Is Patrik Laine the best prospect in this draft? ESPN thinks so

Immediately after the Leafs won the draft lottery a couple weekends ago, it started. We began questioning everything. 

Auston Matthews always seemed like a slam dunk number one in every way, like McDavid or Tavares or Stamkos or any other elite center before him. But then it was reported the Leafs themselves had a scout with doubts about taking the American first overall, instead making a case for widely-considered number two Patrik Laine.

The tiny seed of doubt was planted, but it still didn’t matter much. Most outlets and scouting services still had Matthews above the rest. 

Now, however, ESPN has gotten in on the Laine train, and their draft authority, Corey Pronman (whose work I always enjoy, personally) believes the big Finn is just a step ahead. 

You can read Pronman’s entire top 100 here (Insider Paywall), along with his stand-alone for Matthews vs. Laine, to see how he comes to these final rankings as we head into the draft in six weeks. And to be clear, there’s no trashing of Matthews or anything going on here. 

As Pronman notes, this pick is still very close to being a coin-flip for him.

But someone has to be first. And over at ESPN it’s now Laine.

Age Matters

One of the main things tipping this ranking in Laine’s favour is simply age. As we all know, the difference between Matthews being part of the McDavid draft and this one is just 48-hours. He’s on the “old” end of this draft, and given Pronman’s work looking at early and late birthdays in the past, it’s no surprise this would factor in substantially.

Some might roll their eyes at the assertion that seven months can be significant, but it is when players are this young. When you research the standard of excellence for an under-18 player versus that of an under-19 player, it’s a significant difference…As a player who is nearly a full year older and who has a full extra season of hockey experience, Matthews can’t just be going tit-for-tat with Laine…I believe Matthews has been slightly better — but that’s not enough.

It’s hard to deny this surge from Laine in the last six months or so, but for me personally it isn’t enough to overtake Matthews’ absurd body of work over the last couple years. I will say this ranking by Pronman is surprising, since while we usually do see the gap between one and two close a bit as the draft gets closer, rarely is the top guy actually overtaken. And unlike some outlets who are often clearly throwing out hot takes to drive traffic or debate for the sake of it, that isn’t the case here.

It’s simply a list. A list with Laine ahead of Matthews for top pick. The pick where the Leafs are selecting next month. We might not agree with it (and I don’t personally), but it’s from one of the more reputable draft sources out there. And given we know how methodical the Leafs will be about their preparation for this pick, it again makes me question how that front office (analytical in their approach, like Pronman) will eventually lean.

So, again, like any of these pre-draft lists, take from it what you will [In this case, likely a boatload more stress if you’re a Toronto fan]. 

  • FlareKnight

    Do we want Jonathan Toews or Alex Ovechkin?

    Given that we have some potential P.Kane comparables in William Nylander and Mitch Marner. I know who I would draft.

    • Capt.Jay

      ummmm… alex ovechkin. what kind of question is that. a generational talent and one of the best goal scorers of all time or a top centre surrounded by better talent. ovechkin hasn’t contributed to the caps being unable to win as he has consistently been the best or one of the best in the nhl since his draft year. toews has had more talent to work with: keith, kane, saad, seabrook, hjalmarsson, oduya, ladd. ovechkin only has only had backstrom and carlson for most of his career.

      • Tybot

        It’s a question about cups.

        Ovie + Backstrom is probably a more offensively talented duo than Toews + Kane but the latter has won 3 cups. I’m probably not giving enough credit to Keith but then again Holtby is far more talented than the goalies the hawks have won with so it all comes out in the wash.

        Matthews over Laine any day, even if Laine turns out to be the next Ovechkin (which he likely won’t).

        • Tybot

          winning cups is a team accomplishment and not indicative of an individual’s talent or ability. it’s not ovechkin’s fault the caps management didn’t surround ovechkin with equally great talent or a great supporting cast while the Hawks surrounded their stars by other stars/excellent supporting cast members. I think laine is a great prospect but he’s being overhyped like he’s the next ovechkin when he’s not. he’s had a hot second half but Matthews remains the #1 prospect. I trust leafs management (for once) to make the right decisions.

          • Tybot

            I agree with most of what you’re saying here. Definitely not Ovie’s fault they lost, I’m a big Ovechkin fan. I think Toews has something extra that helps during crunch time though. It might just be the fact that it’s easier to impact a game from the Center position – hard to say.

            Regardless, we agree on the most important thing, I fully trust leafs management to make the right decisions. Finally.

  • FlareKnight

    The age thing just seems stupid. If Matthews was someone who last year would have been ranked 30th or lower and over this season surged to the top that’d be one thing. But he would have challenged for 2nd overall in the McDavid draft purely on last year’s work. So a fantastic player remained fantastic and continued to improve his game and that’s somehow worse than a guy who surged through the draft rankings this season?

    So yeah, I think we can toss this list out the window. The logic behind it is just weak. It’s just recency bias and blinded by flash. Matthews’ overall game makes him significantly ahead of Laine, not slightly ahead. I mean sure based on this he’d have Laine drafted ahead of McDavid since he’s a year older than Laine and doesn’t have significantly more points in this tournament.

    In the end the Leafs will take Matthews first. They aren’t going to dumbly be blinded by a birth certificate over what the players have actually done over the past year on the ice.

  • Benjamin

    I think any honest person, and objective and open-minded person, would lean toward a coin flip, and be happy, ecstatic, with either of two, even three players, who as 17 year olds, did more at the World Juniors than 18 year old Reinhart and 19 year old Domi. and for the two Finns, it only bolstered their confidence. What doesn’t impress, is people who say ‘end of discussion’, or even there is no discussion, and people who get no enjoyment in the current matthews-laine battle, people who don’t even want a game/contest, unless their hero is the winner. Anyways, I would flip a coin.

  • Benjamin

    Apparently Pronman now uses a player ranking system somewhere between Craig Button and NHL ’16, where skills like offensive IQ and skating are given a number from 20-80.

    So yeah, not listening Corey.

  • CMpuck

    Remember when ESPN called Nylander the best prospect in the world and the Leafs the number one prospect pool last year. It’s nice when successful but dumb people compliment you.

    Laine is better Matthews? Sure, if you’re only informed by high light goals.

  • #12MorrisLukowich

    Yeah this is silly. The game between the Finns and USA at the world championship was telling to me. Laine played 13ish min and was a minus 1 and was taken off the top pp at the end of the game to make sure they kept their lead. Matthews on the other hand played 19:09 and was the guy that stripped Laine in his defensive zone leading to a goal, which showed Matthews 200 ft game and passing ability simulataneously. Team USA on paper is absolute garbage so for Matthews to be a point per game player on that team is more impressive than Laine having 7 in 4 games when he’s playing with Barkov and Jokinen and half his points are on the pp. Then consider that USA has already played power house Canada, while finland has wracked up a lot of points against weak foes. Anyway, I’m not trying to crap on Laine but to me when you watch their games, it’s just too clear that Matthews is still head and shoulders above Laine and all this speculation is starting to piss me off. Laine got hot at end of the year. Matthews has been hot for the last 3 years. Wouldn’t surprise me at all if Matthews finishes world championships with more points anyhow.

  • To me, even if Matthews was consensus #2 by the draft, it’s still so close that the leafs gotta take him 1st overall. The need for a number 1 center on this team is that great. I mean damn, the leafs just got rid of a goal scoring winger and we have all been crying for a big, tough, hardworking number 1 center since Sundin.

  • Gary Empey

    If it’s actually a “coin flip” (and I don’t), you still have to take the centre.

    If you’ve been watching Matthews at the IIHF tournament it’s clear he can do things with the puck that Laine can’t.

    His passing is pinpoint, his touch and stick-handling magic and his finishing still a work in progress.

    I say he gets twice as many assists as goals for the Leafs, which is just fine when you’ll have finishers like JvR and Nylander around.

    Matthews. Hands down.

  • Tybot

    If they’re so close/interchangeable, the Leafs obvious pick would still be Matthews. Do we need a winger or a center? Point proven.

    Actually… the only… ONLY thing that would make me hesitant of Matthews over Laine is that Matthews would have the potential of running straight to Arizona when he becomes a UFA in 7 years while Laine would presumably not have a desire to jump ship.

    • magesticRAGE

      I think fans make more of playing in your home town than athletes do, especially when it a small market. When all things are equal and makes sense, sure, but core players get attached (Gilmour, Clarke, Sundin).
      Looks like the yotes aren’t staying in Glendale anyhow. Their future is too much in flux to make a career decision on.

  • Harte of a Lion

    The bottom line is that Hunter and the Leafs will select the best player whether that is Matthews or Laine in their opinion.

    I think Matthews is a great player with terrific potential however if the Leafs and Ari Vouri decide that Laine is a “Generational” player then he needs to be selected ahead of Matthews.

    There are so many factors involved in determining whether one great young teen athlete will project better than another for the next decade. I have confidence that the Leafs will choose the one they feel is the best player available at #1 and 30th and 31st etc… regardless of prospect lists or pressure from media and fans

    *the Oilers didn’t Nail it When they bowed to fan pressure and selected the winger while passing over Murry and Rielly while their team screamed for d-help*

    • FlareKnight

      People like to use the Oilers example, but it doesn’t remotely apply here. Frankly no one that the Oilers were thinking of taking would have helped them significantly. That was a terrible draft, where the guys who should have gone at the top were seriously injured for much of the season. If the call was between Yakupov and Murray then the Oilers were screwed no matter what. Murray isn’t remotely an established D, much less a franchise defenseman that would have helped anything.

      It also doesn’t apply because what the Leafs need more than anything is a franchise center and that’s what the top prospect in the draft happens to be.

      It makes no sense to take Laine first overall. He’s not a better offensive player and he certainly isn’t a better player overall.

      • Harte of a Lion

        It’s a good thing Shanahan has people in place who’s professional opinions I respect to make this process easier for us all.

        In Shanahan We Trust!

  • Tybot

    ‘the leafs need a center’; wash, rinse and repeat, like a broken record. no logic, no facts, just semantics. matthews did play wing, and laine can play center. the question I ask, is matthews-marner, or marner-laine? I am completely indifferent between the two, looking forward to either case of dynamic duo, [[also mascherin-bracco, nylander-hyman-timashev, kuokkanen-kappanen]],

  • magesticRAGE

    I do think Laine is being over hyped. I have said it in the past, and would still choose Puljujarvi over Laine, but Matthews is the ring to rule them all.

    Matthews and Puljujarvi can make moves and plays with high speed, where Laine will get (has shown in the World Championship) his lack of speed exposed. Some of the moves he makes won’t translate to the NHL unless they’re performed with speed. Laine will have a good career, but might just be a power-play specialist.

  • Gary Empey

    Patrik Laine needed just four games at the World Hockey Championship to become the highest-scoring 18-year-old in tournament history.

    Matthews is not far behind him, and will likely break the old record as well.

    Patrik Laine’s game-changing shot making teams rethink No. 1 pick ahead of lottery Toronto Sun

    He takes over games’: Patrik Laine, not Auston Matthews, might be NHL draft’s true No. 1 National Post

  • Gary Empey

    Good article. One thing to note: The Seravelli article you guys quoted (regarding the Leafs European Scout preferring Matthews) doesn’t actually say that Vuori prefers Laine. The quote is as follows “Maple Leafs director of European scouting Ari Vuori may have made a strong case for Toronto to select Finnish sniper Patrik Laine ahead of Matthews”. The article makes an assumption (based on Vuori’s past tendencies) that may or may not be true. I wouldn’t take it as a fact that a Leaf scout has Laine ahead of Matthews.

  • #12MorrisLukowich

    I find the view points of the players involved in this draft to be astoundingly absurd.

    #1) Anyone involved with the perennial loser Leaf organization is well, a loser…how do you describe successful? by getting paid well?… extremely well?

    How anyone can believe that this team which has consistently wallowed in last place for 2 generations could be an authority is just delusional.

    The only “authority” is a winning team… the management which bring in championships. Not the management which pays the most.

    You posters (posers) think you may have a winning team (as you always do every year you end in last place) but you don’t..and even spending $6 mil a year for a COACH, doesn’t mean you’re almost there…NO…reality dictates you’re a LONG way away…

    Mathews & Laine are both very good players, but…I’ll be damned before I believe what a Laff scout (coach or owner) has to say…

    Laine ALL the way baby !!!

    Make way for the new Mike Bossy 2016!!!!

  • Mitch92

    As a lifelong Leaf fan I should be looking forward to this year’s draft. As it looks as though there is next to no chance that my favorite prospect Jesse Puljujärvi will become a Leaf, I am not. All this Auston Matthews love sickens me. Leaf fans cheering for Team USA, what the hell is that about? What really bugs me is this belief that we have to draft Matthews because he is a big center. The Leafs are going to end up having to trade a quality NHL center and/or convert one or two of them to the wing to make room down the middle if they sign Stamkos and draft Matthews. I would rather they went all in to try to get both the Finns and go with Stamkos, Nylander, Kadri and Laich down the middle next year. Leave Matthews to buoy the hopes of one of the floundering American teams.

  • #12MorrisLukowich

    Look at me…

    I’m Peter Griffin, Toronto sports writer, I’m obviously extremely intelligent and good looking because…I’m from Toronto…and I follow the bestest team in hockey, the Toronto Maple Laffs because I’m Peter Griffin and I know just because we’ve been in last place for 50 years doesn’t mean we’re bad because…I’m Peter Griffin from Toronto…and I know we have the bestest coach in hockey ’cause we pay him the most and I know we have the bestest draft pick in hockey coming up at our #1 selection ’cause he’s in the top 25 in scoring right now and I’m Peter Griffin from Toronto so I’m always right

    Meeyaa…

    we’ll be right back…

  • MyDogHasScheifeles

    The Leafs and the Jets will get very good players.
    Leaf fans don’t be so sensitive when Jets fans(or draft gurus) say they would take Laine over Mathews.
    This article makes a valid point…8 months is a huge amount of time for a young 18 year old to improve their game. Is Mathews the better player today? Yes but Laine has closed that gap which was much larger at Christmas time. The main point to this article is that if Laine had an extra season of hockey under his belt(as many as Mathews) he arguably would be the better of the two.
    Laine is a perfect fit for Winnipeg(needs a sniper big body winger and already have the players to compliment him)he also is less likely to bolt come free agency and he is Finnish.
    If Mathews were to fall to the Jets he may not sign with them. He may pull a Lindros. Plus the Jets have their 1st and 2nd line centers and three or four players fighting for the 3rd and 4th line jobs. Center is not a position of need.
    Laine is the best player for the Jets from a Jets fans perspective. Just like Mathews is the best player for the Leafs from Leafs fans perspective.
    Both different in what they do, both very good at what they do.

  • Gary Empey

    Murphy’s Law pretty much guarantees that because the Leafs have first pick, the consensus #1 will be an absolute Daigle.

    Watching Matthews face on the night of the lottery was depressing. I’m not saying the kid doesn’t have skills but I don’t think he really wants to be in Toronto and I haven’t seen the kind of heart in his play that the Leafs desperately need. Even before the lottery, I was questioning whether the kid was all that and his choice to play in the Swiss league was odd. I understand the reasoning behind it – I just don’t agree with it. If he’s been reading his own press clippings, he may Lindros. Or Drouin. It’s all a guessing game but to quote the ol’ StarWars: I’ve got a bad feeling about this…..

    Now, the rules of Toronto media mean that whoever goes #1 is doomed to hounding, completely unfair and questionable speculation, untoward comments about his mother and scrutiny about the amount of hot dog he ingests. God forbid he make friends with anyone named Bozak! The people who make that decision will also be declared geniuses and/or bumbling idiots regardless of who goes first and how they play in every stinking game of their career. And likely their performance in a future alumni game or cul-de-sac shinny with the neighbour kids. You’re vicious, Toronto Media. Vicious.