.
But as of right now, there are 14 teams that could potentially win the right to select first overall in just a few days’ time, and they could go either way, as the majority of them missed the playoffs because they were a bit short on talent.
Just about anyone would welcome a future first-line center or first-line winger, but which will be off the board first?
At 6-foot-4, 209 lbs. the sniper from Tampere, Finland has always been years beyond what Laine’s age may suggest — not only in physical maturity but also in mental maturity and in his style of play. This unique combination afforded him the opportunity to begin playing in the Finnish elite league, Liiga, when he was just 16 years old last season. Granted, he only played in six games for Tappara during the 2014-15 campaign, but it was a debut nonetheless.
But the spotlight really found him at the 2015 U18 World Junior Tournament when Laine notched eight goals (and added three assists) in seven games, taking home the silver medal for Team Finland and earning several individual honors. He was quickly making himself too noticeable to be ignored by scouts, and the confidence just grew from there.
Fast-forward to the 2015-16 season and Laine scored 33 points (17G, 16A) in 46 games for Tappara in his first full professional season.
He absolutely dominated the U20 WJC, playing alongside fellow top 2016 NHL Draft prospects Jesse Puljujarvi and Olli Juolevi, Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Kasperi Kapanen and Colorado Avalanche prospect Mikko Rantanen, among others.
Laine scored seven goals (a tournament-high) and six assists in seven games, helping the host team win the gold medal and, again, taking home several individual honors.
Speaking of individual honors, the 2016 Liiga postseason saw the potent sniper in perhaps his best form yet, scoring a playoff-high 10 goals and adding five assists for 15 points in 17 games; it helped him achieve the Jari Kurri Trophy, awarded to the best player in the playoffs after he helped his team to a Liiga championship victory.
“His shot is not from this world. He can shoot anywhere, any kind of shot,” Finnish reporter Juha Hiitela told Sportsnet. “But lately we’ve seen he’s not just a sniper. He has some playmaking ability too. He’s polite, has some sense of humour. I’m surprised how well he has handled all the attention after world juniors, especially in last few weeks.”
Meanwhile, Matthews, the all-world center out of Scottsdale, Arizona who chose to play in Switzerland during his draft year, had quite the different ending. He finished playing hockey for the season about a month-and-a-half earlier than his Finnish counterpart, having been bounced early in the Swiss National A playoffs with his Zurich Lions.
He had a great regular season, scoring 46 points (24G, 22A) in just 36 games, but in the playoffs he was criticized for being largely ineffective — he managed just three assists in four games.
Still, Matthews fared well at the U20 WJC and will be taking part in the World Championships for Team USA this spring, but scouts and fans of lottery teams alike probably expected a bit more from him in the Swiss playoffs.
It’s difficult to compare the two because they play two completely different positions and, really, entirely different individual games with almost polar opposite skill-sets. The knock on Laine could be his almost unrealistically-meteoric rise to the first overall pick conversation, plus the fact that he has never played a game in North America, but what is the knock on Matthews?
The centerman is about as safe as a prospect can be, given the fact that he spent so much time playing North American hockey with the U.S. National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
That program selects only the best American prospects, has them face-off against quality opposition (colleges, for example) and readies them for college, major junior and professional hockey careers. In that league, as tough as it is, Matthews established program records last season, tallying 116 points (55G, 61A) in 60 games.
It’s what cemented him atop the 2016 NHL Draft class – or so we thought, until Laine came along this year and posed a challenge.
“Patrik has played with men, and he’s excelling,” said Mike Liut, Laine’s agent. “But he hasn’t played with the best players in the world collectively, the NHL. He hasn’t played a grueling 82-game season. He has to learn the game on a little bit smaller rink that’s played a bit faster. That’s talent.”
Whether the promising Finn can translate his epic game to the smaller ice surface and the North American style of play remains to be seen, but Matthews is by far the much more logical choice at number one.
You know exactly what you’re going to be getting with the latter of the two, a generational talent, likely to be a franchise player one day. There’s a bit more risk with Laine.
One thing is for certain, though — it may all depend on who wins that first overall pick on Saturday.
If Toronto wins it, do they go with Matthews on the Buffalo draft stage in June, to add a truly elite center to an otherwise lacking position? And if Edmonton wins it, do they go with Laine to supplement their top centers, Connor McDavid, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Leon Draisaitl?
We’ll get a better idea of who is going first in what has become one of the highest-profile debates since the Taylor Hall vs. Tyler Seguin saga in 2010 after the lottery drawing is completed on Saturday night.