It's been said many times that Auston Matthews is the "consensus first pick" since last summer, but therein lies the rub.
Scouts, pundits and fans anointed him as the top guy last summer - and in many cases seemingly decided that he would be the top guy in the rankings no matter what.
Well there is a "matter what"...a Finnish fellow named Patrik Laine that 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, and McKeen's chief amateur scout Grant McCagg was making the correlation between the two even before there were others echoing it...he first made the suggestion early on in the World juniors, and he hasn't changed his mind. If anything it has only been reconfirmed.
"I can't honestly recall scouting a forward over 6-4 with a skill set as similar to Mario's as Laine's," says 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...and as we know both Nash and Mario were first overall picks. I have a hard time thinking anyone should be drafted ahead of him even if I really like Matthews a lot...I see a future 50-goal NHL scorer, maybe a 60-goal guy. I don't see that same upside with Matthews."
Laine has been sensational for Tappara during the playoffs, almost singlehandedly leading his team to two recent wins with back-to-back two-goal efforts versus Karpat and his chief Finnish competition in the draft in Jesse Puljujarvi. He has scored seven goals in nine playoffs games, two more than anyone else, yet he is still only 17 years old. By comparison, the last Finnish prospect to go top five in the draft, Aleksander Barkov, was held without a goal in the playoffs during his draft year. Just like he did in the U-20 and unlike Matthews, Laine is coming up big when it counts the most.
He has repeated this shooting ability all season long....one of the best releases and shots in recent memory..and that translates well to any league, especially if they shrink the size of goalie equipment. Add in his puckhandling abilities, , vision and soft hands...he projects to be a big-time producer at the NHL level for many years.
The other main change in the top five was moving Mississauga center Michael McLeod into the top three following his first-round performance in the OHL playoffs where he almost willed his team to a huge upset over the high-powered Barrie Colts.
Other OHL players put up better stats in the first round, but none played harder, or with a more rounded all-around game.
"It's rare to see a player with his motor," noted one scout. "You think of Taylor Hall and Nathan MacKinnon as comparables in terms of his engine, but even they weren't as consistently revved up as this kid. He simply never has an average effort or a poor game. He is always contributing even when he's not producing. He will help an NHL team win playoff games..maybe championships."
McLeod had three goals and six assists in the seven game series, as well as providing top-notch defensive effort, particularly on the penalty kill. He was also sensational in the faceoff circle, averaging close to 70 per cent.
"He had one overtime game where he won more faceoffs than the entire Barrie team combined," marveled one scout. "The intangibles he brings in addition to his terrific speed make him a can't miss prospect. He is going to be a top two center with size, speed, grit, faceoff prowess, penalty killing abilites..what is there not to like? He may never lead the league in scoring..but neither will Jonathan Toews. This kid is a winner."
One scout compared him to Dylan Larkin in his draft year. "Scouts were raising issues about Larkin's offensive upside in his draft year. I don't see them doing that now. I hear the same thing with McLeod..and I'm reminded of Larkin. McLeod's size, speed and tremendous competitiveness translate well to the NHL game....he'll produce at the next level. He will be a big-time crowd favourite wherever he plays, and his coach will love him."
Jesse Puljujarvi drops to fourth in the rankings in part because since the U-20's he has failed to show the elite offensive skills one looks for in a top three prospect playing on the wing.
"He may be a solid two-way winger at the NHL level who never scores 30 goals," suggested one scout. "He is a decent playmaker, and you have to love his competitiveness, size and skating ability, but will he ever be among the scoring leaders? I'm not sure he has that potential. I'm not seeing elite offensive or finishing skills."
When matched head-to-head versus Laine in the playoffs it has been quite apparent that he's not in Laine's stratosphere when it comes to offensive upside.
"If he was a center maybe you rank him ahead of McLeod, but I have a hard time doing so at this time," said McCagg. "I don't know that he'll out-produce McLeod, and at the end of the day he doesn't bring as many intangibles, especially playing on the wing. McLeod for me brings more value to a team, especially being a center. When players are close...you side with the center."
|1||Patrik Laine||LW||Tappara (Fin)||6-4/210||19-Apr-98||46-17-16-33|
|2||Auston Matthews||C||ZSC Zurich (Sui)||6-1/195||17-Sep-97||36-24-22-46|
|3||Michael McLeod||C||Mississauga (OHL)||6-2/190||3-Feb-98||57-21-40-61|
|4||Jesse Puljujarvi||RW||Karpat Oulu (Fin)||6-4/205||7-May-98||50-13-15-28|
|5||Olli Juolevi||D||London (OHL)||6-2/185||5-May-98||57-9-33-42|
|6||Matthew Tkachuk||LW||London (OHL)||6-1/195||11-Dec-97||57-30-77-107|
|7||Pierre-Luc Dubois||LW||Cape Breton (QMJHL)||6-2/200||24-Jun-98||62-42-57-99|
|8||Alexander Nylander||LW||Mississauga (OHL)||6-0/180||2-Mar-98||58-28-47-75|
|9||Mikhail Sergachev||D||Windsor (OHL)||6-2/205||25-Jun-98||67-17-40-57|
|10||Jakob Chychrun||D||Sarnia (OHL)||6-2/215||31-Mar-98||62-11-38-49|
|11||Charles McAvoy||D||Boston University (HE)||6-0/205||21-Dec-97||37-3-22-25|
|12||Jake Bean||D||Calgary (WHL)||6-0/175||6-Sep-98||68-24-40-64|
|13||Logan Brown||C||Windsor (OHL)||6-6/225||5-Mar-98||59-21-53-74|
|14||Clayton Keller||C||NTDP (USA)||5-9/170||29-Jul-98||54-31-60-91|
|15||Tyson Jost||C||Penticton (BCHL)||5-11/190||14-Mar-98||48-42-62-104|
|16||Luke Kunin||C||Wisconsin (B1G)||6-0/195||4-Dec-97||34-19-13-32|
|17||Julien Gauthier||RW||Val d'Or (QMJHL)||6-4/225||15-Oct-97||54-41-16-57|
|18||Max Jones||LW||London (OHL)||6-3/205||17-Feb-98||63-28-24-52|
|19||Libor Hajek||D||Saskatoon (WHL)||6-2/185||4-Feb-98||69-3-23-26|
|20||Tage Thompson||C||Connecticut (HE)||6-5/185||30-Oct-97||36-14-18-32|
|21||Riley Tufte||LW||Blaine (USHS-MN)||6-5/205||10-Apr-98||25-47-31-78|
|22||Rasmus Asplund||C||Farjestads (Swe)||5-11/175||3-Dec-97||46-4-8-12|
|23||Kieffer Bellows||LW||NTDP (USA)||6-0/195||10-Jun-98||54-44-28-72|
|24||German Rubtsov||C||Team Russia U18 (Rus)||6-2/180||27-Jun-98||28-12-14-26|
|25||Boris Katchouk||LW||Sault Ste Marie (OHL)||6-1/185||18-Jun-98||63-24-27-51|
|26||Sam Steel||C||Regina (WHL)||5-11/180||3-Feb-98||72-23-47-70|
|27||Dennis Cholowski||D||Chilliwack (BCHL)||6-0/170||15-Feb-98||50-12-28-40|
|28||Lucas Johansen||D||Kelowna (WHL)||6-1/175||16-Nov-97||69-10-39-49|
|29||Pascal Laberge||RW||Victoriaville (QMJHL)||6-1/170||9-Apr-98||56-23-45-68|
|30||Kale Clague||D||Brandon (WHL)||6-0/180||5-Jun-98||71-6-37-43|