A little while back, Canucks general manager Jim Benning announced that he’d be looking to draft a defenceman in the first round of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, barring an elite forward being available that was too hard to pass up. So a couple of weeks ago I set out a primer for this year’s top four defencemen, making the assumption that the Canucks were likely to fall in the 4-10 range on draft day.
Then the Canucks went on a nine-game losing streak, and although they somehow managed to win four of their last six games, their final standings position has been cemented at 28th. Suddenly a top three pick is not only possible, but downright likely – only leapfrogging lottery winners could shake them from the top three.
With the new lottery system this year, any team out of the playoff picture has three cracks to move into the top three, where they’ll have a chance to draft a franchise altering player. The first overall pick is nearly a no-brainer – Auston Matthews is considered the best player available, and only a few rabblerousers are challenging that notion.
In the second and third spots though, two towering Finnish wingers are slated to be taken. Both are well above six feet tall, and are putting up respectable numbers in the top tier Finnish league as 17-year olds. Say you’ve got the second overall pick at your disposal, who do you pick: Patrik Laine or Jesse Puljujärvi?
If you’re curious about the two Finns, there’s no shortage of information out there. Scouting reports galore can be found all over the internet. I’ll provide a sampling of that of course, but since this is analytics-based blog, I’m gonna give you something on the Finns that you probably haven’t seen yet: fancy stats!
Yes, it’s true, we have access to fancy stats for the top tier Finnish league. Everyone does in fact, since Liiga lists them on their website – you just have to wade through a mess of google-translated Finnish to figure out what’s what, and then Excel the hell out of it.
That’s exactly what I’ve done. The Liiga website provides a series of advanced stats, including Corsi (shot attempt differential), Zone Starts, and PDO. While they don’t include rate stats, they do host enough time on ice data for me to manufacture my own.
Disclaimer: All fancy stats in the following sections are derived from the regular season – playoffs will be discussed at the end.
Let’s dive in!
Laine and Puljujärvi are similar in terms of body type and size, but are considerably different in terms of playing style, flash, and all around ability. Laine is seen as the more creative and more offensively gifted of the two, while Puljujärvi is considered the more complete player.
As the year has gone on, Patrik Laine has pulled ahead of his Finnish companion in the majority of rankings. His size, speed, magical hands, and precise finish have drawn comparisons to Mario Lemieux, one of the all-time greats.
Patrik Laine has more than a couple of scouts reminiscing about a fellow named Mario Lemieux. It was apparent at the U-20…was noticeable down the stretch in the SM-liiga regular season, and even more apparent during the playoffs – this kid is scary good, and the closest thing comparable to Mario since…..Mario.
“He looks like Mario when he’s carrying the puck,” noted one top scout during the U-20, and he wasn’t alone in that assertion. When asked for a comparison, Teemu Selanne brought up Lemieux as well.
“I can’t honestly recall scouting a forward over 6-4 with a skill set as similar to Mario’s as Laine’s,” says [McKeen’s chief amateur scout] Grant McCagg. “The way he creates space when he has the puck, his hands, his release, his shot, his vision…maybe he’s not quite at Mario’s level…but he’s not that far off. He’s a tier above Rick Nash at the same age. I see a future 50-goal NHL scorer, maybe a 60-goal guy.”
The McKeen’s rankings even go so far as to place Laine ahead of Matthews, though they don’t have much support in that regard. Typically he’s rated as the second overall selection.
Both Laine and Puljujärvi are big players, but Laine uses his size more effectively that Puljujärvi does – he’s stronger in corners and in knocking opponents off pucks. His vision and offensive zone awareness is first rate and he’s used them to tear up the top Finnish league as a 17-year old.
While Laine drew comparisons to Mario Lemieux, Puljujärvi has reminded scouts of a different superstar – one much closer to home: Finnish legend Teemu Selanne.
“Teemu always wanted to score, wanted to go to the net and always tried to create scoring chances. I like to do all of that, and be dangerous all the time. So I guess in that way we’re the same. I want to continue to play a versatile game, stay on the puck and go hard to the net.”
Of course, those comparisons are probably loftier than is warranted at this point. Puljujärvi isn’t a lock to score 40 goals in the NHL, let alone the 76 Selanne put up in his rookie campaign. Still, it’s nice just to have the comparison of the fundamentals.
Puljujärvi comes out ahead of Laine in terms of skating and quickness (which is a bit of a weakness for Laine at this point), though he doesn’t have quite the same level of offensive pedigree. He is instead touted for his two-way ability and all around game. These attributes put him slightly ahead of Laine in terms of NHL readiness. He’s also not some decent size to him, at 6-foot-3, 201 pounds, though he doesn’t use it in a manner than some NHL coaches might prefer.
“He’s a big guy, but he’s actually not that physical,” Finnish scout Toni Rajamäki told TSN 1260’s Pipeline Show. “Even though he’s a big kid and he can skate real well. He can steal the puck from opponents with great checking skills, but he’s not that physical, you don’t see him giving big hits and that.”
Asked whether Puljujärvi bore any resemblance to previously high ranked Finnish players like Aleksander Barkov or Mikko Rantanen, Rajamäki said that Puljujärvi stood in a league of his own.
“There’s never been a good Finnish player like him, he’s really unique.”
Now that we’ve had a look at how each of them has performed this season, let’s compare their statistics head-to-head. We’ll begin with the standard boxcars.
Laine has the advantage in basic statistics, having generated more goals, more assists, and more points all while playing less games. Puljujärvi does have an advantage in penalty minutes, if you’re in to that sort of thing. Laine’s PIMs are almost Lady Byng worthy, while Puljujärvi has been gooning it up. Actually, all 22 of Puljujärvi’s penalty minutes are accounted for by minor penalties – stick infractions, obstruction, that sort of thing.
We’re more interested in the analytical way of viewing production, so let’s move on to some rate stats.
In this chart, the Goals per 60 minutes (G60), Assists per 60 minutes (A60), and Points per 60 minutes (P60) are all calculated at even strength*, while PP P60 represents Points per 60 minutes on the power play.
Laine again has the advantage in all areas of production, though Puljujärvi is no slouch.
The two Finns’ points are distributed in an almost equal fashion in terms of even strength and power play production. Neither has any short handed points as neither are regular penalty killers – they’re both hovering at around just a couple minutes over the course of the whole season.
Using the NHLe metric, we can estimate how the Finns’ points would translate to the NHL level. Over the course of an 82 game season, Laine’s numbers translate to 17 points, while Puljujarvi’s translate to 13 points. Not too bad for a pair of 17-year olds. You can safely expect those totals to rise a fair amount when they make the transition to the NHL next season.
Patrik Laine has been praised for his shot rate, and those numbers certainly show up here – he dominates Puljujärvi in this category.
It’s not as though Puljujärvi’s numbers are poor – they are well above league average. Laine, however, is among the league leaders in shot generation.
Laine generated shot attempts at a rate of 19.11 per 60 minutes in all situations**, which was fourth best in Liiga this season. He also generates unblocked shot attempts at a rate of 18.13 per 60 minutes (percentage of shot attempts that are blocked are much lower in European leagues where shot blocking isn’t held in such high regard), which was fifth in Liiga, and 10.12 shots on net per 60 minutes, which was also fifth in the league.
Looking at it inversely, Laine generates a shot attempt every 3.1 minutes of all situation play time. With an average shift length of just under 52 seconds, Laine generates a shot attempt approximately ever three and a half shifts, and a shot on net every 6.8 shifts. When all is said and done, Laine takes about 5.5 shot attempts per game and about 1.9 shots on net per game, both of which are in the league’s top 10 (among skaters with at least 50 minutes played).
Puljujärvi’s numbers are quite as impressive, but they are still solid. His 13.94 shot attempts per 60 minutes ranked 31st in Liiga this season, while his 6.93 shots on net per 60 minutes ranked 64th. That’s about 6 shifts for each shot attempt and 11 and a half shifts for each shot on net.
Finally we’ve found an area in which Puljujärvi is the clear leader.
Puljujärvi’s Corsi percentages are superior to Laine’s in both standard and Close*** score situations. There are some qualifiers to go along with this however.
First of all, as you can see right on the graph, Puljujärvi has a huge advantage when it comes to zone starts. Through the whole regular season, Laine was dead even, starting 212 times in the offensive zone, and 212 times in the defensive zone. Puljujärvi on the other hand started almost 50 more times in the offensive zone than the defensive zone. This is naturally going to lead to some increased offensive output.
Secondly, Puljujärvi has been playingfor a much stronger possession team that Laine. Kärpät, Puljujärvi’s team, was tied for the best possession percentage in all of Liiga during the regular season, controlling 53.4 per cent of shot attempts. In score-close situations, they controlled 52.9 per cent of shot attempts, which is third best.
It should be noted, however, that Puljujärvi led Kärpät in Corsi percentage, indicating that he was an important reason for why their possession numbers are so dominant. His 57.5 per cent Corsi-for percentage ranked 14th in the league. Sebastian Aho and Mika Pyörälä, two of Puljujärvi’s frequent linemates, also sported Corsi-for percentage above 55 per cent during the regular season.
By contrast, Tappara, Laine’s team, had a Corsi-for percentage of 48.2, which is in the bottom third of the league, while controlling 47.7 per cent of shot attempts in score close situations. This does improve the look of Laine’s 53.3 Corsi-for percentage, but it doesn’t make his numbers as impressive as Puljujärvi’s. Unlike Puljujärvi, Laine did not lead his team in possession percentage; he was third among Tappara regulars.
In all areas, Laine has a slight lead in ice time, getting a little under two and a half extra minutes per game over the course of the season. Laine gets slightly more power play time as well, while neither spend much time killing penalties.
It’s interesting to note that Puljujärvi’s ice time decreases slightly over the course of the game, while Laine sees the most ice time in the third period. However, the differences are so minute that they may represent nothing more than random chance.
It was mentioned above, but it bears repeating now: Puljujärvi has a very high offensive zone start rate, while Laine’s offensive starts are dead even with his defensive starts.
There could be a variety of reasons for this, and some of them may have more to do with coaching bias and assumptions than being a reflection of skill level. Perhaps the Tappara coach doesn’t even pay attention to zone starts and is instead just rolling four lines incessantly.
When we talk about things like “luck” and “bounces”, the go to stat is PDO, which is nothing more than the sum of a player’s on-ice shooting percentage and save percentage. It’s an overly simplistic proxy for luck, but it’s available to us, so we might as well peek at it.
|Name||5v5 oi Sh%||5v5 oi Sv%||PDO|
Laine’s PDO is slightly better, but we can see from the chart that each is receiving benefits from different ends of the ice.
Laine’s on-ice shooting percentage is a dominant 10.2 per cent. He’s helping out in this regard, with a personal shooting percentage of 12.7 per cent. His on-ice save percentage is just a smidge less than the team average of 93.8 per cent, so it’s not as if he’s benefiting from goaltender that is far and away better when he’s on the ice than off.
Puljujärvi, meanwhile, has a below average on-ice shooting percentage of 7.9 per cent, which is outrageously unlucky, especially considering that his personal shooting percentage is a whopping 14.9 per cent. His on-ice percentage is a little above the team average of 93.5 per cent, so he could be benefiting from a bit of luck in this regard.
The Liiga playoffs are in full swing and both players have taken part. In fact, Tappara and Kärpät were recently paired off in a semifinal duel, which Tappara took four game to three just yesterday. Something that hasn’t been as close is the performances of the two Finns.
Again, Puljujärvi hasn’t been bad – he has three goals and four assists for seven points in nine games. But Patrik Laine has been unstoppable.
In just 12 games, Laine has eight goals so far, which is three more than anyone else in the league has. He’s also blowing the rest of the league away in shots (41) and shot attempts (78). Like his performance at the World Juniors in the winter, Laine is demonstrating that he can not only rise to the occasion in big moments, but he can absolutely dominate.
If that isn’t impressive enough, consider the fact that the last Finnish top five NHL draft pick, Aleksander Barkov, had no goals in five playoff games in his draft year – Barkov scored 28 goals and 59 points in the NHL this season at the age of 20. That Laine is destroying a European elite league at the age of 17 is nothing short of amazing.
Other trends have carried over from the regular season: Puljujärvi once again has the advantage in possession numbers – his 56.4 Corsi-for percentage dwarfs Laine’s 48.8 per cent ratio. This discrepancy is urged on by the fact that their respective teams are currently playing against each other, and Kärpät is thoroughly outpossessing Tappara.
After ousting Puljujärvi, Laine is now headed to the Liiga final. Personally, I can’t wait to see how many goals he pots before it’s all over.
If it were me standing at the podium with the second overall selection this June, I wouldn’t hesitate a second to call Patrik Laine’s name. Both players are elite talents, and both are likely to have long, successful careers in the National Hockey League, but Laine is just flat out the more offensively talented player. A two-way game is nice – and in fairness, Puljujarvi is a truly elite two-way player, any team would still be lucky to get him – but it would be even nicer to get something more dynamic.
As a Canucks writer, I’m biased towards what they need most, and what they don’t have is a game-breaking goal scorer. In fact, they haven’t had a scorer like Laine since Markus Naslund was filling the net in the heyday of the West Coast Express. Even then it could be argued that Laine’s ceiling is higher than Naslund’s best years – this is the luxury afforded by top tier draft picks.
If I were a betting man, I would guess that Jim Benning would organize his draft board in the same manner. We know of his penchant for two-way players, but we also know how he fawns over players who can “really rip the puck”. Players like Brock Boeser, like Jared McCann – players like Patrik Laine. Laine also plays a meaner game and battles harder and more effectively in the corners. I believe that these are aspects of the game that Jim Benning covets.
Once April 30th rolls around and those ping pong balls start dropping, we’ll have a much better idea of where we stand. Maybe all of this will be moot because we get that first overall pick (dare to dream) or everything goes to hell and we end up in sixth.
But if my team ends up with the second overall pick, I know who I’ll be rooting for them to pick.
* All even strength times are an educated estimate. The Liiga website discloses total time on ice as well as power play time and penalty kill time, so even strength time is calculated by subtracting the special teams time from the total time. This will not account for situations like 4-on-4 or goalie pulls, so it isn’t a traditional 5-on-5 number, but it is still quite accurate.
** All shot data is All Situations because while time on ice is provided situationally, shots and shot attempts are given as a raw number only.
*** Score Close situations are when the teams are within one goal in periods one and two, or tied in period three.