West Coast Bias: Which Finn will be picked No. 2?

Damien Cox talks about his top five players for the next NHL Draft, including Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi.

If centre Auston Matthews is the consensus first-overall pick next spring, NHL clubs (mostly Canadian) are trying to figure out which of the two big Finnish wingers — Patrik Laine or Jesse Puljujarvi — is better than the other.

Laine is a right-shot left-winger, Puljujarvi a right-shot right-winger. Laine has 17-16-33 in 46 games with Tampere; Puljujarvi has 13-15-28 in 50 games for Karpat, the team in Oulu, which sits on the Baltic Sea. Both are king-sized: 6-foot-3, 200-pounds.

Both of them are expected to play for Finland at this spring’s world championships in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and both might well get invites to the world cup in September as well. That brought the three-time Selke Trophy winner Jere Lehtinen to Edmonton recently, who was scouting Finnish players alongside Finnish National Team head coach Kari Jalonen, the former Calgary Flame and Edmonton Oiler.

Which of the Finns is better?

“(Laine) has something special skills-wise. His shot, I don’t know how to say it… I haven’t seen a shot like that in a long time at that age,” said Lehtinen, Finland’s World Cup GM. “His stick, his reach, it’s amazing.

“Good hands, his skating is much better than it was a year and a half ago.”

And the other guy?

“Those two guys are the same size, but Puljujarvi is more of an all-around player,” Lehtinen said. “He has a good shot too, but he’s more physical than Laine, playing more ways well.

“Laine may be a more offensive player, Puljujarvi it’s more natural coming back (and playing defensively). He’s a good all-around player.”

Of all the teams with a decent shot at getting the No. 1 pick in the lottery, the Oilers might be the only one who would prefer a winger over a centreman.

Unless GM Peter Chiarelli decides that Matthews is just that much better than the two Finns, and wins the lottery of course.

But word is that Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen is quietly investigating what it might take to do what Brian Burke did in 1999, when he secured both of the Sedin brothers with the No. 2 and 3 selections. Columbus would have to have one of the top three picks, and find a way to trade for another.

You could fairly say that Columbus needs a centreman to replace Ryan Johansen, but the Blue Jackets manoeuvring for both of the Finns would surely bring some intrigue to the draft come June.

“Laine’s specialty is a really, really great shot. He has a perfect shot that he can use right now (in the NHL),” said Jalonen. “He’s not going to play anymore in Europe after this season. I think that’s for sure. He is only 17, but he has a perfect shot.

“Puljujarvi is maybe a little bit better skater, right now. Of course, they are still young kids. But Laine is a little bit ahead offensively, in Finnish League.”

Added Lehtinen: “With their kind of size, physicality, and both guys skating well, they can both come over and play this game. I don’t see any problem.”

There has never been a Finn drafted at No. 1 overall. Big winger Mikko Rantanen (Colorado) was the highest Finn picked last June at No. 10. Florida took Aleksander Barkov at No. 2 in 2013, while goalie Kari Lehtonen was the other highest pick among Finns, going to Atlanta at No. 2 in 2002.

The best Finns weren’t drafted nearly as high as you’d think. Teemu Selanne (10th in 1988), Miikka Kiprusoff (116th in ’95), Saku Koivu (21st in ’93), Teppo Numminen (29th in ’86) and Jari Kurri (69th in ’80).

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Lotteries Winning

Quite a night Thursday for the draft lottery gang, when Winnipeg beat Los Angeles 4-1, Toronto beat Anaheim 6-5 in overtime, Arizona beat Dallas 3-1 and the Oilers won 6-3 at San Jose. Calgary “picked up ground” with a 6-2 loss in Minnesota, while the Canucks only got a point in Nashville.

It’s awesome being a Canadian fan these days, huh?

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To Fight or Not to Fight

In the ebb and flow of the argument for and against fighting in the NHL, count one for the pro-fighting group Thursday in San Jose.

After Oilers defenceman Darnell Nurse had jumped Sharks defenceman Roman Polak a couple weeks prior in Edmonton, beating Polak to a pulp for a perceived indiscretion against teammate Matt Hendricks, San Jose answered by calling up career scrapper Micheal Haley for the rematch. Edmonton responded by dressing Luke Gazdic for the first time since Jan. 18.

What could have been a gong show — or worse, a series of dangerous plays like Polak-Hendricks — settled down completely after Nurse entertained Haley at the 3:11 mark of the first period. It was a clean fight, a decision for Haley, and a tame game of hockey ensued with no more shenanigans.

“Good for Darnell, that takes a lot of character,” teammate Pat Maroon told reporters in San Jose. “Fighting’s the toughest job in the league and to step up a guy like Haley who’s done it a long time, who’s fought some heavy, guys a smart fighter, very technical, it takes a lot of guts.”

Nurse went on to have perhaps his best game as a NHLer, going plus-4 in 19:33 of ice time with an assist. He’s come through the dangerous time when he was out of his league at this level, and has become a relatively steady 20-minute defenceman at age 21.

Nurse’s 20:25 is second only to Carolina’s Jaccob Slavin (20:41) for average ice time among rookies with at least 13 games played. He’s played almost 200 more minutes at 5-on-5 than Slavin, and more time short-handed as well.

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Three Spearing Penalties?

Speaking of fighting, I went out to see 40-year-old Ryan Smyth play in the Senior AAA Chinook League final this week. In a league containing former pros and junior players, mostly in their late twenties, it was hard-hitting, physical hockey.

The game also featured a plethora of stick work however, perhaps a prelude of what happens when fighting is disallowed. A fight in the Chinook League comes with an automatic game misconduct, and if it occurs in the final 10 minutes of the game you miss the next game too.

The game I saw featured no less than three spearing penalties (an automatic double-minor), four slashing calls and four roughing penalties. There was plenty of stick-brave players who may have been less so had fighting been an option.

Having said that, if they took fighting out of the NHL players would not be so cavalier. With the money at stake for NHL players, they’d learn to stay out of the box if they want to stay on the team.

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Back(strom) to Finland?

Was that 6-2 loss in Minny the swan song for goalie Niklas Backstrom? The Wild’s franchise leader in wins, games played and shutouts was traded to Calgary with a sixth-round pick for David Jones at the deadline.

Backstrom wasn’t very good in the first period, then watched the Wild tribute to him on their scoreboard. He’s a UFA-to-be, and could possibly hang around the NHL as a backup. But at age 38 his days as a starter are over.

“I was maybe thinking too much … the second and third period was better but the game was pretty much done,” Backstrom told the Calgary Herald.

“I didn’t want to pull him,” said Flames head coach Bob Hartley. “It was his show and it was in front of his fans. I thought he deserved it.”

Backstrom led the NHL in wins three seasons ago (tied with Antti Niemi and Henrik Lundqvist), but was supplanted by Devan Dubnyk. He was never drafted, and played a decade in the league.


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Figure It Out

Here’s one from Sportsnet Stats: The Canucks lead the NHL in games blown when leading after 40 minutes, with 12. Good enough to get the lead, but not good enough to hold it?

Why would that be? Discuss amongst yourselves.