After dazzling starts to their rookie seasons, the top two picks in last June's NHL draft have both been awarded all-star nods.
Less than seven months after the Toronto Maple Leafs selected Auston Matthews first over all and the Winnipeg Jets chose Patrik Laine, both teenagers were among the players named Tuesday to four 11-man divisional rosters for the annual showcase, to be held this month in Los Angeles.
Matthews, a 19-year-old American, and Laine, an 18-year-old Finn, are currently tied for the lead among rookies with 21 goals each. Only Sidney Crosby (26 goals) and Jeff Carter (22 goals) have scored more than the two superrookies this season.
After scoring six goals in his first six NHL games – including four in his jaw-dropping debut – Matthews had 13 straight scoreless games. But that drought ended in late November when he caught fire again. He has scored 15 goals and has 22 points in his past 20 games, including the dramatic overtime winner at Toronto's Centennial Classic outdoor game on New Year's Day. The Arizona-raised centre leads the Leafs with 35 points through 39 games.
"I'm really looking forward to meeting all the players, guys I grew up watching like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews – all the superstars in this league that myself and other guys look up to," Matthews said during a teleconference held after the selections were announced. He was speaking from Florida, where he's relaxing with some teammates during a small break for the team.
He will be the Leafs' youngest all-star since Wendel Clark was selected 31 years ago.
"I'm really looking forward to the whole experience," Matthews said.
Laine's participation in the all-star weekend is questionable after he suffered a concussion in Saturday's game against Buffalo, the result of a scary hit by Sabres defenceman Jake McCabe. If Laine can't go, Winnipeg forwards Mark Scheifele or Nikolaj Ehlers are possible replacements. The three Jets are tied for the team lead in points with 37.
"What a great honour for such a young man. He's earned it. He's such an exciting player to watch," Winnipeg head coach Paul Maurice said of Laine.
"Certainly a 3-on-3 format would be fun to have him in it. We're hopeful he can go. It very probably won't be his last."
Laine is sidelined with no current timetable announced for his return, so he has not been speaking to the media. His teammates reacted to the selection though.
"It's not surprising to me," veteran forward Mathieu Perreault said. "I think, with the pace of the goals he's been scoring and the ways he's been scoring his goals, the skill set that he has, he definitely deserves to be in that game."
Each division – Pacific, Central, Atlantic and Metropolitan – is represented on all-star weekend by six forwards, three defencemen and two goalies, with at least one player chosen from every NHL club. As introduced at last year's NHL all-star game in Nashville, all-star weekend will feature three 20-minute games played in a 3-on-3 format.
The divisional teams will compete head to head in the skills competition on Jan. 28, then face off in semi-final games on Jan. 29. The winners of those semis will play for the championship.
Fan votes determined the four captains, who were announced last week, while NHL Hockey Operations named the other 40 players. Edmonton Oilers centre Connor McDavid, who leads the league with 48 points, was selected captain of the Pacific Division. Pittsburgh Penguins centre Sidney Crosby is the Metropolitan Division captain. P.K. Subban of the Nashville Predators is the Central Division captain, but has not played since Dec. 15 because of an upper-body injury. And Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price, who is 20-6-4 with a 2.12 goals-against average and .928 save percentage, is the Atlantic Division captain.