WASHINGTON — Patrik Laine isn’t afraid to be himself, whether he’s talking or playing hockey.
The No. 2 pick in the NHL draft thought he deserved to be No. 1 and said so. His on-ice persona is just as confident, and it’ll be put to the test playing for Finland at the World Cup of Hockey.
Laine is the youngest player in the tournament, and the Winnipeg Jets prospect is eager to show he belongs with the best.
“I’m going to have to prove that to everybody, and I’m going to show that when the tournament starts,” Laine said.
Laine’s offensive arsenal has more moves than his surname, which is pronounced Line-EH. He can shake defenders out of their skates but is best known for a wicked shot, which he used to beat Jonathan Quick in Finland’s exhibition game against the United States on Tuesday.
On a team that lacks the talent on paper of Canada, the U.S., Sweden and Russia, Laine has the ability to singlehandedly take a game over, despite being just under 18 years, 5 months old.
“When we named Patrik (to) this team, we know that he (had) good offensive-game skills and that shot was unbelievable,” coach Lauri Marjamaki said. “Of course he’s a young guy, but he has something we need and we’re trying to find some new elements about our offensive game.”
Picking Laine was a risk, though he earned it by scoring seven goals and adding five assists in 10 games at the world hockey championship in the spring. It was no surprise that he lit up the world juniors over the winter, but he had grown-up production playing with and against grown men.
Laine’s influence has continued leading up to the World Cup, as he struggled in the first two exhibition games before finding a groove.
“He’s just 18 years old, and I think he plays like a major player,” linemate Aleksander Barkov said.
Laine is a major player for Finland and could start the tournament alongside Barkov and either Teuvo Teravainen or 19-year-old Sebastian Aho. He’ll have chances to back up his braggadocio from before the draft, when he said the Toronto Maple Leafs should have selected him first overall instead of Auston Matthews. He’s not shying away from that, even while older teammates tell him players weren’t like that back in their day.
“I know that’s how good I am, and I can say that,” Laine said. “It’s not a problem for me. And if that’s a problem to somebody else, it’s not my problem. I don’t care what people think. I know that I’m a good player and I’m going to stick with that.”
Laine’s talent isn’t debatable, but there are questions about adjusting to smaller NHL rinks and, in this tournament, fitting into Finland’s team-first, stringent structure. The Finns’ hallmark is to play stronger as a group than as individual players, so it’s on Laine to fit into that concept without losing his creativity.
“He plays structure as good as anyone,” captain Mikko Koivu said. “But for sure when you get a skillset like that that can make a difference in a hockey game, I think you’ve just got to be careful when you use it and where.”
While plenty cocky about his game, Laine still has his teenage moments. His mother is moving to Winnipeg with him to help him adjust to North America, and after practice this week he stared in awe at some teammates’ lockers — after watching them in the NHL, he’s now playing with them.
Laine gets the benefit of plenty of veterans on and around Finland, most notably Teemu Selanne, who set the rookie goal-scoring record with 76 back in 1992-93 playing in, of course, Winnipeg. Selanne plans to talk with Laine about the NHL, Winnipeg and more during the World Cup.
“Everybody in their lives can’t speak with those kind of players,” Laine said. “It’s so good to have that kind of opportunity to talk with him and discuss about games and everything.”
For all his boasting, Laine concedes he has plenty of learning to do. He expects to get better game by game, which is a scary proposition for the rest of the teams in the World Cup and the NHL.
“People sometimes forget the guy’s 18 years old playing here,” forward Lauri Korpikoski said. “I’ve been really impressed by him. He’s got a really bright future ahead of him.”
Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SWhyno .