The experience gained overseas by Winnipeg Jets right wing Patrik Laine and Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews playing against men last season was invaluable.
Laine was dominant in Liiga, Finland's top division, under Tappara coach Jussi Tapola. Matthews was taught the finer details of the professional lifestyle by Zurich coach Marc Crawford in Switzerland's National League A. Crawford is now an assistant with the Ottawa Senators.
Although Tapola and Crawford are no longer instructing their prized pupils, they continue to have a vested interest in each player as an NHL rookie. NHL.com caught up with each coach to offer thoughts on what they now see.
"The media in Finland still goes crazy for [Laine]; he's a star still," Tapola said. "Our players watch NHL games every day and of course Patrik is in highlights so they follow his career.
"What surprises me is how he's scored points consistently, he's adapted to the NHL level so fast."
Video: COL@WPG: Scheifele buries Laine's slick feed
Tapola said the first time he saw Laine was 2014-15, when he played for LeKi in Mestis, the second division in Finland. Laine, then 16, would on occasion skate with Tappara that season. Tapola said all Laine needed to improve was his skating and defensive-zone coverage if he had any intention of playing regularly in Liiga.
"His domination in Liiga came through the skating and his scoring skills, especially on the power play since he had Liiga's best playmaker [Kristian Kuusela] skating with him," Tapola said.
Kuusela, 34, has spent the past 14-plus seasons in Liiga. His career-high 59 points (20 goals, 39 assists) came with Laine as his linemate last season.
Laine had 33 points (17 goals, 16 assists), a plus-6 rating, 253 shots (5.5 per game) and averaged 17:16 in ice time in 46 regular-season games for Tappara. He won the Jari Kurri Trophy as playoff MVP after scoring 15 points (10 goals, five assists) in 18 games for the league champion.
Laine is producing at an even greater rate his first season in the NHL. He leads all rookies with 32 goals and 58 points in 58 games, and is tied for the lead in power-play goals (eight) with Maple Leafs center William Nylander.
Video: COL@WPG: Laine cranks home a slap shot
"For me, Laine and [Florida Panthers center] Aleksander Barkov were the most talented players I've ever had [in Tappara]," Tapola said. "Laine's talent comes from how much he dedicates himself to practice on and off the ice. And of course, his self-confidence. He has that, but at the same time he's still humble with other players and fans. That makes him so liked in Finland."
Tapola expects Laine to score 50 goals within the next two years.
"He'll definitely reach 50 in a season," he said. "Especially if he continues to play with Nikolaj Ehlers and Mark Scheifele."
Tapola has enjoyed watching Laine excel at the highest level and Crawford is delighted to see Matthews live up to his billing after being chosen No. 1 in the 2016 NHL Draft.
In Zurich, Matthews finished the regular season tied for fourth in the league with 24 goals and a 1.28 points-per game average in 36 games. He was 10th with 46 points; former NHL player Pierre-Marc Bouchard was first in the league with 67 points in 13 more games than Matthews.
Video: TOR@SJS: Matthews slams home Leivo's feed for PPG
"He just keeps maturing and getting better," Crawford said. "I can't say I knew how he'd turn out, but the one guarantee I kept telling everyone was that he'd be the rookie with the most shots and he's done that."
Matthews leads all NHL rookies with 227 shots on goal and 88 missed shot attempts, including six off the goal post. He's scored 13 goals using a wrist shot, nine with a snap shot and five with his backhand. Four have come on deflections.
His average shots on goal length is 24.3 feet. Laine's average is 39.4.
"Auston hasn't changed his shooter's mentality since when I had him in Zurich," Crawford said. "He's a guy who can make in-tight plays. The Maple Leafs have such a young team and in a lot of ways they've captured the imagination of people because everyone can see where they're going."
Crawford was asked if he expects Matthews to be named captain at some point in his career.
"That's a decision entirely up to Toronto, but we got to see his professionalism and maturity [in Zurich], so from that standpoint I can see that side of him," Crawford said. "The players they have in Toronto now, and the people running the organization with [Maple Leafs president] Brendan Shanahan, [general manager] Lou Lamoriello and [coach] Mike Babcock, that's a really experienced group. I'm sure they'll do all the right things to help those players succeed."
Head to Head comparison
(Games through March 5)
Shots on goal: 227
Avg. ice time: 17:48
*Goals created per game: 0.37
Points per 60 minutes (all situations): 2.90
Shots on goal: 160
Avg. ice time: 18:05
*Goals created per game: 0.42
Points per 60 minutes (all situations): 3.32
*- information courtesy Hockey-reference.com