When it comes to the NHL draft, there has never been a better year for Finland than 2002, when Kari Lehtonen went second overall to the Atlanta Thrashers and Joni Pitkanen was taken at No. 4 by the Philadelphia Flyers. Until this year, that is. The Tiny Country That Could™ has never had a No. 1 overall pick in the draft, and it won’t this year, either, but there’s an excellent chance it will have the No. 2 and 3 picks in Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi. Or is that Jesse Puljujarvi and Patrik Laine? They’re different players, but there’s almost nothing to choose between them when it comes to projecting them as NHL players. “You’re really splitting hairs here,” one scout said. “Scouts just keep going back and forth on them because it’s so close.” As was the case in 2002, it was good times for young players in Finland. At that time, the Finns were in the middle of a four-year run in which they won a silver and three bronze medals in the World Junior Championship. This year, the Finns won gold for the second time in three years, taking the latter one in large part because of the efforts of Laine and Puljujarvi. Both were named to the all-tournament team, but Puljujarvi took home MVP and top-forward honors with five goals and 17 points in seven games to win the tournament scoring title. Laine finished third with seven goals and 13 points. Here’s how they stack up in the key areas:
SHOT Anytime you’re being compared with Alex Ovechkin, that’s a good indication you have a dangerous shot. Laine has drawn those comparisons, particularly with his ability to whip it from the top of the circle. “That’s Laine’s big weapon,” a scout said. Although Laine is a more dynamic scorer, Puljujarvi can get a shot off in tight pretty well. But picture Ovechkin setting up on the dot on the power play and that’s what some scouts think Laine will be able to do. He had 10 goals in 15 playoff games in the Finnish League.
SKATING Both are NHL-caliber skaters, but Puljujarvi gets the edge because he’s more fluid. Laine takes a little longer to get up to speed, but once he hits that top speed, he can be dangerous. “They’re close to equal overall, but they’re not equal in the same areas,” a scout said. “Laine is a much more momentum-based skater on the rush. He’s able to generate speed and power as he skates longer distances. Puljujarvi is more agile.” Another scout: “Puljujarvi is an exceptional skater. He’s a guy who can keep going and going.”
STICKHANDLING This is another area of the game where the two Finns are extremely close. Puljujarvi is more of a playmaker while Laine is more of a shooter off the rush, so Puljujarvi has more opportunities to stickhandle. The good thing about both players is they can do things with the puck at high speed, and they’re adept with the puck in traffic. “That’s a tough one to call,” one scout said. “They’re both really good. I would have to give a slight edge to Laine because he’s able to hold the puck out more, and there’s more depth and range to his stickhandling.
DEFENSE If there’s one area of the game where Puljujarvi gets a clear advantage, it’s this one. If you’re down a goal and looking to tie the game late, you’re going to be more likely to want Laine on the ice. If you’re protecting a one-goal lead late, Puljujarvi is far more likely to be your man. Neither is better than the other, it’s just that Puljujarvi thinks more defensively. “Laine wants to go – he puts himself in position to facilitate offense, not defense,” a scout said. “If they’re going to lean one way, Laine is leaning toward offense and Puljujarvi is leaning the other way.”
PUCK POSSESSION In what has become such a big part of the game today, scouts like what they see from both players. Again, Puljujarvi has more opportunities to hold onto the puck, whereas Laine thrives more on the give-and-go game. It’s another area where they’re deadly together. Both are very good along the boards and are more likely than not to come out of the corner with the puck. Scouts give an edge to Laine for the same reason he gets the edge in physical play – because he’s a little meaner. “Just a little bigger, a little stronger, a little longer,” one scout said. “He’ll put his ass out to protect the puck.”
NHL READINESS Because they’ll both be going to bottom-feeders, Laine and Puljujarvi will be prepared to step into an NHL lineup in the fall of 2016. Laine is more dynamic, Puljujarvi more well rounded. That means Laine will have the chance to make a more offensive impact, but Puljujarvi is more likely to gain a coach’s trust more quickly. “Laine will score more earlier,” a scout said, “but Puljujarvi, if he doesn’t score, he’ll still be able to help you.” Of course, much of it depends on the clubs that draft them. A team in no hurry to rush the process might keep their player out of the lineup for a year.
VISION Scouts maintain that Laine has closed the gap in this area of the game over the past year. One has a shooter’s vision of the game (Laine), while the other sees the game through the lens of a playmaker who has more of a two-way component to his game (Puljujarvi). Puljujarvi gets most of the kudos for being a playmaker, but those who have watched Laine play in the Finnish League this season have marvelled at his improved ability to distribute the puck.
IQ This is another area where scouts have a difficult time separating the two. Both have the ability to make decisions at high speed and in pressure situations. “They understand what they need to do and how it fits into the game,” one scout said. “They’re both high-end thinkers. And they do it at high speed.” Another scout said he gives a slight edge to Laine because he seems to be able to better separate the emotional and cerebral sides of the game. “Puljujarvi is very active and competitive,” one scout said. “I don’t think he can quiet his mind sometimes when he really gets going.”
PHYSICALITY Both are big, physical players who are not afraid to use their bodies to their advantage. Puljujarvi hits to separate his opponent from the puck, while Laine has more sinister thoughts in mind. “They’re both physical, but Laine throws hits with intent,” one scout said. Another said Laine has the ability to change the tone of the game. “In the gold-medal game (of the WJC), they were down and they weren’t going very well,” another scout said, “and Laine got the crowd into it with two big hits.”
This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the Draft Preview edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.