Winner, winner, skill for dinner

Jets can't go wrong at draft with either Matthews or Laine

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Hype naturally serves to pump up the heart and dull the brain.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/05/2016 (2395 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Hype naturally serves to pump up the heart and dull the brain.

Monday was a hype day at the world hockey championship in Russia, at least for fans of the Winnipeg Jets and Toronto Maple Leafs.

Day 4 of the WHC featured the two top-ranked prospects for next month’s NHL entry draft against each other at the Yubileiny Arena in St. Petersburg.

On one side, centre Auston Matthews of Team U.S.A. and on the other, left-winger Patrik Laine of Finland. On this side of the Atlantic, two Canadian markets eager for a glimpse of the future… their future.

The day’s main brain item was easy to overlook, that whatever the billing, this was still boys against men.

Matthews and Laine are 18-year-olds against developed and more mature competitors in this setting.

And yet, they have not failed to shine so far, a rare occurrence that makes this tournament and this draft even more tantalizing.

Matthews, whose 18th birthday was last September and just two days too late to be included in last June’s NHL draft, is the consensus No. 1 pick next month.

The Leafs, with their draft lottery win 10 days ago, are as weak as weak can be in the middle, an overriding factor in their near-certain choice of Matthews.

He’s surely ready to play in the NHL, ready to bring presence and skill to the lineup.

Speed, quickness, shot, playmaking and his excellent passing have been on display at this WHC.

Already he has scored two goals and four points in three tournament games, including an assist in Monday’s 3-2 loss to the Finns.

American coach John Hynes has certainly not taken the wait-and-see approach with Matthews. Monday, he played him more than 19 minutes, including the desperate final minute, trying to tie the game.

The Jets entered this picture as the big winners of the draft lottery, moving from the sixth pick to the second by virtue of winning the second draft drawing.

For them, Laine seems to be the logical outcome, though fellow Finn Jesse Puljujarvi, also 18, is as well-regarded in most circles after an MVP performance at the world junior championship.

It’s a kind of rare near-certainty for Jets Nation, knowing in advance, Edmonton-style, who one’s first pick is likely to be.

Laine, who turned 18 last month, has rocketed from the gate in Russia, scoring four goals and six points in his first two games with a shot that’s well above average, and a delivery that’s a thing to behold, so much so that those who just can’t help compare things are floating the name Alexander Ovechkin, or at least Ovechkin-like, every time he winds up to shoot.

And his size, 6-4, is to be coveted.

Laine was held off the scoresheet Monday and played less than Matthews (13:21) but still shares the tournament scoring lead with teammate Mikael Granlund after four days of competition.

While Laine has made up ground on Matthews according to assessments from scouts who have watched him — at least those that are talking — it’s a mere distraction to the actual story.

Which is that there are two exceptional 18-year-olds in this tournament. They are different players and there would only seem to be winners once the draft decisions are made.

One supposes there’s no harm in a Jets’ fan’s dream of some Matthews scenario but there were two segments of Monday’s game that potentially widened some eyes for Laine.

When the Finns established power-play control late in the first, Laine uncorked a pair of lasers from the left-wing circle American goalie Mike Condon managed to barely deflect.

And late in the second as Finland applied heavy pressure, Laine was winning the puck and finding passing seams that showed another dimension of his danger equation.

Laine was a focal point of a few other shifts, too.

In the first, it was Matthews who poked the puck off his stick just inside the U.S. blue line, setting up a goal by Frank Vatrano.

Laine and his regular linemates Aleksander Barkov and Jussi Jokinen, both of the Florida Panthers, had let up briefly when the linesman failed to whistle down an off-side.

Matthews, on the other hand, caused the important turnover.

Laine was also the focal point of the Finnish power play on the play that led to the game-winning goal in the third.

As Leo Komarov tried to pass across to Laine from beside the net, the puck was blocked. Barkov swooped in to grab it and slip it back to Komarov for the tap-in winner.

And in the beginning of that power-play sequence, Laine was the Finn who recovered the puck to re-establish pressure, an important battle won.

The ebbs and flows of assessment will continue right through to the draft, including more than a week left in the world hockey championship.

At this point, there would seem to be no incorrect decision.

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

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