It's Not Crazy to Think Patrik Laine Will Be Better Than Matthews and McDavid

Adrian Dater@@adaterNHL National ColumnistNovember 14, 2016

Patrik Laine, before the recent Heritage Classic in Winnipeg
Patrik Laine, before the recent Heritage Classic in WinnipegJason Halstead/Getty Images

DENVER — The best player under 20 years of age in the NHL? It's either Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews, right? After all, they score the most points, get the most ink, sell the most jerseys and endorse the most products. Pick either one of the M&M boys, and you've got a good case.

Hold the phone. When the history books are written about this particular era of the NHL, it is quite possible that an 18-year-old Winnipeg Jets rookie from Tampere, Finland, proved the best of all. 

At the top of the scoring list right now is a kid who goes by the name of Laine, Patrik Laine (pronounced "Lie-nay"). Not just the rookie scoring list or the under-20 scoring list or the Kids on a Canadian Team scoring list. The scoring list, that of all NHL players. Laine's 11 goals in his first 17 games topped the charts, and that's despite a "slump" his last two games, goal-less encounters with Colorado and Los Angeles in which the Jets still took three of four points.

McDavid, in his second season at 19, does have more points than Laine (19 to 17) and plays on an Edmonton team with a better record. And Matthews has been no slouch as a rookie either, entering Monday with 12 points in 15 games for an improved Toronto club. Yet Matthews has gone nine straight games without a goal, and McDavid eight. 

Laine, meanwhile, has been a menacing presence despite not officially scoring in the last two, though he did score a shootout goal in Winnipeg's 3-2 win over the Kings.

A smooth-skating right winger who stands 6'5", Laine's 22.9 shooting percentage (11 goals on 48 shots) is second only to teammate Mark Scheifele for the league's best among those with 40 shots or more. Already, his marksmanship has drawn comparisons to some of the game's all-time best, such as Mike Bossy and Cam Neely.

Already, he's had two hat-trick games. The first, Oct. 19 against Toronto, came when he was 18 years, 183 days old. Only Jordan Staal (18 years, 153 days against Pittsburgh for Carolina in 2007) achieved the feat at a younger age.

"Wow, he's gonna be a good one for a long time," said Boston goalie and fellow Finn, Tuukka Rask. "He's a pure goal scorer. When he gets a chance, the odds are it's going to go in the net."

For now, though, Laine remains in relative obscurity, with many pronouncing his name as if talking about a bowling "lane." He plays in the NHL's smallest market and comes from a nation of just five million people. The Canadian province of Manitoba, where Winnipeg is, has a population of about 1.3 million people. The provinces of Ontario and Alberta combined, where McDavid and Matthews play, is about 18 million.

If any of that bothers Laine, he did a good job of hiding it during a recent interview in Denver. For now, making a fine living playing in hockey's highest league is plenty of consolation for losing out to McDavid and Matthews in the media-hype rat race.

"I don't pay much attention to what other people are saying. I just want to be the best I can be on the ice and keep learning and try to help us win," said Laine, the second overall pick behind Matthews in this year's NHL draft. "I'm learning every day about how you have to play in this league. For me, it's a little bit different than what I was used to in Finland, but I like that."

Some of Laine's goals have drawn raves for their bull's-eye accuracy. They have come in a variety of ways, some off the slap shot, some wristers off the rush, some one-timers. As a kid (as opposed to what he is now, right?), Laine shot thousands of pucks at a net in his backyard. He unabashedly has a shoot-first mentality, even though the Finnish youth leagues he grew up in most often preached that it was better to look for the pass first.

In fact, Laine says he is mostly a self-taught player. There was no coaching guru who mentored him, no stage parents who pushed the game on him. His skating stride, long and elegant, "is just something I learned myself," he said.

"I wasn't a very good skater when I first started playing, and coaches told me I needed to get better. So, I just went off by myself and really worked at it," Laine said. "My height probably helps some too. My stride is longer than some other guys. But I know I will have to get even better at it in this league."

Laine has mostly played on a line so far with Scheifele at center and Nikolaj Ehlers at left wing.

Things didn't end too well for Ehlers in the Jets' 3-2 overtime loss to Colorado Friday night. Ehlers accidentally shot the game-winning goal into his own net, earning the goat horns.

But the 20-year-old Danish player's face brightened considerably afterward when the subject of his "liney" came up. After posting 38 points in 72 games his rookie season, the sophomore forward has 14 points his first 17 games. Ehlers knows the good nights will probably outnumber the bad moving forward with Laine as his other wing man.

"It's pretty great. You can give him the puck, and he'll put it in," Ehlers said. "He's doing really good, and he's a great kid on and off the ice. From the minute he came to Winnipeg, he's been confident. The kind of start he's had, it hasn't hurt his confidence any either."

Jets coach Paul Maurice isn't afraid of entrusting youth with great responsibility. In 1995 with the Hartford Whalers, at age 28, he became the second-youngest head coach in NHL history. Maurice has often played Laine 20 minutes or more a night.

"There's not a lot of 18-year-olds who could play 22 minutes a night. But he's just going to keep getting stronger and faster and better, and that shot's always going to be there for him," Maurice said.

The more those goals keep going in, the more attention Laine will get. It might be a while, and maybe never, before he surpasses McDavid and Matthews in that department. They are tremendous young players, after all. But as Ehlers noted, there is a noticeable air of confidence around the kid with glowing blond hair. 

"I think a lot more people are going to recognize his name before too long," Ehlers said.

                       

Adrian Dater covers the NHL for Bleacher Report.

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