Shortly after Alexandre Daigle was taken first overall by the Ottawa Senators in 1993, he uttered a line that would haunt him for the entirety of his mediocre NHL career. “I’m glad I got drafted first because no one remembers No. 2,” Daigle said at the time. Chris Pronger - with his Hart and Norris Trophies, Stanley Cup ring, plaque in the Hockey Hall of Fame an gap-toothed grin – never let him, or anyone else for that matter, ever forget who went second overall that year. In fact, Pronger had so much fun with it that he brought it up once at the draft a couple of years ago. “Guess who’s eating the sh-- sandwich on that one?” he gloated.
There was no such bravado, either on the draft floor or prior to their first meeting, between the No. 1 and No. 2 picks in the 2016 NHL draft. The modern player is far different in character and comportment that Daigle and Pronger were, which probably explains why Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs is as dull as dishwater and Patrik Laine of the Winnipeg Jets, after showing some real promise in the personality department, has been kidnapped and brainwashed into not saying anything substantive by the secret NHL department that handles such matters.
Oh well, we’ll just have to be content with watching their brilliance on the ice, something that was in full display in the Jets' 5-4 overtime win over the Maple Leafs Wednesday night. Matthews was terrific. Laine, though, was otherworldly. Not only did he singlehandedly deliver two points to the Jets with a hat trick that brought them back from the dead, but he also drilled his stake into the ground in the 2016-17 Calder Trophy race.
It was incredible. One week after Matthews opened his career with the greatest offensive display ever by a player making his NHL debut, Laine came right back with a three-goal performance, including the game-winner with 2:20 remaining in overtime. And just to prove you can’t script these things, the goal came exactly six seconds after Matthews was stopped cold on a breakaway by Jets goalie Michael Hutchinson. (The chink in Matthews’ armor so far? Well, the extra frame. He lost his man Kyle Turris on the OT goal in Ottawa last week and his failure to score provided the swing the Jets needed to pot their own overtime winner.)
It wasn’t just that Laine scored three goals in his fourth NHL game, it was how he scored them. All three of them were goalscorer goals, not a cheapie among them. His first was brilliant, corralling a shot from the blueline on the power play, then keeping control of it, spinning around and putting a perfect shot past Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen.
Then on his second, Laine read the fake by teammate Nikolaj Ehlers brilliantly on the power play and, set up along the left side, fired a one-timer that looked an awful lot like Alex Ovechkin or Brett Hull. Take your pick. The Jets had their goaltender pulled and were on a 6-on-4 power play when Laine scored with just 55 seconds left in the game.
And as soon as he gathered up the puck along the boards on the overtime winner, there was no way he was passing it. He knew it, the Leafs knew it and the 15,296 in attendance at the MTS Centre knew it, but no one had the wherewithal to stop it. Laine went high on Andersen and even Laine himself seemed impressed with himself. "I'm kind of bad on two-against-ones from (the other side), so I just decided to shoot and it was a good shot," Laine told Scott Oake of Rogers Sportsnet after the game.
Try as he might, Oake was unable to get Laine to bite on the rivarly after the game. First overall pick gets stopped and the second pick scores at the other end to win the game. Even though he wouldn't say it, there had to be some of Laine that was taking some satisfaction in bettering the guy who was taken one spot ahead of him. "Obviously I'm proud of my team and myself that I scored those important goals and I scored the winning goal," Laine told Oake. "It's just amazing. He played a good game and he couldn't score, so I scored. It goes like that sometimes." Pressed to address the matchup, Laine said: "It was Winnipeg against Toronto, like I've said a couple of times now and it was just awesome to get the two points."
So it's fair to say that from the standpoint of young talent, the NHL is off to a rather promising start this season. Connor McDavid is producing, Matthews had a signature game in his first game in the league and now Laine has made his presence known in dramatic fashion. On a night when the Jets honored their past with Hall of Fame induction banners for Bobby Hull, Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson - Hull, curiously, declined to participate - they also found out that the future doesn't look too bad as well. If this is a portent of what is to come from these young men, we can hardly wait to see what's next. And that's without Jack Eichel in the picture. And in case you're wondering, the Leafs and Jets play for the second and final time this season Feb. 21 in Toronto. Mark it down on your calendar if you haven't already.