There is no question that Auston Matthews is a great hockey player, absolutely no doubt at all. What can be said is that he has been moulded into a first-overall draft pick. The exposure of going to Switzerland to play pro hockey, playing on the top line for the regular season champion Zurich Lions, and netting 1.27 points per game in a tough league make him stand out. He has had a North American coach in Zurich, and been the main focus of the season in the NLA with easy media access for everyone.
With attention elsewhere, Patrik Laine has flown under the radar (if you can call someone projected as a top-three pick in the draft going under the radar), He has played in a small city out on the Finnish lakes far outside the capital of Helsinki — known for its beauty, but not much else, and definitely not the banking capital of the world.
While Liiga has lost one of its teams, Jokerit, to the KHL, it is still a competitive league. The top tier of Finnish hockey had four representatives in the quarter-finals of the Champions Hockey League; more than any other league, including Sweden's SHL. In a European setting, that is still hugely impressive. Rob Vollman's equivalency factors give the Swiss league an edge, with 0.40 vs 0.29 correlation between league scoring and subsequent NHL production.
Part of that low value can be explained by the fact that few Finnish players make the leap from Liiga directly over to the NHL, so the sample becomes a bit watered down. In my own analysis of the European leagues, Finland came out on top of Switzerland by a wide margin. In Champions Hockey League play, Matthews' Zurich lost in the first playoff round to Sparta Prague of the Czech league, and Laine's Tappara lost in the sweet sixteen (second round) to last year's winners: Luleå of the SHL.
Matthews looks like a monster here, and he is. One huge factor is that he was on the top line the whole season with Roger Nilsson (12-40—52), who placed fifth in scoring in the NLA, and Ryan Keller who added 30 points. Matthews was also on the first power play unit at every opportunity.
Still, the numbers the 18-year-old put up in a good European league is very impressive indeed. Matthews was the top performer in the playoffs for an under-achieving Zurich team, but one would have expected him, and the team, to do better in the post-season. Matthews placed fifth in goal-scoring in the regular season, but was held scoreless in the playoffs.
*ongoing at time of publication
While not as impressive as Matthews' numbers at the first glance, Laine has played on mostly on Tappara's third line (according to my Finnish friends) with some time on the second trio. His most common linemates were Jukka Peltola, with 39 points, and Pekka Saravo, with 10. This puts his feat in a different perspective.
While dominating the playoffs (he leads all players in goals with eight), he has still been on the second line. Placing 18th in goal-scoring after the regular season, Laine now leads the playoffs with goals to spare.
Tomas Roost mentioned in an article after Zurich was knocked out of the playoffs by a surging SC Bern that Matthews was "by far the best player in the series." But he also notes that Bern’s defence could focus on Zurich's top line because the team had few offensive threats farther down the lineup.
Matthews had it tough in the four playoff games his team received, with his PPG dropping by 40%, to 0.75 PPG from his regular season average of 1.27.
Patrik Laine has taken another step in his development, jumping from 18th in goals scored during the season to first in the playoffs, with his points-per-game average jumping from 0.71 to 0.91. When needed, he has stepped up to the plate big time with two equalizing goals: one in the dying minute, and one in the final second in Game Six of the series versus Kärpät.
Not only has he been scoring key goals, but has shifted into a higher gear when his team needed is most. In Game Five versus Lukko while down 3-1, Laine took it upon himself to save the game in a way that I have only ever seen Mats Sundin and Mark Messier do previously.
Many reports mention that Matthews possesses many skills in his toolkit, calling him a two-way centre with a great grasp of the game with excellent playmaking abilities. He lacks the deadly shot of a top-end goal-scorer, but it is still a good shot that will allow him to score many goals in his career.
Laine, on the other hand, is the sniper. He is a winger with a lethal shot, and even though opponents know exactly what he's going to do, they can't find a way to stop him, as illustrated in the goal below. There are some reports that his skating isn't perfect, but it has been an area of focus for improvement by Laine this year, and gotten better during the season.
The fact that Matthews is North American speaks to his advantage. Everyone is assured of the fact that he will come back across the Atlantic to play in the NHL next season. He already speaks English, and knows the society already. This compared to the unknown of Laine. Does he speak English? Will he come over for next season? Can he adjust to the smaller ice? And the usual things that face a European draft prospect.
Is it really that terrible to draft the player you think has the most upside and let that player mature another year outside of the NHL? It worked well for Sundin, who spent a year in Djurgården after being picked first overall. He won the LeMat trophy with the team before joining the Quebec Nordiques a year after the draft. Obviously it depends on a team winning the lottery. For some teams, either player will benefit them directly, while other teams in a rebuild might be better served by holding off on bringing the draft pick into the club at the first opportunity.
Either way, if you think the player in question has more upside than the other, you draft that player out of the gate.
Based on my previous article positing that Liiga is better than the NLA, and the fact that Laine has been on a lower line with less prolific players, I have to say that, right now, he does indeed impress me more.
Personally, I see the players very even, though I haven't seen the leadership qualities in Matthews that Laine has demonstrated. But it is easy to see the easy things. Right now I hold Laine a bit higher than Matthews, but this might change after watching Matthews in the World Championship, after he was selected to USA's men's team. Laine has received an invitation to his national team this year, and became the youngest player ever to play for the Finnish men's team in the country's history.
I believe this race is closer than last year's debate between selecting Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel. Something to consider when you look at the draft lottery on April 30.