Matthews, Laine, and my street hockey reality check

I was overweight my entire childhood. By my late teens, that was even more apparent; you don’t find many 5’10, 350-pound teenagers who have any interest in playing sports. Even football players with that build tend to be a bit taller. But I loved playing soccer and street/ball hockey with my friends and we kept ourselves out of trouble by hitting the mean side streets of Keele and Wilson every single afternoon with a couple of plastic nets, sticks, and beat up tennis balls. 

I didn’t have the stamina (not even close) to play up front in soccer games, so I became a full-time goalkeeper. In hockey, though, I loved to score goals, so I watched NHL highlights every night and taught myself every trademark deke and shot I could in hopes that if I couldn’t out-run them, I’d out-skill them.

For the most part, it worked. I became the last person you ever wanted to leave remotely uncovered on my block. I’d pretty much only lose breakaway relays when I got bored. All of my friends thought that I was a superb hockey player that could have maybe done great things if I was in shape and on skates. I started to buy into it too.

The truth of the matter is, the thought was a wrong one, and the warning signs were always there. A game of street hockey filled with a bunch of kids is defined by rush plays. You play for the turnover, someone is always cherry picking, and nobody ever sets up a formation. You trade scoring chances until the sun goes down. It’s no shock that somebody with quick hands and a nose for the net is going to succeed there.

Eventually, I slimmed down and got to put some of the theory to the test. I still had places to go where I could play my style of game and keep my ego up, but it was around this time that I was invited to practice with people who actually played competitive ball hockey, and occasionally fill in during games when they were missing players. It was a massive reality check. 

Competitive ball hockey, hacking and slashing aside, is incredibly structured. There’s too much cardio involved for it not to be; you can’t run around a full-sized rink for an extended period and expect a rush game. After 20+ years of teaching myself to be “guy with hands”, I realized that, while I could make a play that looked good, the key to sustainable success was fundamental play. It was being able to react to a set play just a little quicker than the others, make a routine pass with just a little bit less prior hesitance, or sneak into just the right spot to score on an otherwise unimpressive shot. “The little things,” as analysts tend to call them.

There’s a point to this, beyond humblebragging and humblebashing myself for how I play a sport at an extremely casual level.

Video via /u/ImHuge on /r/Leafs

The first overall pick debate, beyond being driven by the media to keep you paying attention to their outlets, comes down to two fantastic young players who play two very different games. 

Patrik Laine is street hockey me. A much better and more talented version, of course, but the scouting reports and the highlight film all back that up. Nose for the net, wicked shot, makes himself available on the rush and has the hands to win 1-on-1 situations. It leads to some amazing plays, especially in a tournament like these World Championships where we’ve seen him start his run off by beating up on Belarus and Germany, who don’t know what to do with a player like that. 

Will it translate? I’d imagine much of it will, pure skill is hard to come by. But 1-on-1 play gets tougher when you face better defencemen, and shots from distance get tougher when you face better-prepared goaltenders and forecheckers who aren’t as willing to give you open lanes. Being known as the show stopper prospect will lead to increased focus on you, and it’ll be interesting to see how much of that he can carry over, through, and beyond his opponents.

On the other hand, you have Auston Matthews, who’s stock has been argued to have been falling because while he’s producing, he doesn’t look as game breaking. His highlight reels aren’t full of snipes and dekes, but him sending a pass to an open man, skating into an unguarded area, taking the pass back and tapping it in. Or look at his assist yesterday; he’s patient until the exact second he sees Dylan Larkin free up, sends to him, moves in the direction he needs to be if Larkin doesn’t score, wins the loose puck, sends it to Chris Wideman and gets the team the goal. He’s impossible to strip off the puck, and he’s impossible to track; his game is defined by “anybody can do that” plays, but he does them a step faster and finds more success in the process.

A good comparable for Matthews is John Tavares. Both players were praised as consensus number one picks years before gracing the podium. Both chased records all the way up their development programs, both were considered too good for junior before the start of their draft year (Tavares stuck around) though, and both were suddenly questioned in the final months leading to the draft.

In both cases, people pointed to their age and their short highlight reels despite gaudy numbers as reasons why they were hesitant. Both Matthews and Tavares were days from being drafted in the class prior, but add a few weeks to the equation and you can say the same about a lot of talent. Both saw their status come into question thanks to a “stunning 200-foot player” (defenceman Victor Hedman or forward Jesse Puljujarvi) and an exciting late bloomer (Matt Duchene or Patrik Laine). Rumours that the Islanders would be scared off by the slightly older, good at the basics Tavares persisted all the way to the hour before the draft, when many still believed that the team would opt for Duchene. 

Both turned out to be great forwards, and Hedman turned out to be an elite defenceman. But Tavares ended up removing all doubt from those who weren’t sure that the “simplified game” version of him could thrive. You don’t see him on SportsCentre as often as a player once hyped up as a generational talent would normally be, but he’s a quality point-getter on a team that isn’t overly high-octane, makes everybody around him better, and tilts the ice. He’s a highly cerebral, clinical player who gives his entire team options and pushes the scoresheet in an unassuming way.

Every team needs a player like that, especially if they still possess creativity and talent. Even the flashiest players need a linemate that they can expect to find in a predictable position. Defencemen value having a forward they know can lend them a hand, or even keep them away from duress to begin with. Tavares became that guy. Mike Modano, who Tavares idolized and arguably the man to beat if Matthews wants to become the best American player ever, was also that guy. Hell, Wayne Gretzky has more goals than any player in history, but how many of them do you remember for their flashiness, not their historical significance?

Auston Matthews doesn’t play like a kid trying to show off on his block, and that’s okay. Patrick Laine does, and that’s fine too. But highlight reel plays against weaker opponents are creating an illusion that he has more to offer, which might not necessarily be true; especially to a team like the Leafs, who already have William Nylander and Mitch Marner in the system for that purpose. The entertainment value might be tantalizing, but it’s the results and the relative ease in how he gets them that set Matthews apart as the consensus pick. Not only his style more likely to translate and better suited for the highest level, it also compliments what the team already has.

As for me, I’m going to shoot a ball into an empty net. You never know when your teenage years can come back around, right?

  • FlareKnight

    I think this really does cover the issue nicely.

    It really isn’t just about flash, though that can be pretty darn good to have. The whole game with Matthews is something that is worth getting. Someone who is important in both ends of the ice and is someone the line runs through. Rather than someone who is there for finishing the play off and only that.

    Credit to the Finnish coach, Laine is being used very appropriately. Keep him on that top line and abuse him on the top PP unit. Matthews is handling the second line and secondary PP unit, but is a dangerous and effective player throughout the ice. The all-around game there is just something the Leafs can’t afford to lose.

    It’s not just about the highlight reel. Watching these guys in this tournament just makes it clear as day who should be going first overall. A much more developed game that is useful in far more situations.

    Laine will be fantastic in Winnipeg as that finishing touch on the PP and when he can get open. But, Matthews should be huge in Toronto for what he can do in all situations and how he can carry a line. Putting someone like that with wings like Marner or JVR is pretty exciting.

    This tournament is just a good way to see what these players do well.

  • Gary Empey

    After playing only two games, Laine surpassed Jaromir Jagr’s 26 year old modern era record for most points at the world championship by an 18 year old (5 in 1990). Laine has four goals and two assists.

    • FlareKnight

      Great job making Jeff’s point. Looking at the stats and records instead of what actually happens on the ice or the situation involved.

      That’s a sad record that exists for a lot of reasons and frankly isn’t that hard to break. Goals scored against 2 weak teams while being on the powerplay of one of the best teams in the tournament.

      Evidence of being a skilled shooter who is being put in ideal situations to feast on weak opponents.

      Laine has enough talent to be one of the top 3 picks of this draft without question, but that’s based on his abilities. Not breaking records that aren’t that hard to break.

      Good evidence though of the kind of people you don’t want on a scouting staff.

    • There aren’t exactly a lot of U18 players who participate in the tournament and Laine is playing on a scoring line with two 60 point forwards who played together in Florida this year. Not to mention, he’s played against Belarus and Germany.

      Context is everything.

      • Harte of a Lion

        Well said Jeff!

        The best part of drafting Matthews will be that the Leafs have skilled prospects that can step into the lineup next season who can and will complement what AM brings. This is no Islanders scenario where Tavares had no help, and has had to carry the whole team. It’s wonderful to think what Marner can do on his right side in their second season. With someone like JVR on the left, that line is scary good like the Dvorak Tkachuk Marner.

        When you look at Kadri, Matthews and Nylander as top 3 and Tyler Bozak as a #4 centre, that’s depth at the most important position on the team outside the goalie.

        If JVR is destined to be on Kadri’s left, then I would rather sign Andrew Ladd if they can get him for 2 + 1 years. Great team guy, veteran presence who knows what it takes to win a cup. The perfect veteran to play with Matthews and Marner.

        Just because you have cap space doesn’t mean you blow the wad on Stamkos.

      • Gary Empey

        The fact there aren’t a lot of 18 year old players in this tournament is what makes this guy special. He didn’t just break Jagr’s record already, he is leading the whole tourney. Here are the some stats from good NHL players so far after two games, just to give it some more context.

        Laine six points

        Matthews three points

        Taylor Hall three points

        McDavid two points

        Barkov two points

        Cory Perry two points

        D. Larkin two points

        Mark Stone two points

        Matt Duchene two points

        P Datsyuk two points

        M Domi zero points

        Nick Foligno zero points

        • FlareKnight

          Again, to reiterate Jeffler’s point, let get into contexts:

          1. John Tavares plays for a budget team with not too much in the way of depth or even considerable scoring talent on the top lines. They also are playing a second string goalie with Halak injured.

          2. Matthews has three points on a particularly weak US team who played one of their games against a stingy Canadian team. Laine played Germany and Belarus who are typically lucky to make it out of last spot in the round robins each year. Both players against Belarus had 3 points. The US is also made up of some moderate NHL players and college table scraps.

          3. Your list shows McDavid having less points Matthews. I guess Edmonton should just let the kid re-enter the draft. Bust! Same with Hall. Bust!

          4. Two games is hardly a good sample size. Lets revisit the scoring following the tournament (even though I’m sure Finland as the favourite “TEAM” will go much deeper than USA).

          5. Scoring wingers typically have an easier time gaining top line minutes in these types of tournaments. Think back to Mackinnon and Drouin on the Team Canada junior team before their draft. Drouin snuck into top line minutes while an older forward (if I recall) forced Mackinnon into a 2nd or even 3rd line role. People used this to think that Drouin might steal the top spot. Not so much. And Drouin is only now gaining NHL minutes after years of concerns regarding his game outside of offense. Matthews is playing all situation minutes for a diminished team while Laine can go out beside established NHLers with one task each shift: pot some goals.

          6. We had an elite scoring winger for a number of years and all that was said the entire time was we need to get him someone else at centre other than Bozak. Now we can get this centre to sit between our long list of current wingers in the pipeline (Marner, JVR, Brown, Andreas Johnson, Soshnikov, Hyman, Nylander (?), etc. etc.) and you want to pass?

          • Gary Empey

            Re- “let get into contexts:”

            Made his Liiga Finish Men’s League debut at the age of 16.

            Dominated the world juniors at 17.

            Awarded the Jari Kurri Trophy as Liiga’s Men’s League, 2016 playoff MVP two weeks after turning 18.

            Laine was named to the Team Finland roster at the 2016 IIHF World Championship, becoming the youngest Finnish player to ever play at the tournament.

            In Laine you are looking at a guy who will likely win The Calder Memorial Trophy, the Art Ross Trophy. Hart Memorial Trophy, the Conn Smythe Trophy, Ted Lindsay Award, Maurice ‘Rocket’ Richard Trophy, and E.J. McGuire Award of Excellence.

            Finland is not the favourite “TEAM” . Canada is the favourite, followed by Russia, then Finland, and Sweden

          • Harte of a Lion

            What’s the point in this discussion if you don’t even recognize another person’s standpoint. You a merely regurgitating stats and awards without addressing the anyone else’s point. I could list any number of accolades that Matthews has received but there is no point. I understand that you like the scoring winger, but you can’t even respond to any one point I addressed. You’re the worst kind of debater: one that goes into the debate fully assuming there is no one is more correct than yourself and assuming that literally any other viewpoint than your own is incorrect. There is no true incorrect choice at #1 between the two as both will be elite. The main difference is about what style of player will more likely win you the Cup. How convenient it is that you forgot to mention that one trophy in your previous list…

          • Gary Empey

            Point 1. The article compares Matthews with Tavares. Tavares and the Islanders just went out weakly in the second round. Should we expect the same from Matthews?

            Point 2. Matthews has three points on a particularly weak USA team. This is simply making excuses. Since when has Finland ever been considered a powerhouse

            Point 3. McDavid is being out played so far in this tourney. He is considered a generational player. And he is playing on the Favourite power house Canadian team.

            Point 4.Re- Your two games is hardly a good sample size. I answered that with his performance at the world juniors and Liga’s most MBP etc.

            Point 5. There is no comparison with Drouin and MacKinnon. We should be watching Laine to see his potential to become a super star.

            Point 6. So you plan to draft for position and not the best player availble.

            Re- “What’s the point in this discussion if you don’t even recognize another person’s standpoint.

            I recognize your standpoint. It is ” I don’t care how good anyone else is. I want Matthews”.

            Jaromir Jagr went 5th overall for the very same reasons. You have tunnel vision and can only see Matthews. Take the blinkers off. It may be another 30 years before we get a 1st overall pick.

            As I posted in a quote above, Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello disagrees with you. Hunter is there with him and Babcock is either there or on his way. What the hell do you think they are there for?

          • Gary Empey

            Wow, I didn’t know you could read minds. Apparently you know exactly that Lou is talking about Laine. Or does it just suit your argument to assume it does? Regardless, you only care about scoring. I already addressed points 1-6. I consider both Matthews and Laine’s scoring to be near equal. If anything Laine is better. However, you don’t win cups with goals. You’ve avoided the matter of position the entire time and I am done explaining the same point over and over. Jagr just so happened to play with arguably the 2nd best centre ever. Take your awards and shove them. I want the only one that matters. Good night.

          • Gary Empey

            Here is your answer to position. 1st and second line centers play a different role from 3rd and fourth line centers. In the event the Leafs draft Matthews, they will have four top six centers signed. Matthews, Kadri. Nylander, Bozak. If they sign Stamkos then they will have five. I know the flippant answer is to move them to the wing, 3rd/4th line or trade them. Why draft yourself into a trafic jam if there is a better option?

            I see you think “you don’t win cups with goals”. I am not sure how you came up with that logic. If you can’t score goals you lose. Game over. Can’t score ? The only way you will see the Stanley Cup is to go to the Hall of Fame. The leafs were 28th in the league in goals scored last year. They are desperate for a top level goal scorer. They have some great playmakers who can get the puck to one.

            Your right. I can’t read minds. Babcock left off attending/scouting Marlies playoff games to go. Hunter was scouting the CHL finals across Canada.

            What is your guess Lamoriello, Hunter and Babcock are all doing there. For the Traditional Russian Cabbage Soup (Shchi)? Are they all there to discuss Matthews signing bonus? To say hello to Morgan Rielly?

          • Harte of a Lion

            Last year was a tank year and the only true scorer on the team left was JVR who was injured at least half of it so no surprise scoring was so low. Your perceived logjam at centre is no different than the logjam we will have this coming year at wing. If anything, the wing if considerably more congested. We will likely have some of Marner, Brown, Soshnikov, Hyman, JVR, Johnson, Lindberg, Kapanen, Leipsic, Bracco, and Leivo all fighting for roles on the top 3 lines. Not to mention, any players they might sign or draft this year with there remaining 1st and 31st pick.

            Bozak is likely gone the first sniff any team takes of him, otherwise, he only has two years left at a still fairly manageable cap. We will have a number of ELCs to counteract his cap. I’ve seen higher paid 3rd liners before. Also, I still wouldn’t be surprised if Kadri gets sent packing now that he is on a reasonable long-term deal and his NTC doesn’t kick in until his 2nd or 3rd year of it. Lou is a master at pumping up players to trade them (see Phaneuf).

            What is the common denominator of the past three Stanley Cup winners? An semi-elite scoring centre more widely known for his defensive/two-way commitment than pure scoring alone. Really, if you look further back than the Toews, Kopitars, and Bergerons, you have Crosby, who’s defensive ability is often overlooked, and Datsyuk, who is also an elite two-way scoring centre. I’d argue that, other than Crosby, Matthews has shown to be have the potential to be a more elite scorer than anyone else on that list. The thing is, each of those players are likely able to put up 40 goal seasons on there own, maybe even 50, however, they choose to play a more complete game because they know they can’t win without it.

            You act like Matthews can’t score at all and that we are drafting Gauthier 2.0. I see a marginal increase in scoring potential for Laine but a considerable difference in the rest of the game. If you slap Marner or JVR on Matthews wing, you have a very dangerous combo with Nylander and whoever else sitting right behind him. Scoring won’t be a problem. And what I meant to say was “you don’t win cups with goals scoring alone”. Ovechkin was the top scorer this year but arguably the reason they are a bigger threat this year is their vastly improved defensive game (Holtby). But the Caps might not even make it to the Conference finals because, no matter how great a scorer is, they can be shut down eventually. If your not going to score, I at least want the player who won’t be a liability in his own end.

  • Harte of a Lion

    I’d seriously consider Puljujärvi before Laine, he does more things well and I believe his overall game translates better to the NHL.

    The game in North America, whether NHL, AHL or even the Jr. leagues is much faster with less room to maneuver and not taking away anything from the new Finnish Flash, but now more than ever, it’s a team sport. To this day, Ovechkin hasn’t won anything meaningful, besides tearing the league apart in the regular season and piling up Rocket Richard awards.

    Ask any player, would they rather win an award for individual production or the Stanley Cup? Laine will score the most goals but will he help his team win the cup? Maybe or maybe not. We will have to watch Winnipeg because the Leafs are drafting Matthews.

  • FlareKnight

    But Laine is 6’4″ and 210 on his way to 220, and teams will need to double cover him because of his size, very quick hard shot, and his great hands. Which opens up a lot of room for others playing with him. Some scouts are reminded of Mario Lemieux when they watch Laine, and I remember people saying Lemieux wouldn’t be able to dangle and deke in the bigs like he did in junior, but he proved them dead wrong right immediately. A guy with Laine’s size shouldn’t have much trouble adapting to NHL players, although it might take a while to get his speed up. Laine could end up like Mike Bossy of the Islanders in the 1970’s and 80’s, he never had less than 70 goals in 4 full seasons in the Quebec juniors, and never had less than 50 goals for the Islanders except in his last shortened season. He had an incredibly quick shot and accuracy, and great hands. Bossy was on a very good Islanders team but was also responsible for much of their league domination during that NHL period. It’s a close call between Matthews and Laine, wouldn’t want to make the decision.

    • Gary Empey

      Yes it is too early to make a decision yet.
      From what I have seen so far he really does look like a combination of Mario Lemieux and Alex Ovechkin.

      He is blowing by everyone, along with a dynamite accurate shot/pass.

  • FlareKnight

    In my mind there is no question go with the 200 foot player. A guy who plays center, works at his defensive game, is a good play maker, loves to drive to the net and as Marc Crawford points out is a kid who just wants to get better and better.

    Now I’m convinced the leafs will take Matthews but how about Auston and J.V.R. paying a visit to Jimmy Vesey after the draft and suggest to the Harvard star that they could be an American line playing for the leafs. All have size and I think would be hugely successful with J.V.R. already a 30 goal man, Matthews with oodles of talent and Vesey being the Hoby Baker award winner who has gotten better each of his college seasons.

    • Gary Empey

      “We’re going to take the best player,” said Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello, who along with head scout Mark Hunter is at the world championship. “I think it’s great for the fans to put the players in slots, but we have to do what’s right. They’re both exceptional players.”

      @ FlareKnight – Lamoriello and Hunter are there to see Laine. They already know what Matthews can do.

      • Andre Bradshaw

        Gary I can’t see us going wrong with either Laine or Matthews, I just see Auston as a kid that will have Modano skills with Messier toughness. Plus I do like what Crawford had to say about Matthews. Laine could be a Bossy in a lower scoring game but Matthews could be the number one pillar for the leaf rebuild.

        It is indeed a great place to be in. Always enjoy your comments Gary.

    • Gary Empey

      Strange that McDavid has yet to score a goal, considering Team Canada has played three weak teams. USA, Hungary, and Belarus.

      Do you think the Oilers have ruined him already?

      • Gary Empey

        By the way, for the sake of argument, I took a look at how many times the player to win the top scorer (became Maurice Richard trophy in 1998) also led his team to a Stanley Cup. It has happened 17 times, which does sound impressive. However, the last time it happened was in 1987 when Gretzky did it (he did it 3 times). Other names include Bossy, Lafleur, Shutt, Esposito (x2), Béliveau (x2), Moore, Howe, Hextall, Conacher (x2), Aurie, and Cook. Bossy was the last winger to do that in 1981, 35 years ago. You want to win trophies. We want to win just one…

  • Gary Empey

    My point and only real point is everyone should watch both these guys in this tournament. Give it the eye test ourselves. After that wait for Pronman and Mckenzies final ranking as they are considered the best. Then we should be able to feel confident we are choosing the best player available.

    Laine is only in the conversation because of the way he has developed and continues to develop, in the last five months.

    It is very unusual for any 18 year old players to make this tournament.

    Canada won the tourney last year. Tyler Seguin was the youngest player on the team at 23.