Their NHL debuts are still at least six months away, but Auston Matthews and Patrick Laine look like they’re ready to step up against NHL competition.
On Monday the top two prospects heading into the 2016 NHL Draft went head-to-head when Team Finland topped Team USA 3-2 in preliminary play at the 2016 IIHF World Championships in Russia.
It was a rare chance to see Matthews, an American born center, and Laine, a Finnish winger, share the same ice before one of the teenagers will hear his name called and pull on a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey in Buffalo on June 24.
In all likelihood, Matthews will be the first selection. He’s the top-ranked skater by NHL central scouting and is the more complete player at this moment. While his team lost the game, Matthews showed off subtle parts of his game that will make him a two-way center in the NHL.
In the second period Matthews picked up an assist when he stole the puck from Laine, passing it to Boston Bruins’ prospect Frank Vatrano who scored off the rush. The Arizona native was good in his own end and won several key faceoffs, including a handful against NHL veteran Mikko Koivu.
When the United States was pushing for a late goal in a one-goal game, Matthews was on the ice for key situations, while Laine was stapled to the bench as Finland opted for more defensively-minded players.
While Matthews is a center Toronto will be able to build around the Winnipeg Jets will have to settle — if you can even use that word — for a natural goal scorer with the second overall pick.
Laine’s game is reminiscent of what Alexander Ovechkin was early in his career.
He has a hard, quick release and lives on the left face-off circle on the power play. On Monday he didn’t score, but had a trio of chances, including two power-play blasts that came within inches of beating American goalie Mike Condon — one just clipping Condon’s elbow and going over the net.
Through three games, Laine already has three power play goals, the most in the tournament and has a tournament-leading six points (four goals, 2 assists).
Laine also throws around his 6-foot-4, 209-pound frame and tries to mix a physical side with his skills. It’s effective on the forecheck, but he’s still a teenager learning how to make the right decisions and figuring out the proper judgement on positioning and timing.
For both players the World Championships are serving as a nice litmus test and learning experience.
If you look purely at at goal scoring and numbers, you could make the case Laine is playing his way toward being the No. 1 pick. However, if you look at the overall game and subtle nuances Matthews brings — watch his stick work defensively and his positioning without the puck — it becomes pretty clear he’s the bona fide center you can build a team around.
Matthews and Laine should both be better players because of their experiences in the World Championships. Laine has an opportunity to learn more about the pro game from a player like Koivu and other NHL-based Finns, while Matthews has more of an opportunity to be a leader and grow with the young American team.