Wednesday Night Hockey: Laine vs. Matthews debate

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Wednesday night’s matchup between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets at 7 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports App by clicking here.

They went No. 1 and 2 overall in the 2016 NHL Draft and have played important roles in how both of their franchises have turned around their fortunes. So if you were an NHL general manager building a franchise, who would you take? Patrik Laine or Auston Matthews? The PHT staff weighed in.


LEAHY: The Laine vs. Matthews debate is the new Ovechkin vs. Crosby one that began with the 2005-06 NHL season when both entered the league and began their dominance. You have Laine, who is the new-age Ovechkin and is going to win a handful of Rocket Richard Trophies by the time he’s done and give the Jets at least 40 goals a year for the next decade plus. Then there’s Matthews, your Crosby in this scenario, who will collect plenty of Art Ross Trophies and maybe, like Sid’s done twice already, grab a few Richard’s as well.

So if you’re a GM and you have to start a franchise around one, the prevailing thought is you go with the center. Like in soccer where you want a strong spine down the middle of the pitch, an elite No. 1 center can take a team to another level. Think of how many NHL teams currently don’t have such a player and are suffering. Matthews is a player who can make his teammates around him better and while both are young have plenty of improvements to be made in their games, I would stick with the center.

It comes down to preference. Laine’s goal scoring will go unmatched over the next decade. Matthews could threaten a goal scoring crown, but ultimately develop into the better two-way player. The game of hockey wins as long as these two young stars are healthy and productive.

O’BRIEN: As much as I want to go the contrarian route and go for the funny quotes and funny facial hair of Laine, it’s got to be Matthews.

In most instances, you’d be obsessing about Laine’s goal-scoring, yet Matthews isn’t far behind in that regard. While Laine’s shot talent is almost unrivaled, Matthews has a killer release, and the Maple Leafs stars makes up some of the deficit with the sheer volume of pucks he sends on net.

One thing that got lost in the furor of Matthews’ four-goal debut was how complete his game was, right off the bat. Matthews has been doing so much damage at even-strength, so now that he’s getting more power-play time with the top unit, the sky’s the limit. As a reliable center, Matthews simply does more than Laine from an all-around perspective, as the Finn is, well, an unfinished project.

The beauty of both players is that, as much as they’ve shown already, we still haven’t seen their ceilings. Like I mentioned, Matthews hasn’t always gotten the top PP reps, and he could conceivably become a 20-minute workhorse. Laine scored his 44 goals in just 16:29 TOI per game last season, which feels pretty much impossible in the modern era.

Ultimately, you really can’t go wrong with either option. While this isn’t as fun as Fortnite-barbing, the truth is: when in doubt, choose the center.

GRETZ: Laine is an incredible talent and is the franchise-altering player the Jets needed to drag themselves out of perpetual mediocrity. Before he arrived they were always a team that had a lot of decent individual talent, but no piece to bring it all together.

Laine has been that player, and while he is not Alex Ovechkin (no one is), he makes that sort of impact and will probably be the player to end his run at the top of the goal-scoring list in one of these upcoming seasons.

Having said that, the choice still has to be Matthews. Like James said, when you are starting a rebuild and when most things are equal you always take the center over the winger. That is where championship teams are built, and while I’m not yet sold on Matthews’ all-around game (he still has some work to do 5-on-5), he is just as dominant as Laine is from a goal-scoring perspective and as a center is probably more likely to make the players around him better as a playmaker. Ultimately they are both going to be top-five talents for the better part of their careers and dominate the league, but I think you have to take Matthews.

ALFIERI: Let’s start by pointing out that both these players are terrific. They’re both elite when it comes to putting the puck in the back of the opponent’s net, but I’ve got to go with Matthews. First, I’ll always favor a center over a winger. Anybody who plays that position at a high level can impact the game more than an elite winger. There’s a ton of responsibilities both offensively and defensively that come with playing down the middle, and Matthews has shown that he’s capable of playing a complete game.

Many people assume that Laine is the better goalscorer (he might be), but Matthews scored 40 goals in his first year and he would have scored 40 again last year had he not missed 20 games. Although Laine has a wicked release, Matthews is able to change the angle of his shot at the last second, which makes him fool defenders and goaltenders on a nightly basis. That’s nothing short of incredible and not many players in the league are able to do what he does in that respect.

Give me Matthews.

BILLECK: I’ve had the benefit of watching Patrik Laine every day for the past two and a bit years. He dropped 36 goals in his rookie season and then finished runner-up to Alex Ovechkin. He can score goals. Everyone knows that. He’s transformed the Winnipeg Jets power play into one of the best in the league. His unit is lethal and teams are forced to choose between Laine at the top of the circle and Mark Scheifele in the slot. Team’s don’t often choose right because there’s no right option. Pick your poison, but know they both kill.

Laine is elite. There’s no question. But when you’re building a team around a player, outside of Ovechkin, you’re going to choose a center. Whether it’s Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid, Patrice Bergeron or someone else, the spine of a team is important and having an elite, franchise center is a must for any team vying for a Stanley Cup. So the choice here is Auston Matthews, despite all the danger Laine brings.

Matthews is the better 5v5 player. He’s the better defender. He’s the better two-way player. And he scores in a similar fashion. Laine is an incredible talent, don’t get me wrong, but Matthews just does more at this point in his career. If Laine turns into Ovi later on, my opinion could change. But Matthews is the more complete package at the moment.

Pre-game coverage begins with a special on-site edition of NHL Live at 6 p.m. ET, hosted by Kathryn Tappen alongside analysts Keith Jones and Jeremy Roenick, and NHL insider Bob McKenzie from True North Square outside of Bell MTS Place in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Pre-game coverage will feature an interview between Roenick and Laine, as well as interviews with Matthews and John Tavares.

Mike ‘Doc’ Emrick travels to Manitoba to call his first game in Winnipeg since Dec. 29, 1995, when he served as the New Jersey Devils play-by-play commentator. The Jets defeated the Devils, 5-3, courtesy of a five-goal third period which began with a power-play goal from then-Jets forward and Emrick’s current broadcast partner Eddie Olczyk. Olczyk played parts of five seasons with the Jets (1990-93 and 1994-96), as well parts of four seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs (1987-91).

In the second game of the Wednesday Night Hockey doubleheader, the Tampa Bay Lightning visit the Colorado Avalanche at 9:30 p.m. ET. You can watch that game online and on the NBC Sports App by clicking here.

The Playoff Buzzer: Blues eliminate Jets; Capitals, Stars take leads

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  • The Blues advanced to Round 2, and while the Jets made the final score look respectable, it wasn’t a great, complete effort by Winnipeg.
  • The Stars’ top line was downright dominant for Dallas in taking a 3-2 series lead, putting the Central-winning Predators on the ropes.
  • Washington’s biggest names flexed their muscles, and the Capitals took a 3-2 series lead by blasting the Hurricanes.

Blues 3, Jets 2 (St. Louis wins series 4-2)

Jaden Schwartz scored all three of the Blues’ goals, and he gave St. Louis a 3-0 lead in doing so. After a pitiful, 1-shot second period, Winnipeg did make things more interesting in shrinking that 3-0 deficit to 3-2, but that final push was pretty late, and the overall (lack of) effort could stick with Jets fans and management for quite some time.

St. Louis gets to rest up and prepare for the winner of the series right below …

Stars 5, Predators 3 (Dallas leads 3-2)

It would be frustrating for Nashville if this all came down to Pekka Rinne struggling. Instead, Rinne was often quite sharp on Saturday, particularly when the game was close but the Predators seemingly couldn’t get anything going. Dallas dominated much of the proceedings. The top line of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and Alexander Radulov was the most overwhelming, yet other players are stepping up for the Stars, who’ve carried much of the play lately in Round 1. The Predators have some serious work to do, or they’ll be another division winner who will hit the golf course far earlier than most expected.

Capitals 6, Hurricanes 0 (Washington leads 3-2)

To be fair to Carolina, this game was closer than the score seemed … at least early on. They even kinda, sorta had a chance through most of the second period, at least before that much-discussed Dougie Hamilton icing gaffe opened things up for the 3-0 goal. Still, the Hurricanes couldn’t score a goal in this one, and players like Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin really imposed their will on Game 5. So far, the home team has taken all five games in this series, so the Hurricanes must maintain that trend in Game 6, and then hope they can flip the script if they force a Game 7.

Note: Isabelle Khurshudyan and Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post report that T.J. Oshie suffered a broken collarbone, and will miss the remainder of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. An official announcement is expected, possibly as early as Sunday. PHT will monitor that situation.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Three Stars

1. Nicklas Backstrom

The Capitals are only five games into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, yet Backstrom already has many goals (five) as he had during all of their Stanley Cup run. He’s also only one behind his career-high for a single postseason of six. Backstrom’s known for his passing, and that’s still generally how he leans when attacking, but he’s absolutely on fire sniping-wise lately, and that will only make him tougher to contain.

Backstrom scored the first two goals of Game 5, including the game-winner to help Washington off to a blazing start, and also chipped in two assists for a four-point game. That’s the most of any skater on Saturday.

(Alex Ovechkin deserves consideration for player of that game and of Saturday, too, as he was a domineering physical presence, along with scoring one goal and two assists.)

2. Jaden Schwartz

You could make an argument that Schwartz’s strong Game 6 was just as important as Backstrom’s performance, even if Backstrom gets the edge in total points at four.

Schwartz scored all three of the Blues goals to claim a hat trick, and that’s coming off of scoring the Blues’ Game 5 winner with about 15 seconds left to stun Winnipeg, and maybe partially explain why the Jets seemed to lack a spark on Saturday.

Personally, Schwartz has been one of those Jonathan Huberdeau-type players who’s always signaled serious talent, but has sometimes been lost in the shuffle, in part because of bad injury luck. With that in mind, it’s nice to see a high-quality player such as Schwartz get his moment in the sun, and Schwartz is absolutely shining in the spotlight.

3. Jamie Benn

Consider this a collective Stars’ first line award if you’d like, as Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov were too much for the Predators to handle, too.

Benn had the most points of the trio, generating three assists, with two of them being primary.

Jim Lites’ “blanking horse-blank” roast of Benn and Seguin seemed to ignore a number of realities, such as the impact the aging curve can have on any star player, particularly a power forward such as Benn. Yet, Benn was that irresistible force at times in Game 5, particularly when he used his size and senses to muscle the puck away from Ryan Ellis to set up one of Dallas’ goals. (Benn’s three assists all came during a single period, a rare feat.)

The Predators will try their best to find an answer for Benn, Seguin, and Radulov, but performances like these make you wonder if they can be denied.

More Factoids

Sunday’s games

Game 6: Bruins at Maple Leafs (Toronto leads 3-2), 3 p.m. ET on NBC (livestream)
Game 6: Sharks at Golden Knights (Vegas leads 3-2), 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN (livestream)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Capitals blow out Hurricanes in Game 5

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Much like earlier in this series, the Washington Capitals got off to a quick lead at home in Game 5. This time around, they never really let the Carolina Hurricanes back into the contest, and eventually turned the game into a blowout.

Washington won Game 5 by a lopsided score of 6-0, giving themselves a 3-2 series lead, and thus pushing the Hurricanes to the brink of elimination.

Nicklas Backstrom is best known for being one of the premier passers in the NHL, yet he continues to be one of the hottest shooters of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Backstrom scored the first two goals of Game 5, pushing his postseason total to five goals. Backstrom finished with five goals in 20 games (but also 18 assists for 23 points) during the Capitals’ 2018 Stanley Cup run, and has never scored more than six goals during any single postseason run during his career … so yeah, this is an unusual sniping run for a Selke-level playmaker. Overall, Backstrom finished Game 5 with two goals and two assists.

Backstrom wasn’t the only big-name Capitals player who enjoyed a strong Game 5. Alex Ovechkin was a force, but physically and offensively, throwing his body around in a way that was reminiscent to his most boisterous, younger NHL days.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Ovechkin’s alertness and physicality factored into the 3-0 goal, which resulted in Ovechkin setting up a dagger Brett Connolly goal. Was Dougie Hamilton shying away from a potential Ovechkin hit before Ovechkin retrieved the puck? Was Hamilton just confused/pondering abstract art?

Whatever the case may be, that 3-0 goal sapped a lot of energy from the Hurricanes, as it made a third-period comeback go from difficult to nigh-impossible.

Tom Wilson‘s power-play goal 1:04 into the third moved the goalposts back even further, and then the Capitals really ran away with Game 5 thanks to additional goals by Alex Ovechkin and Nic Dowd, the latter scoring on a penalty shot.

Ovechkin ended up with a goal and two assists, while Braden Holtby pitched a 30-save shutout.

Overall, the defending champions looked very much like defending champions on Saturday. The Hurricanes have an opportunity to regain their composure when the series shifts back to Carolina for Game 6, but if Carolina wants to be the latest underdog to come through during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, they’ll have to win two in a row — which means beating this Capitals team at home, where Washington seems to find yet another level. If Saturday is any indication, that won’t be an easy task, at all.

The Capitals aim to move on, while the Hurricanes hope to survive in Game 6 at PNC Arena on Monday at 7 p.m. ET. The game’s airing on NBCSN. (livestream)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Blues advance, Jets dumped from playoffs with a thud

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Yes, there were red flags for the Winnipeg Jets late in the regular season, yet even pessimists weren’t expecting a flat finish like this.

With the Jets’ season on the line, they offered up a largely flat effort against the Blues (PHT’s Scott Billeck nailed it when he compared Winnipeg’s urgency to that of a grazing cow), falling 3-2 in Game 6. With that, St. Louis wins the series 4-2, and will move on to Round 2 to take on the winner of the Nashville Predators – Dallas Stars series.

[The Stars looked stout in taking a 3-2 lead in that series.]

Chalk it up to the Blues’ suffocating defense, the exhaustion that comes with playoff hockey, the devastation of losing Game 5 in the waning seconds, or a number of other factors, but whatever’s at the root of this problem, the Blues removed them from the postseason like an unsightly weed.

Speaking of Game 5, the closing-moments hero Jaden Schwartz carried over his hot hand, scoring a goal per period to grab a hat trick, and give the Blues a 3-0 lead. While Schwartz’s work is absolutely worth heralding, you can expect the headlines in Winnipeg to revolve around a shockingly listless second period. The Jets sure didn’t look like a team with its season on the line – a team that wanted its season to end, perhaps – as the Blues controlled the shots on goal at 16-1 in the second period, and 27-6 through the first 40 minutes.

(You’d probably not be shocked to learn that one SOG in a period sets a new franchise-low for the Jets.)

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Dustin Byfuglien gave the Jets a bit of life in making it 3-1 with less than eight minutes remaining in the third period, and Mathieu Perreault added a dash of very-late intrigue to make it 3-2 in the waning seconds. Patrik Laine even got a dangerous shot with just a few seconds remaining, but ultimately that final Jets was a case of too little, too late.

Winnipeg will now stagger into an off-season that isn’t likely to be easy, what with Patrik Laine, Jacob Trouba, and Kyle Connor requiring new contracts, and management needing to find some answers. On Saturday, the main question was ” … What happened?”

The spotlight will shine on the Jets’ blemishes after this effort, no doubt, but when a team struggles, there’s usually a reason for it beyond [insert some sort of cliche about “lacking fortitude”]. The Blues steamrolled into the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, to the point where they almost wrestled away home-ice advantage in Round 1, and also came close to snaring the Central Division title.

One of the major stories of this postseason is teams carrying strong finishes from the regular season over into the games that matter the most, and you could argue that the Blues ended 2018-19 as hot as any team in the NHL. From a strong system, some great players like Ryan O'Reilly and Vladimir Tarasenko, to nice depth particularly with Schwartz, and a Cinderella story that might just be legit in Jordan Binnington, this Blues team has a lot going for it.

Did anyone really see this coming when the Blues fired Mike Yeo and seemed to be headed toward a troubling summer, while the Jets’ biggest question was whether they could win the division and go on a deep run? No, not really, but it would be foolish to doubt this Blues squad any longer.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Stars’ top line firing on all cylinders, push Predators to the brink

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It would appear that the Dallas Stars have emptied the Nashville Predators’ well of ideas on how to stop them.

After three close games where Nashville walked away victors of two of them, the Predators have succumbed to a relentless forechecking team that’s clogged the neutral zone and found solid goaltending from Vezina nominee Ben Bishop.

There are just so many little things the Stars are doing right at the moment, and they now hold a 3-2 series lead after a 5-3 win against the Preds on Saturday afternoon, their second straight win in the series and second game in a row where they’ve pumped five goals into the twine.

There’s one team left in these Stanley Cup Playoffs that has yet to give up a power-play goal. That team currently has its foot on the throat of the Predators.

The Stars are 11-for-11 now on the penalty kill through five games of their Western Conference First Round series. It’s been a big boon for the Stars in a series that was tight through the first three games.

Scoring for the Predators has come at a premium in this series, and having a completely misfiring power play has made it much worse.

Nine goals against in his past two outings isn’t what you’d expect from Pekka Rinne, but that’s the reality right now as the reigning Vezina winner isn’t making the saves required. The Predators can’t handle Dallas’s forecheck when it’s going full steam ahead and Rinne is taking the brunt of it.

Nashville’s offense has fallen off a cliff, which is saying a lot for a team that wasn’t a high-scoring offense during the regular season.

Rocco Grimaldi‘s third goal of the series to give the Predators a 1-0 lead was just the sixth goal by a Nashville forward in the series up until that point.

Grimaldi has been great, but he shouldn’t be leading the team at the moment. Ryan Johansen finally picked up his first of the series later in this one. Kyle Turris, too.

Radulov’s brace to open the second period opened up a 3-1 lead. Johansen’s goal pulled the Predators back one, but Tyler Seguin snatched the two-goal cushion back before the second was over.

Dickinson’s second of the game put Dallas up 5-2 and other than Turris’ response 28 seconds after that, the Predators didn’t show their teeth much.

Jamie Benn finished with three assists and his line with Seguin and Radulov combined for seven points. Bishop made 30 saves.

Game 6 goes Monday at American Airlines Arena. The time for the game is TBD. 


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck