Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Remember the Finnish Flash ... Patrik Laine is the latest

By Larry Wigge

Give it to Patrik Laine for honestly stating that he was the No. 1 player in this draft.

Maybe yes. Maybe no he wasn't. But he had the nerve to state it out loud.

"I want to be No. 1 because I want to show people that I want to be the best player in this draft and that's the thing that I wanna be," Laine explained. "The first one."

He continued, "I would be lying if I said I couldn't go first. That's always been my goal. After this season, I think it's really possible to go first."

That second part of the story is Laine saying that Toronto, you had it, and you messed up.

The Maple Leafs bypassed Laine for center Auston Matthews as the No. 1 pick the 2016 NHL Entry Draft.

Marc Scheifele, now a teammate, got to face him in the World championship's.

"He's a really good player," Scheifele said. "He’s got an unbelievable shot. You know, he thinks the game well. He's got a lot of skill to his game and he's going to be a special player."

Starring as a teenager for Finland's silver-medal winning squad at the world championships last month, he tied for the tournament lead with seven goals and was fourth among all players with 12 points in 10 games.

During the regular season, playing for Taprara Tampere Laine came up with 17 goals and 16 assists in 46 games in the Finnish league regular season.

Laine is the flashier, more explosive of the two top prospects, an exciting goal-scorer capable of wowing a crowd. Matthews has the size (six foot two, more than 200 pounds), skill and speed.

The way he sets up in the high slot and waits for the one-timer is straight from the Alex Ovechkin playblook and Laine has the shot to pull it off. That's going to be a nightmare to deal with for the Central Division.

Here's another Ovi-type goal from the World Championships. This is what he does. Try and stop it.

Comparisons have been made to fellow Finn Teemu Selanne as well as minted snipers Alex Ovechkin and Brett Hull. He makes reporters laugh and loves to smile. When he wears his hair long he looks like a rock star.

Laine has a powerful confidence. It's hard to look away from him when he's in the room or on the ice. He draws your attention. When Team Canada tried to give him a rough go at the recent World Championship -- a late and dirty hit from Corey Perry and lots of chirping -- Laine revelled in it.

"I like it when the other team loses its focus and does bad and dirty things to me," Laine said. "When they start talking at me it means they've lost their own game.

"If they focus on me like that, it makes it easier for my teammates to make plays. I keep my cool and play mine and our game. I like it when the other team tries to get me. It makes me play better and it means they're distracted."

Take it from the draft of 1980, when Jari Kurri was the 69th pick by the Edmonton Oilers and in 1988, when Selanne was the 10th pick overall by the Jets for the Finnish invasion into the NHL to begin.

"He's a powerful kid who probably doesn't realize yet what he has in his toolbox," said TV analyst Ray Ferraro. "Right now it's all about his shot. Why not? If you popped him into the NHL right now on this day, he's got a top-five shot in the entire league. His shot is unreal. And it's not just the one-timer. It's his wrist shot too. His mechanics and his release are elite.

"You know how some guys just hit the golf ball farther than anyone else and you don’t know why? Well, that's this kid and his shot. But he's going to figure out he has more than just the shot. He's almost 6-5 and his reach is Mario Lemieux-like. When he puts his body between you and the puck and extends his arms, you're seven feet away from the puck. It's impossible to take the puck from him. I'll say this: He really won me over at the worlds."

So, the pure, elite goal-scoring winger can be just as cherished in the recipe of a champion. If not for Jamie Benn, Ovechkin, Vladimir Tarasenko, Perry and Patrick Kane, where would their teams be?

He's listed as 6-foot-4, but he says he's bigger.

"Six-foot-4.7," Laine said, careful to make sure the decimal is heard. He wants to wring every inch out of his height and prodigious talent.

Dressed in a blue suit with no tie, he's got the last few pimples of his teenage years and a beard that is little more than a patch of light blonde scruff here and there.

His hair is neatly cut -- not the stringy flow that leaked out of his helmet late this past season.

"That's my tradition. I let it grow all season and then cut it down," Laine said.

"From the moment we won the lottery, we knew we were going to have the opportunity to get a very special player," said Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff. "Being able to continue some scouting and watch him play at the world championships, it only went to confirm how excited we were to have the opportunity to draft him.

"Meeting him at the combine, his personality is fantastic. We had some great conversations, some good laughs and it's going to be a really great fit for the City of Winnipeg and certainly for our franchise."

For the Winnipeg Jets franchise, it has been since 1991 when the Jets took Dale Hawerchuk No. 1 overall in the NHL Entry Draft and to the selection of Selanne -- never did the quality rise to the front.

"Those are the things that separate the good players from the very good players ... and the fact that the bigger the stage, the better he played," Cheveldayoff said. "When you talk to players of that kind of caliber, you expect those kind of answers. But I think it's how you deliver it and the context of everything, so when you're sitting in the confines of the meeting, that's what you're looking for, you're looking for how it's delivered and how it's handled.

"When you're asking those kinds of questions, you see a kind of humility when he's saying it. It's like, 'Look, I know I'm a good player, but I just want to play hockey. I want to be the best and the best at everything I do and I'm driven towards it.' I would venture a guess that within the confines of a lot of meetings over the course of time, the good players probably said that as well."

Laine's sense of humor also stood out.

"There are lots of little things you talk about and he's quick to answer," Cheveldayoff continued. "He's got a good command of the English language, so he understands and he's thoughtful in his answers. There's always that dry sense of humor."

Selanne broke into the NHL as a dynamic rookie of the year.

"It would be nice to play in the city where he played. They city is crazy about him. And he's coming back to the outdoor game," said Laine. "They have the smallest rink and the best fans in the NHL, I've heard. It's a cold city, which I'm of course used to."

Will he be the next Finnish Flash or a flash in the pan?

For Patrik Laine, he of the booming shot, being compared with Alex Ovechkin or Brett Hull, their must be some Flash to his game.

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