It’s a matter of mind-set: Would an NHL team prefer the big, steady franchise center or the flashy, elite-level goal-scorer?
Regardless of how a team’s front office casts its vote, there’s no denying that, yet again, the NHL has welcomed in two of the better rookies it’s seen in recent memory this season in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews and the Winnipeg Jets’ Patrik Laine. Wednesday in Winnipeg will be the first meeting between the No. 1 and No. 2 picks in the 2016 NHL draft.
These two impact players’ entrance into the NHL not only bodes well for the future of their respective franchises but for the future of the league as well. Injuries last season and this preseason aside, Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel have almost immediately looked like the game-changing players they were expected to be for the Edmonton Oilers and Buffalo Sabres, respectively.
Now it’s Matthews’s and Laine’s turn. Just don’t expect them to buy into any rivalry hype.
“I have my own career and he has his own,” Laine said, according to Sportsnet. “I don’t need any rivalry between us. I just focus on my own job.”
“It’s definitely a media and fans story,” added Matthews. “I think both of us don’t really look at it as a comparison.”
Each has already mastered the art of deflection as the media tries to drum up hype for their matchup and create some sort of rivalry to eventually replace Ovechkin vs. Crosby. These are very much the type of players that are often bred in the hockey world: team on the front of the sweater first, name on the back second.
In terms of ability, however, Laine and Matthews are just part of the bigger shift toward the NHL becoming a young man’s game.
“When [players] arrive they’re probably more ready than they used to be,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock said, pointing to better amateur coaching, as well as strength development and nutritionists available to players. “Physical development is way ahead of where it used to be.”
In short, according to one of the most seasoned coaches in the game, the better prepared that players are before they reach the NHL, the more of an impact they can make immediately.
“Major junior is just NHL light,” Babcock said. “It’s like light beer, it’s the same principle.”
It’s no coincidence that Matthews and Laine have immediately found success. In part, the points that they’ve accrued (Laine has two points in his first three games, while the story of Matthews’s four-goal NHL debut will be told for years to come) are owed to the opportunities their coaches have provided them. Both players are second in ice time on their teams at their positions.
“I think it’s real simple: If you’ve got good young players you use them,” Babcock said. “And if you can’t find a way to get them in you can’t find a way.”
As early as it is in the season, it doesn’t look as if either player will be dropping out of his lineup anytime soon. And if there’s one thing neither lacks, it’s confidence.
“It's interesting, as soon as you [become] cautious with a young guy, he knows it,” Babcock said. “If they’re good players they get confidence and they get going.”
A few seasons back, an early season game between the Maple Leafs and the Jets might not have been much of a draw. But as the league trends younger, and more players like Laine and Matthews begin making an impact immediately, fans of every franchise can expect more meaningful games with enticing young players throughout the season.