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Once upon a time, it seemed the eventual winner of the 2016 NHL draft lottery wouldn’t have to think twice about selecting Auston Matthews. He was regarded as the slum-dunk pick because of the combination of his elite skill set, imposing frame and complete game.
On the eve of the lottery, however, Finnish star Patrik Laine’s strong play has pushed scouts to question the status quo. He’s not only put some space between himself and fellow countryman Jesse Puljujärvi, who is favoured to go third overall at June's NHL draft in Buffalo, but he’s also made a case to challenge Matthews as the draft’s top prospect.
Although the No. 1 draft slot seems to be Matthews to lose, some scouts believe Laine has the potential to leapfrog the Scottsdale, AZ., native at the upcoming IIHF World Championship tournament May 6 -22 in Russia.
“I was pretty sure about (Matthews) him going first overall for nearly all the season, but now I'm not so sure and think the World Championship in Russia will finally decide this race,” says Thomas Roost, a Switzerland-based scout for NHL Central Scouting Service. “This has nothing to do with Matthews' performances, as he performed very well all season long including the playoffs, but Laine did just explode during the WJC U20 in Finland and now in the Finnish playoffs where he grabbed the MVP award and scored a lot of goals in clutch situations.”
It appears the 6-foot-2, 194-pound Matthews is the more polished prospect of the two. Down the road, however, Laine seems to have the advantage in long-term upside if he can enhance his skating ability.
“Personally, I think Laine has the biggest upside in the draft because he is already so effective, although he still has some rough edges in his play and I think he still can improve his skating a bit more than Matthews,” says Roost. “If all this happens, I guess Laine has the slightly higher ceiling.”
On top of a higher long-term ceiling, the 6-foot-4, 209-pound Laine has the edge in clutch play. In addition to coming up big for Finland at the 2016 world junior championship, he was named the Finnish League playoff MVP this week following scoring 10 goals and 15 points in 18 games.
“Laine is a high-end shooter and has a huge wingspan going with a soft pair of hands plus Laine showed already that he can be at his best in clutch situations,” says Roost. “Matthews also played pretty well in important games and situations, but he didn't level up his plays in these situations as Laine did more than once.”
Nevertheless, since No. 1 centres tend to be harder to find than high-end wingers, Matthews’ position gives him an edge on Laine. It could ultimately push the lottery winner to take the former ZSC Lion, especially if the club lacks size down the middle.
“I still think that this is a real factor because the level of difference is so small when all is said and done, so going for a centermen might still be the difference,” says the scout. “Having a high-end centre is a bit more important than to have a high-end winger in the eyes of most hockey experts”
As expected with all bluechip prospects near draft time, Matthews and Laine have elicited various comparisons to NHL stars. An interesting thought that has been talked about in hockey circles is comparing Matthews to Evgeni Malkin and Laine to Alexander Ovechkin. The comparisons have some strong points, but they are both a bit of stretch, especially the Matthews-Malkin comparison.
“I agree in terms of maybe that Laine is a bit more Ovechkin in terms of shooting and acting extrovert as a bit of a showman sometimes on the ice and in interviews,” says Roost. “Laine is very confident but still in a positive way; he is not (yet) overconfident. I guess he is very smart and clever. Matthews is more low key in interviews and in his overall on and off-ice behaviour. Style wise, on the ice I think Matthews is more like Kopitar or Toews than Malkin, but I'm 100 per cent sure that both players will leave their stamps with their own trademarks and none of them will be called an Ovechkin, Kopitar, Toews or Malkin clone in the future.”
Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen