HELSINKI, FINLAND - Jesse Puljujarvi and Patrik Laine have a lot of hype around them right now. Not only have they inspired a McDavid vs. Eichel style of debate and coverage in Finland this season, but the two 2016 draft prospects also have a world junior tournament to win on home ice. So far, they have punished the competition, with Canada looming in the quarterfinal.
Puljujarvi leads the tournament in scoring with 12 points in four games, while Laine ranks third overall with eight points. The player in the middle, both literally and statistically, is Carolina prospect Sebastian Aho. So yeah, Finland has no problem scoring.
Though both players are young, they have all the traits you could ask for in draft phenoms. Here's the assessment of their line with Aho:
“They're great skaters, they can handle the puck, they move the puck very well, their passing skills are exceptional, each one can score and they want to play with each other," said coach Jukka Jalonen. "It's a great combination.”
Aho serves as the conscience of the line thanks to his smarts and defensive eye, while Laine and Puljujarvi are more free to run like fox hounds.
“If you try to over-coach them, you will make a mistake because they are naturals," Jalonen said. "If they start thinking too much on the ice, it's bad. You have to let them play.”
This is Puljujarvi's second world juniors, having played for Finland last year in Montreal. Though he didn't score, he had a lot of shots and if anything, that edition of the tournament served as a nice primer for Helsinki.
“It helped me with the tempo," Puljujarvi said through a translator. "Every game is tough in this tournament, there are no easy games.”
While this is Laine's first world juniors, he doesn't look intimidated at all. In fact, this has been an incredible tourney for draft prospects, with Auston Matthews, Matthew Tkachuk and Alexander Nylander joining the two Finns as top scorers. And even though Puljujarvi vs. Laine has been a big topic in Finnish hockey circles this season, the two have been able to keep their heads in check when it comes to draft talk.
“It's not hard to ignore it," Puljujarvi said. "I love to play, I love to practise and whatever comes will come.”
Still, based on the way scouts see the players, it's not hard to picture one or both of them going straight to the NHL next season. Puljujarvi is the "smaller" player at 6-foot-3, 201 pounds, while Laine comes in at 6-foot-4 and 207 pounds. And this is where I make an Aleksander Barkov comparison. Barkov went second overall in 2013, then went right to the Florida Panthers thanks to his size and skill. Like Laine, he played for Tappara in Finland and now he's having incredible success with the shocking first-place Cats.
“He's been a role model for me," Laine said. "I've always looked at what he has done and it was nice that he went straight after the draft to the NHL and been a leading player on his team. It just shows that if you're ready to go, you can play well there. It gives you hope that maybe you can be that player some day.”
If there is a lingering question surrounding Finland's draft demons, it's who goes first this summer? At this point, it may come down to which teams are selecting, as I have found a split opinion on which player should go higher. Here's an NHL scout on Team Puljujarvi:
"Size, compete level - he's just a big, strong, horse. Plays both ends, a real complete player."
And one from Team Laine:
"Size, shot, skill, creativity. Not as polished as Puljujarvi, but the finished product may have more upside."
Basically, you can't go wrong. The two players are good friends off the ice, so the rivalry will be friendly. As for the tournament so far, they're not planning on bowing out anytime soon.
“It's been a nice experience," Laine said. "All the crowds and games have been amazing and our team has played really well, so I'm confident and looking forward to beating Canada.”
And based on how things went down in the round robin, that may not be just youthful exuberance talking.