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 Buzzer: Vatrano’s four-point night; Laviolette earns win No. 600

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Three Stars

1. Frank Vatrano, Florida Panthers: Continuing his career year, Vatrano notched his 16th goal and added three assists as the Panthers beat the San Jose Sharks 6-2. The score was knotted at two as the third period began but goals from Keith Yandle and Vincent Trocheck nine seconds apart blew the game open in the Panthers’ favor. Aleksander Barkov chipped in with three helpers of his own. According to the NHL, Vatrano is the third undrafted player in franchise history to record a four-point game, joining Steve Reinprecht and Jesse Belanger.

2. Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators: The Finnish netminder turned aside 35 of 36 shots he faced as Nashville downed the Colorado Avalanche 4-1. The win snapped Rinne’s three-game losing streak and helped Predators head coach Peter Laviolette earn his 600th NHL victory. Nick Bonino recorded his 100th career goal and now has four goals in his last four games. Nashville has won 12 of its last 13 regular-season games against Colorado.

3. Eric Staal, Minnesota Wild: Staal scored his 15th of the season and later helped set up Charlie Coyle‘s game-winning goal during a 4-2 Wild victory over the Vegas Golden Knights. Devan Dubnyk made 30 saves and has stopped 64 of his last 67 shots faced. Minnesota is now 4-0-1 against Vegas and are one of two teams (St. Louis) without a regulation loss against the reigning Western Conference champions.

Highlights of the Night

Pretty little goal here from Viktor Arvidsson, who leads all NHL players with 10 goals since the calendar turned to 2019:

Paul LaDue‘s first goal since October was the difference as the Kings topped the Blues:

Congrats to Mackenzie MacEachern for scoring his first NHL goal in the Blues loss:

One heck of an effort by Mikael Granlund and Zach Parise to help set up Mikko Koivu‘s empty-netter:

Justin Braun‘s going to want another shot at this one:

Factoids of the Night

• Via the AP: Laviolette is the 20th coach in NHL history to each 600 career wins and third this season joining John Tortorella and Claude Julien.

• Per the NHL, birthday boy Jonathan Quick recorded his 302nd victory, which is fourth-best among U.S.-born goaltenders. He’s now 67 behind Tom Barrasso.

• Also per the NHL, Aaron Ekblad of the Panthers is the 13th defenseman in the League’s modern era (since 1943-44) to record at least 10 goals in each of his first five seasons.

Scores
Predators 4, Avalanche 1
Kings 4, Blues 3
Wild 4, Golden Knights 2
Panthers 6, Sharks 2

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

LaDue’s third-period goal helps Kings edge Blues

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The Los Angeles Kings will head into the NHL All-Star break and their bye week on a winning note following a 4-3 come-from-behind victory against the St. Louis Blues Monday.

Paul LaDue, who hadn’t played for the Kings since Dec. 29, scored 9:53 into the third period to snap a 3-3 tie and give the LA the lead — a lead they would not relinquish.

The Blues entered the game on a positive swing after grabbing points in six of their previous seven games. Goaltender Jordan Binnington has been a difference-maker (4-0-1, .954 SV%, 1.19 GAA) since taking the No. 1 reins from Jake Allen. 

It was a good start for St. Louis as Mackenzie MacEachern tallied his first NHL goal late in the opening period and Oskar Sundqvist followed up 8:18 later to give the Blues a 2-0 lead.

The good times were short-lived for the Blues as Tyler Toffoli got LA on the board 15 seconds after Sundqvist’s goal and the Kings used the second period to flip the script. Goals from Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty changed the scoreline to the home teams’ favor. But while they were on good behavior for most of the game, a Dion Phaneuf cross-check opened the door and gave Ryan O’Reilly the room to fire home the tying goal on the ensuing power play.

The loss was the sixth time this season that a 2-0 lead for St. Louis ended up as a defeat.

Birthday boy Jonathan Quick made 33 saves to earn his 302nd career victory, which moves him past Mike Richter and into fourth place on the NHL’s list of most wins by a U.S. born goaltender.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Oilers bet on Koskinen with three-year extension

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The Edmonton Oilers have apparently made a decision on their goaltending for the next three years. On Monday, the team announced that they’ve extended Mikko Koskinen for three years with total salary of $13.5M.

“We are excited to have signed Mikko to a three-year contract extension through the 2022 season,” said Oilers general manager Peter Chiarelli. “Mikko has a lot of experience as a number one goalie and has performed well both internationally and for our club.”

That $4.5M salary cap hit means that Cam Talbot, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, will likely be moving on after the season. Koskinen has a .918 even strength save percentage in 27 games this season after spending the last seven seasons in the KHL and Finland.

Per Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston, Koskinen will make $5.2M next season, $3.3M with a $500,000 signing bonus in 2020-2021, and $4.5M in 2021-22.

Where did this extension come from? Koskinen’s recent numbers haven’t been strong (.906 ESSV% since Jan. 1) and it’s not like there was going to be a strong market for a soon-to-be 31-year-old goaltender with mediocre numbers come free agency in July. The worst part of this for the Oilers is that there is a very good chance Chiarelli isn’t in his job come October, so the next general manager of the team will inherit this contract.

Was there a rush to lock up a starter for next season and beyond for the Oilers? Was Chiarelli thinking Koskinen’s price would rocket up if he played well over the final three months of the regular season? What is Talbot’s status as the Feb. 25 trade deadline approaches? Is he now, along with forward Jesse Puljujarvi, a piece of trait bait to shore up one of their numerous holes?

The Oilers are only three points out of a Western Conference wild card spot, and with jobs on the line, as well as the pressure of season ticket renewals approaching, there’s a full-on playoff push by the organization and an attempt to set up their future in a positive way. But given the previous decisions of the current regime, don’t bet on it.

MORE: Oilers shuffle more deck chairs, waive Spooner and Rattie

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT Power Rankings: Don’t sleep on the Blue Jackets

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It can be really easy to sometimes forget about, or even completely overlook, the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Historically, they are still a franchise that has yet to get out of the first-round of the playoffs. They have been constantly stuck in the shadows behind perpetual Stanley Cup contenders (and Stanley Cup winners) like the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals in the standings, and unable to knock them off their thrones when it comes to the postseason.

This season they not only have to deal with those two teams that have won each of the past three Stanley Cups, but the New York Islanders have also emerged as the story in the Eastern Conference.

So again, it is easy for them to kind of get … lost.

But the Blue Jackets are good. They are really good, and they are a team that you should be paying attention to as we head into the second half of the 2018-19 season.

How good are they? For starters, they are a top-10 team in the league standings as of Monday. They have an exciting game-breaker at forward in Artemi Panarin, and they have one of the best all-around defenders in the league in Seth Jones who continues to get better every single season. Along with them, second-year player Pierre-Luc Dubois is developing into a legit top-line center, while Cam Atkinson is the best goal-scorer in the league that nobody ever talks about (14th in the league since the start of the 2015-16 season). Their underlying numbers are strong. They are a good possession team, they typically win the scoring chance battle, and they are really good on the penalty kill.

What makes them such an intriguing team is that they have maintained such a high spot in the standings and are still right in the thick of the Metropolitan Division race despite getting some of the worst goaltending in the league this season.

At least as far as potential playoff teams go.

Sergei Bobrovsky‘s play has dropped significantly from where it has been in previous seasons, and while Joonas Korpisalo is a decent backup he’s probably not going to be backstopping a team to a title.

Overall, the Bobrovsky-Korpisalo duo has managed only a .900 save percentage for the season. That is 20th in the NHL. The only teams currently occupying a playoff position that are worse than them are the Colorado Avalanche and San Jose Sharks. When it comes to even-strength play, they drop down to 24th where Sharks are the only team in a playoff spot with a worse mark. Typically teams that get this level of goaltending don’t end up winning many games. The fact the Blue Jackets are, and winning as regularly as they are, is a testament to how strong the team in front of their goaltenders can be.

Long-term this team has some question marks, specifically as it relates to Bobrovsky and Panarin who are both eligible for unrestricted free agency after this season. Losing one or both could be pretty damaging, especially with Panarin because it is going to be extremely difficult to replace his production. But in the short-term, this is a really good hockey team that is decent goaltending away from being a true contender in the Eastern Conference. Especially as the two teams that have stood in their way the longest have seemingly taken a step back this season.

The only question is whether or not they can actually get that goaltending this season, and if it is going to come from Bobrovsky or from somebody that is currently outside of the organization.

The Elites

1. Tampa Bay Lightning — Still in a class all to themselves. The pressure to win it all is going to be immense this season.

2. Calgary Flames — An absolutely incredible one-year turnaround. In any other year Bill Peters would probably be a lock for the Jack Adams Award, but he is probably already stuck in second place behind Barry Trotz.

3. San Jose Sharks — It’s not usually a good sign when two of your top-three scorers are defenders. But when those two defenders have combined to win three Norris Trophies (and be finalists three other times) and are both point-per-game players, you can win with it. Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns are giving the Sharks just what they expected this season. Unfortunately for the Sharks Karlsson is going to be shut down for a couple of games.

The second tier

4. New York Islanders — They have won 15 of their past 18 games and enter the week with a three-point cushion over every other team in the Metropolitan Division. If they win it Barry Trotz will probably be a unanimous coach of the year winner.

5. Winnipeg Jets — They haven’t always looked great in recent weeks, but they keep scoring a lot of goals and piling up a lot wins.

6. Vegas Golden Knights — Alex Tuch has been the big breakout player for the Golden Knights this season, and now that they have a healthy Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny there is an argument to be made they are even deeper than last year’s team.

7. Columbus Blue Jackets — Imagine how good they would be this season with decent goaltending.

The Other Contenders

8. Nashville Predators — They’ve slumped a bit recently, but I am still not worried. The types of peaks and valleys that every team faces over an 82-game season.

9. Toronto Maple Leafs — They have lost seven out of 10 and some of their big-money players, specifically William Nylander, are not scoring like they are expected to. Surely this will all result in a calm, rational response in Toronto

10. Washington Capitals — A five-game losing streak is almost unheard of for the Capitals. They gave up at least seven goals in two of those games during the current losing streak.

11. Boston Bruins — You have to think there is going to be a trade for some more forward help. Their top three forwards are incredible. They do not have much help.

12. Pittsburgh Penguins — They were on a roll and looking like a Stanley Cup contender until they went on this most recent Western Conference road trip where they reverted back to their early season ways. The bye week and All-Star break is coming at the absolute perfect time for them.

13. Montreal Canadiens –Carey Price is the X-factor for this team. He has a .951 save percentage so far in January and a .930 mark since the start of December.

The Bubble Teams

14. Carolina Hurricanes — They are not going away quietly and really trying to make a run at a playoff spot. Nino Niederreiter was an outstanding pickup that will help not only this season, but in the future as well.

15. Minnesota Wild — They still have the inside track for a playoff spot at the moment, but the status of defenseman Matt Dumba and swapping Niederreiter for Victor Rask is not a promising development for their roster.

[Related: Dumba’s anger led to indefinite stint on sidelines]

16. Vancouver Canucks — They are definitely benefitting from the bottom half of the Western Conference being completely mediocre, but they are still exceeding expectations in a big way. Will Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser be enough to drag them to the playoffs? That is a big ask, but they are at least an interesting team because of them.

17. Buffalo Sabres — With Jack Eichel continuing to develop into a star, Jeff Skinner erupting offensively, and the team winning 17 of its first 25 games it seemed like the playoffs were a given. Not so much now.

18. Colorado Avalanche — The more this season goes on the more it seems that this is a completely ordinary team that just so happens to have one truly dominant line up front. They are just 5-11-3 in their past 19 games.

19. St. Louis Blues — Somehow they are still very much in the Western Conference wild card race, and at the moment are probably playing better than any of the teams around them. Unfortunately that terrible start to the season may make this a case of too little, too late.

20. Arizona Coyotes — Not only are they are 8-4-2 in their past 14 games, but they are doing it with a roster that has been held together with duct tape and playing really well against some of the league’s best teams.

21. Dallas Stars — Just when they started to show some signs of getting it together, they dropped four in a row this past week. Hopefully the bye week is an opportunity for them to recharge and put the first half drama behind them.

The Lottery Teams

22. New York Rangers — After David Quinn ripped his team’s effort in a loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets they responded by winning three in a row. Not enough to make a dent in the deficit they are facing in the Wild Card race, but a nice response either way.

23. Anaheim Ducks — It is downright stunning that a team that lost 12 games in a row, 13 out of 15, and has a minus-29 goal differential on the season is still anywhere near a playoff spot. Have to imagine that is the season goes on they settle more into the lottery pack than the playoff pack.

24. Philadelphia Flyers — Positive signs for the Flyers include Carter Hart looking good in net and Nolan Patrick starting to heat up offensively. They could be difference-makers in the very near future.

25. Edmonton Oilers — Placing Ryan Spooner on waivers is just another reminder as to how bad the roster management of this team has been. What a waste.

[Related: Oilers shuffle more deck chairs, waive Spooner and Rattie]

26. Chicago Blackhawks — Patrick Kane is still scoring at an elite level, Jonathan Toews is having one of the best seasons of his career, and Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome are two young players that look to be emerging on cheap contracts. There are some positives here. The negatives are pretty much everything else.

27. Florida Panthers — With every loss coach Bob Boughner seems to call out his big-money players more and more. Can’t imagine that will be very impactful for very long.

28. Ottawa Senators — The Senators seem determined to get Matt Duchene re-signed, and that leads to a very big question: Why? As in, why would he want to re-sign there, and why are the Senators going to probably overpay a 29-year-old forward to be a part of a rebuilding team that is probably years away from being relevant again? The only logical answer here is that with the salary floor they have to pay someone.

29. New Jersey Devils — Without Taylor Hall in the lineup there just is not much here.

30. Los Angeles Kings — Their 7-1 loss to the Avalanche over the weekend was as ugly as it gets.

31. Detroit Red Wings — This will be the first time since the early 1980s that the Red Wings will have missed the playoffs three years in a row. Given the state of the roster and the current rebuild it’s worth wondering how many years this particular streak will continue.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.