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Matthews, Laine & Puljujarvi take centre stage at Combine

by Ryan Dittrick (@ryandittrick) / Winnipeg Jets

BUFFALO, New York – It takes a lot for a man of 18 to walk in and command a room, but that’s exactly what we saw Friday as three of the NHL’s most promising young prospects held court
before dozens of curious onlookers.

It’s the NHL Scouting Combine, after all. The reporters arrive in droves, repeating the same questions heard year after year:

“How would you feel about being a Leaf?”

A Sabre?

A Flame?

A Jet?

Think of the grind, and yet the players handle it with grace, pausing only briefly to summon the most intelligent and well-reasoned response. Believe ‘em when they say they’d be honoured either way. These are fine, respectful young gentlemen that will someday serve as professional ambassadors.

And that, right there, is my favourite part of the Combine. You learn more about the person than the hockey player, meeting some for the very first time after months of watching, analyzing their every move on some low-bit live stream.

For the projected Top 3, Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi (who struggled with the language), it was clear they’re the complete package:

Confident.

Dominant.

“They’re both going to be impact players,” Dan Marr, the director of NHL Central Scouting, said as the players waited their turn, off to the side, but well within earshot. “They’re both going to be able to step in and be an influence games because they’re both so very special.”

Matthews, the 6-foot-2, 194-pound pivot who missed the 2015 Draft by just a few days, has been the projected No. 1 pick all season. Had he been born two days earlier, Marr said, all three – Matthews, Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel – would have been in the same conversation at this time last year.

There are some differences, to be sure. Unlike McDavid, Matthews elected not pursue the junior life, or even the college ranks like the Eichel, with whom he spent a year in the United States National Development Program. Instead, he took his talents overseas, learning from former NHL head coach Marc Crawford in a professional league against bigger, stronger and more experienced opponents.

Barely 18, Scottsdale’s own Auston Matthews was across the pond, a proud Zurich Lion.

“We had guys that have played in the NHL and have won Stanley Cups, so it was nice always talking to them and the main thing they really focused on was making sure you’re taking care of your body, eating the right things and just doing the little things that help you have more energy and help you prolong your career.

There was definitely a learning curve when it came to that, but I was fortunate to have Marc Crawford as a coach. Zurich is a first-class organization and they treated us so well. I was really lucky to go over and play there.”

By year’s end, the future No. 1 centre had tallied 24 goals and 46 points, good enough for the second in team scoring.

“Matthews is pretty much the complete package,” he said. “He can play in any situation, he’s got all the intangibles, all the skills and assets you’d want.

“Laine is more of a power forward scoring machine. He can score from almost anywhere, so you’re getting more of a Brett Hull-type of scorer from him.”

Laine helped Finland win the silver medal at the 2016 IIHF World Championship, finishing with a team-high seven goals and 12 points, and was named the tournament’s most valuable player after doing all that in just 10 games. This, on the heels of an even greater achievement – helping his club team, Tappara Tampere of the Finnish Elite League, win the national championship for the first time in 13 years. Laine had 10 goals and 15 points in 18 spring-season games, winning the Jari Kurri Trophy as playoff MVP before hoisting the aptly named Kanada-malja, or “Canada Bowl” in
English.

“It was nice to see that I could play at that level and play well,” Laine said. “If I want to play in the NHL (next year), I’m going to play against those guys.”

He’ll get another chance to in the fall, mere weeks before making his NHL debut, as one of the final additions to Finland’s roster for the World Cup of Hockey.

“It gets you going and gives you motivation to train. You have to train hard if you want to play in the NHL. The World Cup is a nice thing to have before the season. It’s good to have some tight, tough games to kick off the year.”

Laine will be the youngest player in the tournament and the only 18-year-old, with Matthews turning 19 on the opening night of the tournament, Sept. 17. After scoring six goals and nine points in 10 games at the Worlds, Matthews will suit up alongside McDavid, Eichel and Mark Scheifele on
Team North America.

“I’m proud of myself and am honoured to be there to play with and against the top guys in the world,” Laine.

Countered Matthews: “Whenever you can put the flag on and represent your country, it’s a privilege.”

So, too, is realizing that lifelong dream that, for something that seemed so distant, so long ago, is now only three weeks away.

“It’s going to be a memorable night,” Laine said of the draft. “I know I’ll remember it for the rest of my life.”

With the Toronto Maple Leafs holding the first-overall pick, and with Matthews likely to be chosen with that coveted selection, Laine’s future home could be right here in Winnipeg, where another famous Finn once played.

“It’s nice when Teemu (Selanne) has played in Winnipeg and the city already knows some Finnish people,” Laine said as the media snickered. “It will be nice to go to whichever city it is. Both of those teams (the Jets and Leafs) are really good and I’m going to be proud of whichever team drafts me.”

COMBINE CLIPS: Laine was unable to complete the VO2 Max test due to a minor leg injury Friday, but will participate in most of Saturday’s activities, sticking mostly to upper-body workouts and avoiding any stress below the waist.

-- Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.com

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