Patrik Laine is one of the many young Finnish players in the SM-Ligga that is turning heads. Between him and Jesse Puljujärvi, Finland seems to have a fine young crop of up and coming players that are turning heads on the international stage and in the top league in Finland. On top of this, Finland won WU18C and WJC in 2016 and there are plenty of more talent coming up through the system. Why is he so highly thought of and why should the Winnipeg Jets draft him second overall?
Laine (pronounced lay-nee) is one of the brightest young Finns that should be coming over to North America in the next few seasons. While young, he plays in the third best league in Europe, based on the rankings done by Habs Eyes on the Prize European correspondent, Patrik B. Why is this so important? Because There is no reason to think that Laine is a product of a weak league. Not only does Laine play in a top league, he plays on the top team in the SM-Ligga and is also a member of the Finnish Men's National Team.
First, while the SM-Ligga is one of the top leagues in Europe more and more Finns are going to Sweden or to the AHL to play instead of staying in Finland. This means that young players and brought up to senior teams at a much earlier age, something that seems to have benefitted Finish youth development enourmously. Some talent choose to go to other leagues in order to prepare themselves for an NHL move. An example of this movement is Montreal Canadiens draft pick Arturri Lehkonen leaving Finland to go play in the Swedish Elite League so he could face an increase in competition and work with one of the best coaches in Scandinavia when it comes to develop young talent. But also in order to learn how to live away from home.
Laine himself is a very talented player. He is known for his shot, but that is not the only thing that he should be known for. He is a talented playmaker who can breakdown and set up a powerplay. His hockey sense is also very strong, making him a major asset for special teams. When looking at the Winnipeg Jets powerplay, one has to wonder how much help a dual-threat type player would be to lift it up to acceptable standards.
If Laine had a weak point, it would be his skating. Unlike the other facets of his game, this is a bit of a hindrance for him although he has improved his skating throughout the course of the season. It may be sufficient enough that a little bit of work with a skating coach could turn his weakness into a strength for him. As he is aware of it it is for certain that he will use the summer to improve it.
What might be most impressive about Laine though is who he is off the ice. He is considered a strong leader by many hockey people in Finland and is considered by some to be a better leader than anyone in The Golden Generation, a group that includes Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu. Finnish and Swedish media compares him to Mats Sundin more than anyone else. His team looked to him in tough situations during its recent playoff run, older players in their thirties looked to a seventeen old kid for help. To be put above these highly thought of players in Finland says a lot about the type of leader that Laine is. Never mind that he is also the type of player who should not give the Jets any trouble off-ice. In a recent interview following Tampere's title win in the SM-Ligga, Laine admitted that he does not drink at all. While this could obviously change as Laine just turned 18, the fact that he does not drink yet and does not seem interested in drinking is a plus.
The fact that Laine just turned 18 should also be seen as a major plus. Much was made of Auston Matthews playing the the Swiss league this year, but Matthews turned 18 on September 17. Laine's birthday was April 19, a full eight months older than the Finn. This means a massive amount of development time for younger players. As players age that year means less and less, but at this age against men those eight months could mean all the difference and the fact that Laine excelled in a strong men's league and in the Champion's League says a lot about him as a player.
That brings us to what might be the most interesting part about Laine: he should stay in Finland next season. He is only 18. The Winnipeg Jets are bringing in one rookie already next season in Kyle Connor and should have an improved Nic Petan as well as Nikolaj Ehlers on the team. While there is never enough skill on a team, it would be prudent to allow Laine more development time in his home country. The level of play in the SM-Ligga is close to the American Hockey League talent and level of play wise. Laine would also have more of a chance to play with the Finnish National Team as well as play in the Champions League again. He would be able to play many different teams at a high level while still being able to participate in the World Juniors and the World Championships. It would also mean that he would be on a top team in a league instead of a probable bottom-feeder like the Manitoba Moose. All this while getting top line minutes.NHL teams should not be afraid of leaving players in Europe for an extra season. There is less of a chance for them to be blindsided by a Tom Sestito or Patrick Kaleta and the European leagues are quite strong for the most part. Unless the player is not playing much, there is not much reason to rush them over to North America right away.
Finally, Laine's NHL equivalents (NHLe's) is 9.57 this season. While that is not great, he did that as a 17 year old. In comparison, Matthew's NHLe's put him at 18.4 points this season, nearly double what Laine's was. But Matthew's is older. He may be that much better than Laine, but that is not known. It should be noted that Matthews was on the first unit powerplay and on the first line while Laine was on the third line and second unit powerplay. In both league playoffs and Champions League, Laine showed himself to be someone who was able to thrive, while Matthews struggled in the tighter checking. Laine was able to win the Jari Kurri Trophy, which is the SM-Ligga's Conn Smythe. This shows that while Laine could come over next year, staying in Europe another season and developing further would not be a detriment because he could play more minutes in high-stakes situations. Let him catch up to Matthews age wise and spend another year in Finland learning the game in a familiar environment while longer. When the time comes for him to adjust to North America he will be more mature and able to handle it better hopefully.
While Laine is not as hyped as Auston Matthews, he is still a fantastic prospect and could end up better than him because prospects are unpredictable. While Laine is well on his way to being a top player, there is still the chance that he does not live up to the hype that his play has garnered him. What is known is that Laine is a very good player who can make a difference both on and off the ice if the Winnipeg Jets if they choose to draft him.
Many thanks to Patrik B. who was able to share the insights into Laine from Europe.