Top picks from 2016 and 2017 are unfazed by playoff pressure
Auston Matthews got a taste of playoff hockey last season. Patrik Laine has been waiting two years for this.
The third pick in the 2016 draft? Well, Pierre-Luc Dubois is taking a surprising star turn in the spotlight of the NHL playoffs, too.
Matthews, Laine, Dubois and 2017 top picks Nico Hischier and Nolan Patrick look unfazed as they handle significant responsibilities in the postseason. For the first time since 1991, four teenagers have scored a goal in the first round of the playoffs, and all five budding superstars are in top-six forward roles, combining for five goals and six assists.
“These guys are young guys,” Toronto coach Mike Babcock said after Matthews’ Game 3 winner against Boston was the 20-year-old center’s first point of the series.
“They’re playing against real players and they’re young guys. You’ve got to go through some of these slappings in your life to kind of respond and learn how to respond and do things right.”
They’ve been doing a lot of things right all season. Matthews’ 34 goals led the Maple Leafs; Laine’s 43 for Winnipeg were second in the NHL; Hischier’s 48 points were second on the Devils; and Patrick’s 30 and gradual improvement earned him a promotion to the Flyers’ second-line center spot.
Dubois was a bit of a surprise pick by Columbus behind Matthews and Laine at the 2016 draft, and he didn’t break into the NHL right away. Dubois wasn’t expected to mature this quickly and doesn’t get the kind of attention as last season’s top finishers for rookie of the year, but he’s used to that by now.
“I’ve always been the guy kind of under the radar,” said Dubois, whose 48 points were third on the Blue Jackets. “All my life it’s been pretty much like that. I don’t really look to impress other people. I just want to play well. I’ve never been the guy that everybody talked about, so it never really fazed me.”
Dubois most impressively has earned the trust of old-school coach John Tortorella enough to be the Blue Jackets’ No. 1 center at age 19. Tortorella uses Dubois as an example to show older players how to handle situations, an ultimate sign of respect from a Stanley Cup-winning coach who doesn’t hesitate to put him on the ice against opposing stars.
“He accepted it, he excelled,” Tortorella said. “He has a mental toughness for a 19-year-old kid, to accept that type of responsibility and want more. It’s a different guy. You’ve got to be careful with young kids, but he has showed me tremendous progress and instant mental toughness as I’ve gotten to know him as the season’s gone on.”
Laine isn’t tracking the stats of the other players in his draft class, but he knows how they are doing. Similarly, Dubois enjoys watching Matthews and Laine while trying not to compare himself to them.
“They’re obviously really great players,” said Dubois, who picked up two assists in his first playoff game and scored a goal in his third. “I know my game and people that know my game know that we’re all different players. There’s the offensive side of it, there’s the defensive side, there’s everything. Everything’s different about our games.”
Production ties them together with Hischier and Patrick, who also don’t look out of place at all in their first playoffs at 19.
New Jersey coach John Hynes said Hischier has been one of the Devils’ best players, which is the continuation of a season of learning for the first Swiss No. 1 pick.
“I’ve seen every city, every rink and just for me it was a lot of experience this year, and guys helped me a lot,” said Hischier, who scored in Game 2 against Tampa Bay and played more than 17 minutes in the Devils’ Game 3 win. “Just all around I think I grew as a person and as a hockey player.”
Patrick wasn’t putting up a lot of points in the first half of the season but still felt he was playing well. Philadelphia coach Dave Hakstol felt good enough about Patrick’s game that he promoted him and has reaped the benefits for the past couple of months and in the first round against Pittsburgh.
“It’s nice for your confidence,” Patrick said. “I think I kind of progressed through the year and kept getting better with every role they put me in.”
Big roles aren’t a problem for Matthews and Laine, who are key drivers of play for the Leafs and Jets. Toronto finally got going against the Bruins in large part because of Matthews, who said he felt an earthquake in his feet when he scored in Game 3 and let out a scream to match.
After Laine scored the tying goal in Game 1 against Minnesota in what became the Jets franchise’s first playoff victory, he motioned to fans for cheers before jumping into the glass. The Finnish winger is used to scoring goals — and a lot of them — but in the playoffs it’s even more special.
“It was maybe a little bit nicer,” Laine said. “I was saving my goals and celebrations for the playoffs. Now I can celly (celebrate) a little bit harder.”
AP Sports Writer Dave Campbell in St. Paul, Minnesota, contributed.
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