Due to my location being primarily Toronto Maple Leafs territory, and my long-standing interest in the draft each year, I’ve decided to weigh in on the first overall debate, and support my selection for Auston Matthews over Patrik Laine, as the top draft prospect as found here. To do so I’ve looked at it from both a team independent perspective (Best Player Available) and a particularly from the perspective of the Leafs organization.
Best Player Available
As most draft pundits will tell you, more often than not you should take the best player available, as it is difficult to predict what an organizations depth chart may look like in four to five years. With that in mind how can we determine whether Laine or Matthews is the best player in this upcoming draft. Too often casual fans will anchor their opinions of prospects on the basis of performance in short tournaments that don’t provide sufficient sample sizes. Although important not to over value such tournaments, they are as logical a place as any to start.
In this years World Juniors, Laine racked up 7-6-13 in 7 games, slightly besting Matthews with 7-4-11 also in 7 games. Due to the sheer randomness and luck involved over any specific 7 game stretch, couple with the fact that they were separated by a mere 2 assists, this tournament provides no indication one way or another. Laine did however have a very strong game against Canada in the quarter finals, which left a positive impression on many.
Where Laine truly built up steam was in the Finnish league playoffs, as well as the recently completed World Championships. In the playoffs Laine had 10 goals (Many of the highlight reel variety) and 5 assists, good for 15 points in 18 games.
As fun as watching Laine unleash his beast of a shot is, it is important to remember that over this stretch of games Matthews was not in action, which meant that all the media attention went to Laine. Even so, in what was strong playoffs, Laine was unable to match the regular season scoring rate of Matthews. The dialogue may in fact be quite different if Matthews himself had enjoyed a lengthy playoff run.
In the World Championship, in which Laine was recently crowned tournament MVP, Laine once again bested Matthews by a slight margin in a 10 game sample. Once again a 10 game stretch is nowhere near long enough a sample to compare statistics between two players. The take away should instead be, that both players are high-end prospects who appear to be NHL ready.
To find a larger sample we must analyze their respective regular seasons. The problem with regular season numbers is that these players play in separate leagues, Matthews in Switzerland, and Laine in Finland. A quick way to overcome this obstacle is to use Rob Vollman’s NHL equivalencies, which are by no means perfect but do provide some clarity. For complete conversion rates check out his site here.
Vollman calculates his conversion rates on the basis of historical data that considers scoring in each league from prior years, and how players have done upon transferring to the NHL. Switzerland’s NLA has historically transferred at a higher rate to NHL points, meaning that by using this tool, a point that Matthews recorded in the NLA will be more valuable than a point from Laine in SM-Liiga. Say what you will about this method but it certainly advances the discussion on prospects that can only be viewed occasionally.
The case for Matthews grows even more convincing when considering his draft -1 year, in whcih he put up numbers that bested last year’s second overall draft pick Jack Eichel, for the US National U18 Development Team. Matthews may in fact be a better prospect in his draft year than Jack Eichel, that’s how impressive this kid is.
If you’re looking for a more subjective scouting report on why I chose Matthews over Laine here it is. Matthews is a complete two-way forward who in every viewing has impressed with his strong defensive acumen. While his shot does not dazzle in the same way as Laine’s, his shot is still NHL caliber, and he can beat goalies on one-timers, from a stand still or on the rush. Laine on the other hand in my viewings has appeared to be more of a stationary shooter, fitted well for the power play, very comparable to Ovechkin. One knock, I have heard on Matthews is although he has great size for a centre, he is not one to engage physically or use his size well. He will likely be asked to improve on this at the NHL level.
Overall Matthews is a top-tier prospect who is at least an average first overall pick, but who may have the potential to be a top-5 centre in the game someday. Laine on the other hand has not given me any reason to suggest that he is as good as a prospect as fellow Finn, Aleksander Barkov, whom put up much more impressive numbers in his draft eligible year, and is one of the premier two-way centres in the NHL.
Final Verdict: Auston Matthews is the best player available in the 2016 NHL entry draft.
Which Player Is a Better Fit for the Leafs
The leafs have a plethora of young prospects coming up their pipeline, and of the most impressive prospect pools in the entire NHL. What they lack however is a prototypical top line centre (Although Nylander may be a non-prototypical one). They have several high-end prospects that can play wing, especially at the AHL level, and although only Mitch Marner is in the same class as Laine, the need for a true top-line centre exceeds the need for another elite winger.
This is no discredit to Laine, as he is an excellent prospect that any team would be thrilled to have. But for the Leafs, given their depth chart and the preferences of most team to build up the middle Matthews is the logical choice.
Case for Laine?
Although based on my analysis the case for Laine is certainly not as strong, it is entirely possible that other may view Laine as the top player available. What makes Laine so enticing is his shot. Not only is it an NHL level shot but it may be one of the best shots in the entire NHL next year. Looking back players who were as highly lauded for their shots are hard to find. Only a handful of players have been thought of in such high regard, players like Kovalchuk, Ovechkin, and Kessel. This, by no means exhaustive, list is excellent company, and if Laine turns into any of those players he will be a success.
Based of the past history of similar players, Laine does appear to be a can’t miss big sniping winger. He’s bigger than Matthews and has out done Matthews, even if only slightly, on the international stage this year. I’m sure all Canadian fans remember how he came-up big for Finland against Canada in the World Juniors. He is a big time performer on the big stages, what’s not to love?
All things considered Laine is a slam dunk prospect, but one who has not yet proven to be in the same class as Matthews.
The 2016 draft will have as many surprises as any draft throughout the first round. That being said I cannot find any reason to place Laine as a serious threat to go number one, other than the rampant media speculation. Toronto Maple Leafs fans, if you haven’t already, start falling in love with this kid.