Photo courtesy Minas Panagiotakis/HHOF-IIHF Images
United States center Auston Matthews and Finland right wing Patrik Laine, the projected top two picks at the 2016 NHL Draft, looked comfortable against NHL-caliber competition during the 2016 IIHF World Championship in St. Petersburg and Moscow, Russia.
Matthews (6-foot-1, 210 pounds), from Scottsdale, Ariz., is No. 1 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of international skaters for the 2016 draft, which will be held at First Niagara Center in Buffalo on June 24-25. He led the United States, which finished fourth, in goals (six) and power-play goals (three), and was tied for the lead with Dylan Larkin (Detroit Red Wings) for points (nine) in 10 games. He had 28 shots on goal for a 21.43 shooting percentage, and he was named one of the United States' three best players of the tournament despite the 18-year-old being the youngest player on the roster.
"I drew a lot [from the World Championship], and playing against some of the best NHL players in the world," Matthews told TSN. "There were some pretty high-quality players so I think it definitely challenged me to elevate my game, and it was pretty fun to be a part of."
Matthews' biggest moment of the tournament came against the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals when he scored the tying goal 1:27 into the second period and the game-deciding goal in the third round of the shootout in a 2-1 win. He centered the top line the final three games of the tournament.
The World Championship capped a season that saw Matthews prove himself against older, more developed competition with Zurich in National League A, Switzerland's top professional league. He had 24 goals and 22 assists in 36 games, and was runner-up for the league's most valuable player award.
He also helped the U.S. win the bronze medal at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship, tying for the tournament lead with seven goals in seven games and tying for the U.S. lead with 11 points.
Laine (6-4, 206) is No. 2 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of international skaters for the 2016 draft. The 18-year-old was the youngest player in the tournament but played a major role in Finland winning the silver medal. He led Finland with seven goals, three power-play goals and 36 shots on goal, and tied Mikael Granlund (Minnesota Wild) with 12 points in 10 games. He was named the tournament's most valuable player and best forward.
Laine had many memorable moments but his assist to Jussi Jokinen (Florida Panthers) 15:50 into the second period to give Finland a 2-1 lead in an eventual 3-1 win against Russia in the semifinals might have been the most impressive. After controlling the puck near the left post, Laine threaded the needle through three separate sticks to find Jokinen at the opposite post for a one-timer past goalie Sergei Bobrovsky (Columbus Blue Jackets).
He also didn't let extra physical play bother him, including when Canada captain Corey Perry (Anaheim Ducks) tripped him during a preliminary-round game. After appearing to be injured on the play, Laine returned to the game and finished strong.
"Maybe they tried to [tick] me off because I'm young and, in my opinion, a pretty good player," Laine told PostMedia News after the game.
The World Championship win marked the end to an outstanding season for Laine. He led Tappara to the championship in Liiga, Finland's top professional league, and won the Jari Kurri Trophy as most valuable player of the playoffs with 10 goals and 15 points in 18 games. He had 17 goals, 33 points and 253 shots on goal in 46 regular-season games.
He also helped Finland win gold at the World Junior Championship. He tied for the tournament lead with seven goals and had 13 points.
"He has a great, great future and he grew up a lot in the last 2 1/2 weeks," Finland coach Kari Jalonen told the IIHF website.
Matthews and Laine next will cross paths at the 2016 NHL Scouting Combine, at First Niagara Center and HarborCenter in Buffalo from May 30 to June 4.
They also will learn Friday if they have earned spots in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey when the final rosters for the tournament, which will be held in Toronto from Sept. 17 to Oct. 1, are announced. Matthews could represent Team North America, which will consist of the best players age 23 years and younger as of Oct. 1 from Canada and the United States. Laine could play for Team Finland.