TORONTO â€” Teammates were struck by how cool Auston Matthews remained during a 13-game goal drought at one point this season. The Winnipeg Jets saw something similar in Patrik Laine when things went sideways.
The forever-linked first two picks of the 2016 draft appear to be handling their historic rookie seasons in similar fashion. It’s not just the impressive results the teenage sensations of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets have managed already, but the confidence and coolness with which they’ve performed under immense pressure.
“If a shift doesn’t go well he’s going to be upset for 20, 30 seconds, he might say a few choice words and then he’s right back out there and he’s probably going to ring one off the cross-bar the next shift,” Jets centre Adam Lowry said of the 18-year-old Laine. “I think it’s that mentality that he knows he can be good and believes in himself.”
Leaf players credit that same strong self-belief for Matthews consistent performance. The 19-year-old has produced at nearly point per-game pace and has yet to go more than three games without a goal since snapping out of that 13-game dry spell in late November.
“I think it’s just part of his personality,” veteran Leafs defenceman Matt Hunwick said, crediting Matthews for his composure in front of the highly-populated Toronto media contingent. “He seems like a very serious person when he’s around the rink.”
Toronto winger James Van Riemsdyk thinks Matthews probably developed some of that confidence â€” “he’s not intimidated and overwhelmed by any situation” â€”when he thrived against men in the top Swiss league last season. The same could be said of Laine, who diced up the best Finnish league last year before shining internationally at both the world junior championships and world hockey championships.
He then stepped up with a hat trick in his fourth NHL game, almost equalling Matthews’ historic four-goal NHL debut.
“When I was his age I was playing junior, you know what I’m saying,” Jets forward Mathieu Perrault said.
Perrault started his NHL career in Washington alongside Alex Ovechkin, the high-flying Russian scorer with whom Laine has long been compared. Perrault sees similarity only in the way the two shoot the puck, saying Laine is more of a skilled winger in contrast to the physically imposing Ovechkin.
“Actually my dad had a pretty good comparison,” Perrault said. “He thinks (Laine) looks a lot like what Mario Lemieux looked like when he came in the league. Tall guy, not overly fast, but fast â€” it doesn’t look fast, but he is. Tall, lanky, good hands. My dad thinks he looks a lot like Mario Lemieux.”
Laine and Matthews have been inspiring comparisons to the all-time greats all year long, their feats as rookies almost without parallel in NHL history. Both are on pace for nearly 40 goals â€” a plateau only six first-players â€” Lemieux, Ovechkin, Eric Lindros, Teemu Selanne, Luc Robitaille and Joe Nieuwendyk â€” have crossed in the last 32 years.
“History speaks for itself when not many guys as first-year players, right out of their draft, put up those kind of numbers and have that kind of impact,” van Riemsdyk said.
While the goal-scoring certainly pops for Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen, he’s been most impressed by how Matthews competes on the puck.
“You see him, if even if he loses the puck in the offensive zone, he’s right there on it to get it back before they even know it,” Andersen said. “He never really quits on a play like that.”
Leafs coach Mike Babcock said Matthews has come a long way defensively, and the Toronto coach is comfortable now in matching him up against top lines.
Lowry said Laine has done a “marvellous job”, meanwhile, of adapting to the various strategies of opposing teams in containing him and that special shot. The Jets have stopped being surprised by the quantity and quality of Laine’s feats, but they’re still impressed by his wicked release and ability to get open.
“I think the sky’s the limit for him,” Lowry said. “He’s still only 18. You look at what players like (Sidney) Crosby and Ovechkin and (Steven) Stamkos and what they were able to do after a few years in the league. And he’s still maturing into his body. He’s a big guy, but he’s going to get bigger, he’s going to get stronger, and that’s only going to make him more dynamic.”
Matthews is already packing 216 pounds onto six foot two frame and it’s that physical readiness Hunwick believes has allowed him to step right in and thrive. That along with the superb skill-set found commonly in the young stars of today that toiling all summer on skills and skating improvement.
“He’s been one of our best players game in, game out, if not our best player,” van Riemsdyk said. “And he seems to just learn very quickly and seems to get better every game.”
Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press