The hockey agent warns you. He is about to say something crazy.
“Everyone assumes Auston Matthews is going No. 1. A couple teams have whispered to us that it’s not a given that Matthews goes No. 1,” says Allan Walsh, whose Octagon Hockey agency represents a handful of 2016’s top prospects, none named Matthews. “There’s a possibility everyone gets surprised.”
If the lights flick on in Buffalo on June 24 and someone other than a big centreman from Arizona jumps out from behind the sofa, it should be the big winger from Tampere.
Patrik Laine: 2016 world junior champion and all-star, 2016 Liiga champion and playoff MVP (as of Tuesday), and 2016’s second-ranked NHL Draft prospect. Number 2 with a bullet.
Walsh says that the clubs considering Laine (pronounced Line-EH) will have a ball in the hopper Saturday at the NHL Draft Lottery.
“They have a shot,” he says. “I would say 80 per cent Matthews is going No. 1, but I think most people think it’s 100 per cent a done deal.”
While Matthews, the consensus No. 1 among scouts, shockingly exited his Swiss league’s post-season early, credit Laine’s playoff performance in the top Finnish pro circuit for wedging 20 per cent worth of doubt.
“His shot is not from this world. He can shoot anywhere, any kind of shot,” says Finnish reporter Juha Hiitela, who is covering the Liiga. “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.”
Laine paced Tappara Tampere to its 4-2 championship series victory over Helsinki Tuesday. He scored a playoff-high 10 goals, added five assists and snatched the Jari Kurri Trophy (a.k.a. the Finnish Conn Smythe) in the process. If 13 points and a gold medal in seven games for his country at the world juniors was the mid-set climax, the Finnish league crown was a heck of an encore. Dude was 17 a week ago.
Laine’s agent, Mike Liut, says the importance of going first overall is overstated and often boils down to positional fit. Matthews plays centre, generally accepted as the most important forward position.
“Yes, you need a centereman, of course, but here’s the other part to it. The elite scoring wingers survey the ice. They’re looking at the ice offensively the way a goalie looks at the ice defensively. An offensive player is looking for the seams. He’s creating the passing lane by putting himself in position,” Liut says.
“He slows down when the play isn’t going anywhere. Accelerates when there’s a gap. The guy without the puck — and we don’t hear this as much anymore — is the guy making the play.”
So, the pure, elite goal-scoring winger can be just as cherished in the recipe of a champion. If not for Jamie Benn, Alex Ovechkin, Vladimir Tarasenko, Corey Perry and Patrick Kane, where would their teams be?
“If you play to [the concept of] strength up the middle, that will affect your view of two players who are equal. One’s a winger. Having said that, if Edmonton wins the lottery yet again, and they have Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, who’s one of our clients, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who is also one of our clients, do they need another centreman?” Liut asks.
“In that instance, maybe [Laine] goes No. 1. But maybe the best defenceman goes No. 1. Maybe it’s Jakob Chychrun, because they need a defenceman. If (Arizona) wins the lottery, obviously they’re not taking Patrik Laine. Why would they?”
The recent gushfest over Laine — which could be tempered if/when Matthews shines for Team USA at May’s IIHF World Championship — has gone so far that hockey folks are gushing about his possession numbers as well as those highlights where he turns water bottles into jumping beans.
“It’s axiomatic: Guys who score have the puck. You don’t need numbers to prove that,” Liut says. “It’s not shot attempts [that matter]; it’s shots that hit the net. You can shoot 1,000 times but if you’re hitting the defenceman in the kneecap, you’re not much of a shooter.”
Laine is a shooter all right. A Simo Häyhä on ice. But he can also control the puck, make plays at top flight, and wields what scouts call a high hockey IQ. That he stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 200 pounds is a bonus.
“He has, as the kids would say, some mad skills. If you want to set some cones out there and make up a challenge, he’s as good as anybody. Now, you gotta get your skills in the game,” Liut cautions.
The agent recently heard an analyst compare Laine and fellow Finnish winger Jesse Puljujarvi to Jari Kurri and Teemu Selanne. He wants the brakes pumped here.
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“Really? Really? Seriously? It was meant as a compliment, but why don’t we say he stickhandles like Mario Lemieux while we’re at it. That’s unfair. They’re both exceptional players at their age. They’re 18. I think they’ll both be great NHL players, but… steps. Process,” Liut says.
“Patrik has played with men, and he’s excelling. 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.”
Liut says Laine has little preference among the 14 lottery teams, save one.
“He’d like to play with a centreman who can find him in a crowd in the middle of Times Square,” Liut says.
There have been surprises near the top of the draft in the recent past. In 2014, Sam Bennett was ranked No. 1 by Central Scouting. He fell to fourth. In 2013, Seth Jones was No. 1 across the board. Two at worst. He, too, went fourth. In 2010, a pick ’em, Edmonton went with the winger (Taylor Hall) over the centre, No. 1–ranked Tyler Seguin. It happens.
If Laine has a 20 per cent chance of rocketing to first overall, maybe he has a 10 per cent chance of dropping to fourth.
“Honestly, I don’t know how he’s going to drop with the success he’s had,” says Liut, thinking aloud. “Say Auston Mathews goes 1. Consensus 1, has been all year. Edmonton has 2 and needs a defenceman. They take one. Somebody else has the third pick and like Puljujarvi better than Laine, for whatever reason. So all of a sudden, Laine is 4. What do you do?
“It happens, and it’s not relevant,” says Liut. Draft order shouldn’t validate worth.
“Does it bother them? I’m sure. These kids are ultra competitive. These aren’t kids that sit on the sideline. They’re in the thick of it, and we respect them for it.”