Rivalry or not, first edition of Matthews vs. Laine will be special

First overall pick Auston Matthews isn't worried about any comparison to 2nd overall pick Patrik Laine, says it's a story for the media, they're both just concerned with getting two points.

WINNIPEG – They have taken up residence here, the hockey-mad Finns, set on chronicling every step of Patrik Laine’s introduction to the NHL.

There have been as many as four or five Finnish-language reporters covering the Winnipeg Jets at any one time these last few weeks, with one of them – Sami Hoffrén of Ilta-Sanomat – currently in the middle of a 12-day continuous stretch.

Word is, he’ll be voting in the next civic election.

It is a testament to Laine and his star power. At age 18 he is already considered the biggest name in Finnish hockey and well on his way to becoming a favourite among a fanbase more than 6,500 kilometres from where he grew up.

However, what stands out most about this rather compelling story is how common it currently seems.

We are not yet a week removed from watching Arizona-raised Auston Matthews make an unforgettable debut with the Toronto Maple Leafs. That created a ripple seldom seen by a hockey player in the U.S.

Connor McDavid – still a teenager, himself – was named the NHL’s first star of the week and found himself lavishly praised by Wayne Gretzky. You can pretty much bank on the fact Jack Eichel would be in the mix, too, were it not for the unfortunate high ankle sprain he suffered on the eve of the season.

The sport’s tectonic plates are shifting to a degree it was hard to even comprehend four months ago in Buffalo, when Matthews and Laine went 1-2 at the NHL draft.

Back then, we might have thought an occasion like their first head-to-head meeting would feel like a seminal moment. But with the Leafs and Jets set to play at MTS Centre on Wednesday night, the game doesn’t seem to be quite on that level – something that suits both young men just fine.

“I have my own career and he has his own,” Laine said recently. “I don’t need any rivalry between us. I just focus on my own job.”

Truth be told, Matthews doesn’t even consider this his biggest game of the week. When asked by Sportsnet if there was any opponent who might elicit a “Wow, I’m in the NHL” moment while sharing the same ice, he pointed to this coming Saturday’s game in Chicago.

“Being an American I always watched Patrick Kane,” said Matthews. “Him and Jonathan Toews, that’s going to be pretty cool.”

And yet there should be a little something extra in the air here on Wednesday.

Like McDavid and Eichel – the first two picks in the 2015 draft – these players won’t meet often after being drafted into opposite conferences. So games like this will come to represent signposts for where each is at, with the comparisons likely to stretch on for the next decade or more.

Here we stand at the very beginning with Matthews playing his third career NHL game and Laine his fourth. They’ve already earned a coach’s trust and collected a souvenir puck from their first goal (or, in Matthews’ case, four of them), but the larger idea of what they are is still taking shape.

Despite carrying different passports and personalities and playing styles, they both look like a perfect fit in their new home. Matthews has an even-keeled temperament and the ability to become the first true No. 1 centre to play for the Leafs since Mats Sundin.

Laine is a fun-loving, goal-scoring dynamo.

“He’s a star – or has the potential to be a star if he wants to work at it and become a real good pro,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock said of the Jets winger. “Size, reach, a cockiness about him – not a cockiness, that’s the wrong word – [but] a confidence about him.

“No different than Auston in that way, they know they’re good players.”

Hockey is not particularly well-suited to personal rivalries, no matter how much Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin has dominated the national conversation over the last decade.

Consider: Matthews and Laine are both receiving quality playing time and neither is likely to spend even one third of Wednesday’s game on the ice. Then you factor in that as a centre and a winger they may hardly cross paths throughout the night.

There is a case to be made that the real rival for Matthews might end up being McDavid, who got a 45-game head start on his NHL career last season and is already wearing the “C” in Edmonton. Both are now tasked with carrying beaten-down organizations out of the abyss. They play the same position and will literally battle on the ice should their teams ever collide in a big game.

However, Matthews is also bound to be loosely tethered to Laine thanks to the 2016 draft – and neither is likely to escape the talk around that topic even if they don’t choose to engage in it themselves.

“You still want to be better than the other guy,” said Babcock.

And so as they meet under the NHL lights for the first time, there is a huge element of the unknown at play.

There is also tremendous interest, both here and abroad.

Even if Matthews and Laine are already universally recognized as massive talents, we need to watch closely in these early days to get a better sense of just how special they might be.

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