Auston Matthews Will Be Drafted 1st Overall, and Why It Isn’t Up For Debate

By Tyler Kerdman (@kerdy19)

To Preface, This was written hours after the Leafs had won the draft lottery

By random chance, or Lou Lamoriello threatening to force the ping-pong balls into an early retirement, the Toronto Maple Leafs have secured the 1st overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft. While the celebration from Leafs Nation appears to be somewhat outlandish and over-the-top, it is honestly an amazing experience for a tortured fan base. Selecting at the top of the draft will be incredibly beneficial to the Leafs’ rebuild and quest to become a competitive hockey team.

It is with near certainty that the Leafs will take Auston Matthews. Matthews, who was born just 2 days after the cut-off for the 2015 Draft, is an American center who played in Zurich, Switzerland this year. In 36 games, Matthews recorded 46 points and finished 2nd in MVP voting. Scouts praise the 18-year-old as having elite offensive upside and a well-established 2-way game. Comparisons are often misguided, but Matthews projects to become a player similar to Anze Kopitar or Jonathan Toews, relied upon in both ends of the ice. The narrative of Auston Matthews playing in Toronto is perfect: the kid from Arizona who fell in love with hockey by watching the Coyotes is enlisted with the responsibility to help bring success to the league’s biggest franchise. The Leafs have wanted a top-line center since the departure of Mats Sundin and Matthews fills this role. It appears to be a match made in heaven.

That being said, there will be articles, tweets, and scouts that drive a narrative that Finnish sniper Patrik Laine is ‘in the conversation for 1st overall’. Laine is 6’4, over 210 pounds, and has a unique combination of shot, speed, and skill that is difficult to find in players of that size. Laine’s name has been a topic of conversation recently, scoring 15 points in 18 playoff games (including a host of last-minute goals) to help Tappara win the Finnish Elite League. The 18-year-old winger has had an upward trajectory in the draft rankings since the beginning of the year, improving from a top 10 pick to the consensus number 2 player. He also looks, and talks like Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. (This isn’t important to his draft ranking, but watch his interview from Saturday’s draft lottery and then Spicoli ordering a pizza in class. The similarities are shocking)

It has already begun, yet the articles and narrative in the media will circulate around ‘Matthews v. Laine’ until Brendan Shanahan and company announce their selection in Buffalo on June 24th. However, this should not be a discussion and the question of whether or not the Leafs will select Auston Matthews should be a no-brainer. It should be akin to asking whether playoff overtime is fun, or if you only order Dominos’ Pizza for their proprietary order tracking system. The answer in all situations outlined is an astounding ‘yes’.

Matthews vs. Laine should not be a debate, but I am confident it will be. I’m going to discuss why Patrik Laine has emerged from a top 3 prospect into Matthews’ successor atop of the draft and why, barring extenuating circumstances (injury, video of Matthews smoking emerging on draft day) I would bet my tuition that Matthews will be a Toronto Maple Leaf. Patrik Laine projects to be a special player but the smoke and mirror show that has turned him into 1st overall appears to be misguided.

 

Laine’s Production

Before discussing why the ‘non-consensus #1’ narrative has been created and driven by the media, it’s important to distinguish that Laine’s season-long output does not inspire confidence in that he should actually be in the conversation for the first overall pick. In order to accurately assess Patrik Laine’s season in the Finnish Elite League (formally known as the SM-Liiga), his production should be compared to other draft-eligible seasons from highly-touted players in the same league, in recent memory

Unfortunately, the number of players drafted in the top 10 since 2005 from the SM Liiga is 3. That is it. Mikko Rantanen, Aleksander Barkov, and Mikael Granlund are the only players to be drafted from Finland’s best league in the top 10. Here are Laine’s goal and point totals represented on a per-game basis, how they ranked on his team, and how the other three players drafted in the top 10 compared to him.

 

Player Draft Position Goals/Game Team Goals/Game Rank Points/Game Team Points/Game Rank
Patrik Laine TBD (2016) 0.37 1st 0.72 2nd
Mikko Rantanen 9th (2015) 0.16 7th 0.5 5th
Aleksander Barkov 2nd (2013) 0.40 1st 0.91 1st
Mikael Granlund 9th (2010) 0.30 4th 0.93 1st

 

First, it is important to keep in mind that all of these point totals are very impressive. Unlike the CHL, US Development Program, or even NCAA, these four players were playing as 17/18-year-olds against grown men. For context, Laine at age 17 for the majority of the season was one of only two skaters younger than 20 and was part of a team with players in their mid-30s. Therefore, point totals will be systemically lower for these draft eligible players (meaning their production cannot be compared to players like Mitch Marner, Jack Eichel, or Auston Matthews).

Looking at the chart, Laine’s 0.37 goals per game placed him first in that category on his team and 0.72 points per game was 2nd. These figures are quite comparable to those of Barkov and Granlund. Barkov, both in terms of point production and all-around play, has emerged as a star in Florida and Granlund has been a reliable player in Minnesota since 2013. However, from precedent, it is apparent that even Barkov’s production was not outstanding enough to secure the number one overall pick in his draft year. The correlation between pre-draft goal & point production and NHL success is high and Laine’s is not outstanding enough in comparison to justify taking a winger with the 1st overall pick.

Meanwhile, Auston Matthews is lauded by scouts for his two-way game and defensive responsibility. Even with this caveat, Matthews’ offensive success at every level he has played at is noticeable. In the Swiss league, both filled with professionals and dozens of former NHL players, Matthews finished with the 2nd highest points-per-game average in the entire league. Even in the year prior to playing in Zurich, Matthews played for the US National Team Development Program. In that season, Matthews set the record for goals and points in a season, outscoring NHL stars such as Patrick Kane and Phil Kessel that played in the program.

 

Debate Creates a Compelling Narrative

            Based on draft year production and scout opinions over the year, it is apparent that there is a gap between Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine. Therefore, there must be something external responsible for the creation of the recent string of articles and soundbites claiming the race for #1 has tightened. One source of this is the media, who have an incentive to make sure that Matthews v. Laine becomes a compelling storyline to sell fans:

            The official TV ratings have yet to be released, but it felt like everybody who knew what the sport of hockey was in Canada tuned into the hour-long special on Sportsnet. For information that would be available online immediately after its conclusion, Canadian hockey fans from Vancouver to Montreal spent an hour listening to executive interviews to watch Bill Daly reveal the order for 5 minutes. Fans have a vested interest in the future of their favourite teams. Whether it be Vancouver, Edmonton, or Calgary supporters wanting to learn about whether Pierre-Luc Dubois, Alex Nylander, or Matthew Tkachuk would be the ideal pick, or fans in Montreal and Ottawa wanting to learn who will be available at their spots in the draft, media publications, and TV outlets benefit from turning the draft into a multiple-month event.

Every fan of the Winnipeg Jets and Toronto Maple Leafs, for two weeks now, have commenced Google searches and going through Youtube to learn more about Patrik Laine and Auston Matthews. If Senators followers are reading articles about whether or not Tyson Jost or Clayton Keller is the better pick at #12, the fanbases of the teams with the top two picks will certainly read a link or watch a video discussing the validity of the claims that Laine could overtake Matthews. This happens every year. While Taylor Hall v. Tyler Seguin was a legitimate debate, there were articles and radio hits discussing Hedman over Tavares, Jones over Mackinnon, Murray over Yakupov, Reinhart over Ekblad, Turris over Kane, and even Jack Eichel over Connor McDavid. Sports are entertainment, and storylines and narrative drive the entertainment.

Creating doubt over the first overall pick is therefore easy fodder for intermission discussion, a morning article on a slow news day, or good for a segment on the radio. This isn’t the cause of why there is a belief that Laine has closed the gap, but rather rationale for why it will be heavily discussed until June.

 

Recency Bias & ‘Flash’

The reason for why Laine has emerged as the contender to Matthews’ throne atop of the 2016 draft class is mostly due to recency bias, the tendency for observers to view the most recent information as the most important or significant:

Auston Matthews, to preface all this, hasn’t played a game of hockey since March 10th. Zurich, the 1st place team in the league, somehow got swept by the lowest seed, Bern, who then proceeded to win the championship by going 12-2 over the three rounds (have I ever mentioned how random playoff hockey is? Doesn’t only apply to the NHL). Matthews, who led his team with 3 points in 4 playoff games, was placed in ‘prospect limbo’ as all CHL prospects and players in other professional leagues (Finland, Sweden, KHL) were gearing up for their respective playoff runs. The focus then shifted to the Laine and Puljujarvi, the projected 2nd and 3rd overall picks in the upcoming draft, with the consensus #1 waiting for the World Championships to play once again.

Patrik Laine had an awesome playoff. Like, really, really awesome. He scored 10 goals and recorded 15 points in 18 playoff games, including a slew of very important goals to help his team win the Finnish Elite League Championship. His goals weren’t just important, but also dramatic. For example, Laine scored this goal with just 1 second left to tie the game. Every other day, Twitter was abuzz with another Laine highlight and his patented, exuberant celebration. This playoff should impact how he is viewed as a prospect, as he has continued to grow as a player through these performances.

However, to deem a player as the best player with the most upside based on one playoff run is asinine. Bryan Bickell scored 9 goals and 17 points over 23 games in the playoffs and then was handed a 4-year contract that the Blackhawks regret. Sean Bergenheim scored 9 goals and 11 points in 16 playoff games, signed a 4-year contract that summer, and didn’t record more than 30 points once in that contract. Ville Leino scored 21 points in 19 playoff games, and one year later signed one of the worst contracts in history. Am I implying that Laine the next Bickell, Bergenheim, or Leino? Absolutely not. However, in an 18-game sample, lots can happen. To say that the gap has narrowed solely on that feels short-sighted and also one-sided. Laine is ‘closing the gap’ while Matthews is stagnant because he’s not playing hockey. Had Matthews spent 18 games twiddling his thumbs and failing to produce, the argument becomes somewhat more plausible.

The other reason that Laine’s perceived upside has increased also is in part due to the nature of the goals he scores. Of his 10 playoff goals, 2 were scored in the final 5 seconds. 5 were brilliant snipes on the powerplay, and another 2 were scored on breakaways. They were all absolutely stunning and worth watching on repeat for an hour. This is Laine’s ‘flash’ factor, or as described on TSN as ‘flair’. Laine has a flare for the dramatics. While this is aesthetically pleasing, it creates a scenario where every play he makes is displayed on social media and the morning highlight reel. Auston Matthews’ strong defensive coverage and effective cycle game that led to a goal? Not exactly compelling to show fans. It’s the same reason why Anze Kopitar is criminally underrated, as he does the little things that are difficult to observe. Laine’s flashy play is explicitly amazing, and it creates an illusion that he is a greater talent than Matthews. And because Matthews played in Switzerland, it is not the same as when the projected 1st overall is a CHL or NCAA star where they can be viewed under a microscope. The casual fan only saw as much of Matthews or Laine that the local media saw fit, and Laine’s plays make for much better entertainment.

 

Conclusion

The main force driving this post was to express why, in my mind, there is no debate over who should be the first person to wear the Leafs’ new logo on stage in Buffalo on June 24th. Patrik Laine is a very special player. Winnipeg Jets fans should be unable to sleep imagining the 40 goals he’ll score with Mark Scheifele and Nik Ehlers feeding him one-timers from the circle.

However, regardless of the thesis of this piece how Matthews is better than Laine, even if the gap between the two was non-existent and they were of equal talent, it is imperative that the Leafs select Matthews. Ever since Mats left in 2008, the narrative around the team has been that this team needs a #1 center. This position has resulted in Stanley Cups in Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago, Boston, and Los Angeles. It is arguably the most important position in creating a cup contending team.

In 2016, the following players are unquestioned #1 centers or are projected to become that (in no order): McDavid, Crosby, Getzlaf, Thornton, Kopitar, Giroux, Seguin, Sedin, Kopitar, Bergeron, Toews, Backstrom, Kuznetsov, Stamkos, Tavares, Mackinnon, Barkov, and Eichel. Of that list, every single player except for Seguin and Thornton were acquired by the team they play for through the draft. So, unless Boston continues to gift-wrap top centers to different franchises once every 10 years, precedent shows that Toronto will not find this franchise center any way other than through the draft.

The Maple Leafs have been given a lucky bounce. The team will head into the draft with no dependencies and no reason for a contingency plan. With the 1st overall selection, the team has free reign to choose any player they desire. Auston Matthews has the offensive abilities, defensive capabilities, and natural talent to be a cornerstone of any competitive franchise, in a position that requires depth and special talent. The chance to take a center of this caliber may not come again for the Leafs, and

Until the draft, don’t let the stories or the highlights affect the belief that Matthews is the perfect player for a rebuilding Maple Leafs franchise. Since the hiring of Brendan Shanahan, the Leafs’ organization has hired the right people, drafted the right players, and approached the rebuild in the right way. For the first time in the past two seasons, something good is happening to the team out of sheer luck. It’s time for the team to make the easy decision.

 

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