ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA – When Team Finland captured the gold medal in front of its home crowd at January’s World Junior Championship in Helsinki, Finnish winger Jesse Puljujarvi led the tournament in scoring with 17 points and was named World Junior MVP.
With 13 points in seven games, Puljujarvi’s linemate Patrik Laine was named to the tournament All-Star team. At that time, he was seen as the lower-ranked prospect for this year’s draft.
Four months later, that order has flipped. Puljujarvi continues to develop nicely, picking up another gold medal with Finland and being named to the All-Star team at April’s Under-18 Tournament in North Dakota, but Laine’s star has been rising at the speed of light.
Last month, Laine was named playoff MVP in the Finnish League as he led Tappara Tampere in scoring with 10-5-15 in 18 games on the way to a league title. Now, just three weeks after his 18th birthday, he’s the leading scorer at the men’s World Championship in Russia with four goals and six points after just two games.
Over the years, not many 18-year-olds have had a chance to participate in the men’s tournament before they’re drafted. In 2016, two of them are making some of the event’s biggest early headlines.
Auston Matthews of the U.S. is expected to be chosen first overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs. He has collected two goals and an assist in his first two games, with ties him for fifth in the scoring race. He has been solid—but completely overshadowed by Laine’s early heroics.
Previously, Jaromir Jagr held the record for most goals by a U18-eligible player at a World Championship in the modern era. In 1990, he scored three goals and five points in 10 games. It took Laine just two games over this tournament’s first weekend to shatter that mark.
Most points ever by a U18 at a World Championship? Per Corey Pronman of ESPN via Elite Prospects, that record is 77 years old—set by Jaroslav Drobny of Czechoslovakia in 1939.
Drobny scored six points in six games—a total that Laine has already matched. The 2016 tournament is just three days old, and he is already rewriting the record books.
Laine seems to be able to score at will. He lists Alexander Ovechkin as his favourite player and it shows in his playing style. Like Ovechkin, the big Finn is lethal from the left faceoff circle on the power play, with a rocket of a shot.
Laine goal pic.twitter.com/MRX6RNO3rj
— Stephanie (@myregularface) May 8, 2016
He has an easygoing demeanour that’s reminiscent of another fabulous Finn who starred in a Jets uniform—Teemu Selanne. In an interview with Ryan Rishaug of TSN, he also sounded comfortable with the possibility of beginning his NHL career in Winnipeg. “I know it’s really cold,” he admitted, but brushed it off. “I’m used to it.”
Laine admits that he’s pushing for No. 1, but won’t be disappointed if that’s not how the draft unfolds. “It’s not a big deal if I’m second or third,” he said. “I think those first guys will get the same opportunities with their teams. I’ll still be proud of myself if I’m two or three.”
Finland puts its 2-0 record on the line against the American on Monday night in St. Petersburg. That will be Laine’s first-ever chance to compare himself face-to-face with the man he’s competing with for that top spot in the draft, Matthews.
“I don’t really care,” Laine said when asked if he’s looking forward to the matchup. “I just want to play my own game and not think about those things. People in the stands can think about those things. I want to just play hockey.”
After the Finns started the tournament with games against Belarus and Germany, a U.S. team that features 13 current NHL players should present a bigger test. “I think it’s going to be a tough game,” said Laine, “a really good team and really good players. We have to be careful with those guys.”