Patrik Laine’s play has drawn some flattering comparisons to Alexander Ovechkin, the player Laine says he molds his game after. Laine’s countryman, Jesse Puljujarvi, has drawn comparisons to Florida Panthers center and fellow Finn, Aleksander Barkov.
The 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship brought the spotlight on these two young potential stars and they more than lived up to the hype. The problem with the WJC is that it is not terribly useful in the projection of prospects, rightfully earning the tongue in cheek title of the “tournament of small sample sizes” from some.
So how have the seasons of these respective players gone? Do they give us a bigger picture? In Part One of this analysis, we take a closer look at Patrik Laine.
Height/Weight: 6’04, 209 lbs
Born: April 19, 1998
Regular Season: 46gp, 17g – 16a – 33pts
Playoffs: 18 gp, 10g – 5a – 15pts
NHLE (source: Lowetide): 17pts*
First things first, that was some weird music – not sure about you, but I felt like I was frozen in the Mario Kart Main Menu from days of yore (Warning: the Jesse Puljujarvi feature is no better).
I can definitely see where pundits (and Laine himself) are coming from with the Ovechkin comparisons, especially on the PP. That RH shot at the hashmarks or on the point is excellent. Laine’s vision and his ability to pass out of that position are also significant strengths, provided there are other shooting options on the powerplay.
However, it is safe to say that Laine is not nearly as dynamic a skater as the Great 8, and his shot off the rush is not really in the same ballpark (then again, whose is?). The term generational talent is thrown around very liberally these days, but Alexander Ovechkin fits the bill and then some. Let’s not hold Laine to those kinds of expectations. What he is, however, is one of the best prospects of the last five years to enter the draft, one of the best pure goal scorers, and one of the prospects best suited to the pro game.
Watching the above video, and likely because I’m an Oilers fan, I can’t shake how similar he looks to Leon Draisaitl. He has a similar stride and similar stick-handling style (he tries to put the puck in his opponent’s feet as quickly as possible) and he’s got that same wacky foot and a half long blade. He protects the puck well and looks to be physically ready to play in the NHL. Like Draisaitl, while his top speed is relatively high, his acceleration is not very good and will need work.
One area where he surpasses Draisaitl is sheer strength. Neon Leon is pretty strong, but Laine’s a beast. He’s played his best in the playoffs, when the game is at its most physical. He is playing against grown men but he is as strong as any of them and stronger than most. His advantage in this regard will not be as significant in the NHL, but his size and strength should enable him to hit the ground running as a rookie.
Overall, he is a smooth, big-bodied, cerebral player. The quickness of his adjustment to North American style hockey and ice surfaces will be dependent on his ability to play in straighter lines, utilizing a more urgent attack, and anticipating the same defensively. Historically, Finns have excelled in making these adjustments.
When it comes to defense (which Laine himself identifies as an area of his game that needs work), I have seen enough of his game to believe he is ahead of where Ovechkin was as a rookie. One area that Laine excels in this regard is his understanding of when to abandon an attack gone wrong and minimize his negative contribution to a counter-attack. We often see problems in this area with skill players who struggle to make the transition from offense to defense, taking a long looping turn in the offensive zone before backchecking. To be honest, it’s something even Connor McDavid has to get out of his game. Laine is certainly not perfect in this regard, but I’m impressed with his awareness, that he is able to use his instincts to anticipate turnovers and adjust accordingly; that bodes well for him and his professional development in the NHL.
Worth the Hype?
I think the bottom line is pretty obvious: Laine is a phenomenal prospect. Given his tantalizing combination of skills, size, and vision, not to mention his undeniably impressive feel for the game, Laine is worth the hype. In terms of raw scoring potential, he is unquestionably superior to Auston Matthews. In terms of maturity and contribution to winning, I’d give the slight edge to Matthews. In the end, both are phenomenal young players, each worthy of being drafted 1st overall.
I will not be surprised if whoever drafts Laine wants to try him at center. He certainly has the tools to do it – it’s a matter of getting comfortable and understanding the role. That said, it’s more reasonable to expect that he will at least begin on the right wing and, should opportunity arise, be subject to experimentation at center ice. In the end, if you end up with an elite scoring winger – well, you have something very few teams actually have.
If you’re wondering how much he can help in the bigs today, know this: Laine will be in the NHL next year. It doesn’t matter who drafts him. He is simply too good not to be.
From an Oilers fan’s perspective, he probably fits Edmonton’s immediate needs more than Matthews. I, for one, do not expect the Oilers to win the lottery (crazy, I know) – so I’m ecstatic that a player like Laine could be available in the #2 or possibly even the #3 slot (seeming less and less likely). He would bring a nice balance to the top 6 and immediately soften the blow of Jordan Eberle’s seemingly inevitable departure.
*(A note about NHLE: for both Laine and Puljujarvi, it is really low. I debated whether or not to include it and ultimately decided to, as it has proven to be a help in the past in the projection of rookie production in the NHL. In this instance, however, it’s pretty out of whack and, one would assume, a ways off from reality. The CHL and USHL offer a much more predictive history of results which contributes to more accurate projections; this year, we have a draft where all 3 of the consensus top 3 are playing professionally in Europe. I don’t know the last time that’s happened but suspect that that – along with TOI estimates – is what has wonkified the NHLE numbers.)