Jets' 1st-round draft pick Patrik Laine faces brighter lights ahead of NHL debut

Eighteen-year-old Patrik Laine will make his NHL debut with the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday night, and the bright lights of the MTS Centre may have gotten a little brighter on the talented rookie.

Laine was drafted 2nd overall; Auston Matthews, who was 1st, scored 4 goals in his debut

Eighteen-year-old Patrik Laine will make his NHL debut Thursday night, and the bright lights of the MTS Centre may have gotten a little brighter on the talented rookie. 1:58

Eighteen-year-old Patrik Laine will make his NHL debut Thursday night, and the bright lights of the MTS Centre may have gotten a little brighter on the talented rookie.

Laine was the second overall pick in the 2016 NHL entry draft. Some, including himself, argued that he should have been taken over the longtime consensus for the first pick, Auston Matthews.
Winnipeg Jets first-round draft pick Patrik Laine skates at the MTS Centre Thursday morning ahead of his first NHL game. (CBC)

Matthews had a historic first game Wednesday night for the Toronto Maple Leafs, becoming the first ever NHL player to score four goals in their league debut, in the Leafs' overtime loss to the Senators in Ottawa.

The Jets winger watched a couple periods of the Maple Leafs game on Wednesday night and said he thought it was nice that Matthews got a league debut like that.

"It was quite awesome and good for him. He's obviously a good player and nice to get a debut like that," said Laine.

No rivalry

Ahead of the Jets' season opener, Laine said even though he and Matthews were taken first and second in the entry draft, he doesn't think there will be a rivalry between them.

"In my opinion, no. I don't need a rivalry," Laine said. "I have to play as good as I can and that's my job and I want to focus on that."

Laine fires a shot against the Edmonton Oilers during the second period of a pre-season game at the MTS Centre on Sept. 30. (Trevor Hagan/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
The hype and pressure surrounding Laine have been growing for months now. He led Finland to a championship at the World Juniors in January. He was then part of the Finnish squad that won silver at the IIHF World Championships, and most recently he suited up for the World Cup of Hockey with Finland.

Laine has Winnipeg fans on the edge of their newly replaced MTS Centre seats. He's a big story here, but he's an even bigger story in Finland.

Two different Finish media outlets have staff covering the first appearance of Laine, who most hope will be the second coming of the "Finnish Flash," Teemu Selanne.

Tommi Seppala, an NHL correspondent with the Finnish national broadcasting company YLE, is in Winnipeg to cover Laine's debut for fans back home. Seppala said excitement around the top-drafted Finnish phenom has gripped the country.

Tommi Seppala, an NHL correspondent with the Finnish national broadcasting company YLE, watches as the Carolina Hurricanes take their pre-game skate at the MTS Centre on Thursday. (CBC)
"It's pretty crazy. The hype's been amazing after the World Juniors and Finnish elite league playoffs. What he did in the World Juniors and after that, when he started scoring in the men's league and the playoffs, like clutch goals, it got people crazy," said Seppala.

Selanne, a former Winnipeg Jet, set the bar for Finnish hockey stardom. Now, the hype around Laine is even bigger. Seppala said the pressure is real, that some people back home expect Laine to score 20 or 30 goals.

"I'm not sure how realistic it is but at the same time, this is the guy who doesn't care. He doesn't care what people say or what's the pressure; I mean, he's just playing," he said.

"Mentally he's so tough, so I think that's why he can handle everything that's going on around him."

Teammates rally around rookies

College star Kyle Connor is also making his NHL regular-season debut on Thursday — on the same line with Laine and Mathieu Perreault.

Jets teammates are quick to rally around all four rookies on the team's starting lineup. Captain Blake Wheeler said they shouldn't feel any pressure.

"They're 18 years old. This is all new to them, this is all exciting," said Wheeler.

"It's too early to start putting expectations and pressure on guys. You got to let them go out there and play, make them feel comfortable and build their confidence so they can play to the best of their ability."

Laine takes questions from reporters while sitting in his stall after the morning pre-game skate. (CBC)
Top-line centre Mark Scheifele said it was a pretty special moment in hockey history to see what Matthews had accomplished on Wednesday, but he added that the first-timers really need to focus on playing a simple game.

"Just don't try and do anything too special," said Scheifele. "Don't try to go out and get a home run every shift; just do the simple things. Chip pucks out, chip pucks in, and then when the offence comes, you'll know when to take it."

Laine is not the only Finnish rookie in Thursday's game against the Carolina Hurricanes. Sebastian Aho, 19, is also making his NHL debut. Laine and Aho played together on both the World Juniors team and the IIHF World Championship team this past year.

Jets head coach Paul Maurice said he wants Laine to have the kind of game that gives back to his family and the people that got him to this point in his career. Maurice also wants the same for Connor.

"Most of us, some of us have kids, so what would you want if you came to the game and your kid was playing in his first NHL game?" asked Maurice.

"You'd want him to work his butt off so that he looked like a really good teammate and that he had friends, and that the guys rallied around him and enjoyed his presence, and then you want your kid to look like he's having fun doing what he's doing."

On Thursday morning, Laine said he is feeling good but expects to feel a little more nervous as the day goes on.

Surrounded by cameras and reporters, sitting in his stall after the morning's pre-game skate, Laine said he had no problem sleeping the night before and he's not looking to top Matthews's debut performance.

"Of course, it would be great to score [my] first goal, but two points for the team — it's more important to me," he said.