On a day when the world was both mourning and celebrating ‘The Greatest,’ the hockey community was contemplating future greatness.
And, in both cases, contrast is a key part of the equation.
If you haven’t heard by now, there’s a serious apples-and-oranges thing going on between presumed first overall pick Auston Matthews and his chief competitor, Patrik Laine. That notion was reinforced at the NHL scouting combine, where the two players occupied the same building for the second time in just a matter of weeks Saturday after both youngsters represented their countries at the world championship in Russia.
Having already faced many questions about each other on that stage, Matthews and Laine likely knew exactly what to expect when faced with a barrage of microphones in Buffalo. The latter said NHL teams also wanted to know what he saw as the key difference between himself and Matthews when he sat down with eight of them earlier this week.
“I said that, at this point, we’re quite even and he’s better than me in some stuff and I’m better than him in some things,” Laine explained.
Asked to expand, the fair-haired Finn — who recently cut his long locks — said he’d give himself the edge in goal scoring and physical play, while Matthews — the dark-eyed American — gets the nod right now in terms of playmaking ability. At the worlds, Laine’s goal-scoring knack as a right-shooting left winger was on display as he netted seven goals in 10 games during an MVP performance. Matthews, a centre, managed an impressive six goals in 10 contests himself, though he continues to be lauded for an all-around game as opposed to Laine’s more finely focused ability to bury.
Playing a team game, Matthews and Laine will never square off the way Muhammad Ali faced opponents in one-on-one confrontations, but their individual attributes still colour this debate. In the early 1970s heavyweight boxing scene, Joe Frazier and Ken Norton gave Ali fits but were crushed by George Foreman. It stands to reason, then, that Foreman would have his way with Ali. But the ‘Louisville Lip’ intuitively knew how to get the best of a man once thought impossible to beat.
Whatever the context, style matters and it’s kind of fun that — from the way they look to the way they play to the manner in which they carry themselves — Laine and Matthews are coming at things from a different spot.
In terms of how they matched up on the combine floor, we’re working with a small sample size. The six-foot-four Laine sustained a slight injury during V02 max testing on Friday and, as such, only took part in upper-body activities on Saturday, pumping out six bench presses and 12 pull-ups. In those same categories, the six-foot-two Matthews scored six presses and managed to get his chin over the bar eight times.
It’s hard to imagine any of those numbers will play much of a factor when Laine, Matthews and a bunch of other prospects return to Buffalo in less than a month’s time for an NHL draft in which the Toronto Maple Leafs will be the first team to the podium. When asked to play pretend GM, both youngsters have said they’re taking themselves, though direct self promotion seems to come a little more naturally to the challenger.
“Tough decision to make,” Laine said.
For as great as both players are, that’s counter to the popular school of thought floating around the combine. But, hey, why halt the contrasts now?