Rookie Showdown

The Toronto Maple Leafs and the Winnipeg Jets square off at the Air Canada Centre tonight, the final regular-season meeting between both teams.

Tonight’s game will be the last head-to-head match up between rookie sensations Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine. Both were chosen No. 1 and No. 2 respectively in the 2016 NHL Draft. As the two rookies prepare to battle it out for the second time in their young careers, it’s clear that this is a showdown for rookie of the year.

Last time the two met, the Jets came back for a 5-4 overtime victory on Oct. 19. The Maple Leafs had a 4-0 lead in the second period when Laine led the comeback with his first NHL hat trick. Laine would score the overtime winner following a breakaway miss from Matthews.

Laine has had two more hat tricks this season since that game in Winnipeg four months ago. The Finnish forward is the first rookie with three hat tricks in a season since Teemu Selanne (five) and Eric Lindros (three) in 1992-93.

Matthews and Laine are among the favourites to win the Calder Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie. They are not the only rookies in contention for the trophy as Mitch Marner, Zach Werenski and Matt Murray have made strong cases to be in the running as well.

This is great. It’s the best thing since Crosby vs. Ovechkin, and it’s no surprise that fans are witnessing some similarities. Foreign player vs. North American player, winger vs. centre, and two potential leaders for their respective teams in the future.

So, who has the edge for the Calder Memorial Trophy right now?

The two 19-year olds have been playing their best hockey recently. Laine has five goals and three assists in the last five games, where as Matthews has five points in his last five games. Note his goal from Sunday night against Carolina was sensational and it will be a highlight reel for a while.

The two are also atop of the rookie scoring race. Laine leads the way with 54 points as he is edging Matthews who has 52 points. Laine is ahead of Matthews along with his teammates Mitch Marner (46), and William Nylander (42). Laine and Matthews are tied for first for goal scoring among rookies with 28 as tonight is a good chance that one of them will be ahead, if not, still tied for most goals scored.

Laine leads all rookie forwards with 15:26 TOI at even strength. Matthews is right behind him at 15:13. Despite playing fewer games, Laine has the edge in even-strength points with 40 over Matthews. That being said, Matthews does lead all rookies with 24 even-strength goals where as Laine has 20.

Taking a look at the advanced stats, Matthews has the edge in Corsi percentages. His shot attempt differentials when players are on the ice is 53.2 percent to Laine’s 48.9 percent. Matthews also has the edge for offensive zone starts with 63.3 percent to Laine’s 55.4 percent. He’s also generating a huge amount of shots with 206, almost 60 more than Laine.

Although they are neck-and-neck in terms of traditional statistics like goals and assists, the underlying numbers suggest Matthews might be having the greater impact to his team. Matthews overall game and chemistry with the Maple Leafs other young players has helped him have a greater impact for Toronto than Laine has had with Winnipeg.

Part of what has made Matthews and Laine so successful this season is the way they approach the game. They don’t seem like rivals, except they are. It’s why they’re linked and why the NHL will benefit from them for years to come. Matthews and Laine should quietly push each other and play off one another, keeping their rivalry in place for the future.

I do feel that Matthews has a very strong case that he’s the League’s best rookie. He has had the bigger moments. You cannot forget his four-goal performance in his first NHL game four months ago, or the highlight reel goals and the Centennial Classic. He’s the Jonathan Toews type player the Leafs have desperately needed for so long. Even if he doesn’t lead all rookies in either major category, he’s a front runner for the Calder.

It’s been a special season for both rookies. If you think this year has been impressive, just wait until they get even more comfortable.

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