It’s funny how quickly the narrative can change. Six months ago, the talk throughout the NHL was how none of the seven Canadian teams made the playoffs.
Now, the majority of the seven are off to strong starts and blossoming with young talent and future superstars.
Five of the top nine players in June’s draft are in the NHL — Auston Matthews (first overall) for Toronto, Patrik Laine (second) for Winnipeg, Jesse Puljujarvi (fourth) for Edmonton, Matt Tkachuk (sixth) for Calgary and Mikhail Sergachev (ninth) for Montreal.
Add in pure talent Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in Edmonton and Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan in Calgary, and budding studs Kyle Connor in Winnipeg and Mitch Marner and William Nylander in Toronto, and the future’s bright north of the border thanks to a new generation of panache.
“This is the first time, and somebody may correct me on this, in the evolution of the game in Canada that every Canadian team took a breath and said, ‘We have to rebuild,’ ” Jets coach Paul Maurice said. “You were never really allowed to in the past during the uncapped years where you could buy enough players to sort of be in the fight. Now we’ve all stripped this thing to the bone.
“There’s a new generation of potential stars coming into the game in Canada. We’re all kind of in the same boat here. It’s a race to develop these players now, and there will come a time just on the quality of those players alone that Canada will be very well represented in the playoffs.”
This isn’t just good for Canada. It’s good for the NHL.
Before the season even opened, Jack Eichel, the No. 2 pick in last year’s draft playing for Buffalo and a Calder Trophy finalist last year, suffered a high ankle sprain. But by the end of the first night, Matthews had a four-goal game and McDavid had scored two goals, including one on an awesome penalty shot, and had an assist.
Former Wild coach Mike Yeo, now associate coach in St. Louis, got to watch McDavid as an assistant coach at last spring’s world championships.
“We had a team full of great players there, but when you have a bunch of great players and all they do is watch him on the ice, that says how good he is,” Yeo said. “Everybody on the bench said they’d pay admission to watch McDavid play. He’s that good.
“You watch him in practice against fast players, the Matt Duchenes and Max Domis, he’d be stride for stride and all of a sudden pull away. He’s just got another gear. It doesn’t even look like he’s moving.”
For the rest of eternity, Matthews will be compared with Laine.
“Matthews is more of a mature game, which you should have at center. He’s going to have a more complete game,” said former NHL defenseman Shane Hnidy, a Jets broadcaster. “Not that it’s better or worse, it’s just a different game. Laine, all it takes is one shot. Every time he has that puck, it’s a good chance it’s going in. He’s got that [Steven] Stamkos factor. A hundred guys can shoot the puck from the same spot. Those guys for some reason score.”
In their first head-to-head meeting Wednesday, Laine forced overtime with a late tying goal and completed a hat trick in overtime. After the game, Laine, reportedly, jokingly asked what Teemu Selanne’s NHL rookie record was for the old Winnipeg Jets. The answer is 76 in 1992-93.
Selanne, in fact, tweeted, “New sheriff in town.”
It’s safe to say the Jets, the Wild’s northern rival, had one heck of a day when they won the draft lottery and moved from the No. 6 pick to No. 2.
The scary thing about Matthews, Laine, McDavid and the others? Most are just teenagers. They haven’t even grown into their bodies yet.
Just imagine how good they’ll be in a few years.
“It’s scary, but it’s great for the game,” Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said. “Not that [Alex] Ovechkin and [Sidney] Crosby are old by any standard, but these young guys will keep the game alive.”