Young Stars Are In The Right Cities

The NHL’s four newest young stars who have entered the league during the last two years, Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Auston Matthews, and Patrik Laine have all landed in the right cities. They all managed to be drafted by teams in cities where hockey is loved and they will be the focus of attention. Last year Edmonton made McDavid the number one pick while Buffalo followed up with Eichel. This year, Toronto chose Matthews first and Winnipeg selected Laine. All teams are happy with the result.

Indeed in Buffalo and Winnipeg, where the Sabres have to compete with the mediocre Bills of the NFL and the Jets are sports rivals with the also-ran Blue Bombers of the CFL, it can be said that Eichel and Laine are their cities current best professional sports athletes. McDavid shares the Edmonton market with the Eskimos of the CFL who won the Grey Cup one year ago and were contenders again last year. Matthews is coming into an environment where the Maple Leafs share the market with the contending Blue Jays of MLB and the equally contending Raptors of the NBA.

For Eichel, who hails from Massachusetts, Laine from Finland, and McDavid from Richmond Hill, just north of Toronto, there is no adjustment in these hockey loving centers. But there must be some adjustment for Matthews who was born in California and lived most of his life in Arizona where hockey is an also-ran sport to come into Toronto where attention on the star players of the Maple Leafs is a constant factor. All four will be involved in their new communities during the off season, whether they like it or not.

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All four have different pressures on them. Eichel may well become the best Buffalo Sabre ever, challenging Gilbert Perreault. It is his job to lead the Sabres back to respectability to become a regular playoff team again.

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Ultimate victory has eluded Buffalo since 1965 when Jack Kemp led the Bills to the AFL Championship. There was no Super Bowl in those days. Since then Buffalo has endured two losses by the Sabres in the Stanley Cup Final and four consecutive frustrating defeats in the Super Bowl by the Bills. Whoever gives Buffalo a championship in the modern sports era will be head and shoulders above the rest.

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Laine is already being compared to Winnipeg Jet Finnish legend Temmu Selanne. In its two incarnations in NHL, the Winnipeg Jets have never even made the Western Conference Final.

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If Laine can take them even that far he will be acclaimed the greatest NHL Jet ever ahead of Selanne and Dale Hawerchuk. (I’m not counting the WHA days of Bobby Hull, Anders Hedberg, and Ulf Nilsson.)

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Matthews can be almost be said to be a Maple Leaf Messiah. The Maple Leafs have not had a player of his stature since Matts Sundin. He comes to a team that is currently tied with the St. Louis Blues for the longest streak without winning the Stanley Cup, 50 years. The team has not even been to the Stanley Cup Final during this period.

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The Leafs have had to endure two long periods of bad management and ownership under Harold Ballard and the Ontario Teachers Pension Fund. Their fans are famished with waiting to have a contending team again, let alone a championship. Matthews is being asked to do what the best four Maple Leafs during these famine years, Sundin, Doug Gilmour, Darryl Sittler, and Bjore Salming could not do, take the Leafs all the way to the Stanley Cup. There are a lot of ghosts hanging over him.

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For Connor McDavid, there is a different kind of pressure. He is supposed to be Sidney Crosby’s heir, the best player in Canada who is head and shoulders above everybody else, Canadian and foreign, during his peak playing days. This list of players is almost continuous back to the days of Maurice Richard and everyone who is on it (Richard, Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Bobby Orr, Guy Lafleur, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Crosby) has won at least one Stanley Cup. And there is the additional ghost of Gretzky being the best Oiler ever.

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If McDavid wanted a challenge, he probably got the ultimate one. Right now he has to be not only the best current Oiler, but better than Eichel, Matthews, and Laine, and everyone else in the league except Crosby. Good luck kid, you’re going to need it.

While it is great for these young stars to be in true hockey environments, it is probably not what the NHL wanted. They can always sell hockey tickets in Toronto, Buffalo, Winnipeg, and Edmonton. Secretly the NHL would probably be happier if these young stars turned around attendance in Carolina, Arizona, Columbus, and Florida.

But they are where they are and as noted above, they all have sufficient pressure on them without having to sell tickets and save the existence of franchises. Hopefully they will thrive in real hockey environments. And it will be fascinating to watch how this four-way rivalry plays out in the future.

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Laine Wins First Battle Against One Of His Two Rivals

It looks like in the immediate future years, Canadian fans are going to be looking forward to seeing a Toronto-Winnipeg match. The CBC will insist it should be its feature match on Hockey Night In Canada on Saturday from now on.

This is because the two top draft picks of this year, Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the number one pick, and Patrik Laine, the number two pick of the Winnipeg Jets have made such an impact in their initial games. Matthews scored four goals in his very first game against the Ottawa Senators, a new NHL record, and now Laine has answered him with a hat trick in their first head to head meeting.

The irony is that they play for Canadian teams yet Matthews is from the United States and Laine is from Finland. Such a Finnish-American rivalry is unprecedented in NHL history. But both should love playing in fanatical hockey loving cities like Toronto and Winnipeg where they will be the toast of the town and their skills appreciated.

About the only precedent for a personal international rivalry has been the Sidney Crosby-Alexander Ovechkin story but that has been fizzling out after so much initial promise. Ovechkin has lots of individual honors but nothing to show team-wise either in the NHL or in international competition. In contrast, Crosby has two Stanley Cups, two Olympic gold medals, and now a World Cup championship in which he was named most valuable player.

So a Laine-Matthews game promises to be an exciting event in the immediate future. For Jets fans, watching Laine must take them back to the days of Teemu Selanne, their only other NHL superstar besides Dale Hawerchuk. There will be comparisons between the careers of Laine and Selanne from now on. And for Toronto fans, their recent best player was American Phil Kessel. So both Canadian cities are used to seeing Americans and Finns lead the way.

But as well as Matthews, Laine will now test himself head to head against his other main rival, Edmonton’s Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby’s heir apparent on Canada’s Golden Hockey chain, that list of Canadian hockey players who are better than any other current hockey players in the world in their generation. This chain stretches from the 1940s and includes Maurice Richard, Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Bobby Orr, Guy Lafleur, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, and the current star, Sidney Crosby. There has never been a player from outside Canada to claim the title “best player in the world” except maybe the brief period when Lemieux temporarily retired and Jaromir Jagr was in his prime and Nicklas Lidstrom led the Detroit Redwing defense.

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And Laine’s first match against McDavid will come in the outdoor showpiece, this Sunday’s Heritage Classic in Winnipeg when double the normal number of fans will get to see him. Three outstanding young players from three different countries playing in three different Canadian cities, vying at the same time for the title “best hockey player in the world”. That too is unprecedented in the NHL.

For Matthews, the only problem is that he plays in the Eastern Conference so he will only be playing against Laine and McDavid twice a year. But he will get to play against Crosby, Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Steve Stamkos more often in compensation.

So Toronto, Winnipeg and Edmonton hockey fans are going to be entertained royally for quite a few years. Calgary, Vancouver, Montreal and Ottawa are going to be envious. And will any other new young stars join the triumvirate?