As sports fans, or probably more accurately, as human beings we seem to enjoy conflict, no matter how big or small. It's the biggest reason sports captures our attention the way that it does.
It's also a big reason why we'll insert conflict into things even when there really isn't much there. Take, for instance, the newest player vs. player rivalry in the NHL. We're talking about No. 1 pick Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Patrik Laine, who went second overall to the Winnipeg Jets. It's the new Connor McDavid vs. Jack Eichel or Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin, even though Laine and Matthews will only play a maximum of two games against each other, barring a Stanley Cup Final meeting.
The seeds of this "rivalry" were planted late last year after Laine appeared to close the gap on Matthews as the consensus top pick for the draft with his late-season performance in the Finnish league playoffs and World Championship. Laine made sure people knew he wanted to go No. 1, just like anyone would and he even said as much as he thought he should be No. 1. You have to like that confidence.
Both have downplayed it since, but it doesn't mean their head-to-head matchups will be any less compelling. The two have met head-to-head just a few times in various international tournaments, including the recent World Cup of Hockey. Their first head-to-head as NHL players was Wednesday night and was it ever interesting.
Matthews, of course, burst onto the scene with a four-goal debut against the Ottawa Senators. Laine also scored in his first NHL game, but that was "only" one goal. So the newest Winnipeg Jet made up for lost time in what turned out to be a stunning game against the Leafs Wednesday.
Toronto got out to a 4-0 lead through a period and a half, with Matthews recording his first NHL assist on the Leafs' third goal. The Jets came storming back, however. Tyler Myers scored to cut the deficit to 4-1 and then the third period became the Patrik Laine Show.
Laine netted his second NHL goal while showing off his devastating release, putting a stunning turnaround shot past Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen to make it 4-2 just a minute into the third. A few minutes later Mark Scheifele made it a one-goal game and things started to tighten up.
With just 55 seconds left in regulation, Laine showed why he will soon be one of the league's top power play threats. After a terrific fake and pass from Nikolaj Ehlers, Laine got off a perfect one-timer that beat Andersen to tie the game.
Overtime then played out almost as if it was scripted. Matthews got a breakaway with the chance to end the game, using that blazing speed to get behind Winnipeg's defense. Goalie Michael Hutchinson read the play perfectly, however, and stuffed Matthews' five-hole attempt. Dustin Byfuglien corralled the rebound and sent a pass to Laine.
The rookie broke down the right side on a two-on-one. Goal scorers like him should never pass in that situation and he didn't. Game over.
Late game-tying goal: ✅— NHL (@NHL) October 20, 2016
Overtime game-winner: ✅
Hat trick: ✅
Great night: ✅ pic.twitter.com/Zb4aRwxO0B
Laine netted his first career hat trick, matching Matthews season goal total with four. Both now have five points to lead all rookies at this very early stage of the season. Tuesday night's game also ended eerily similar to the first McDavid-Eichel matchup last season where the Edmonton Oilers star scored the game-winner after an Eichel miss. These kids sure have a flair for the dramatic.
The thrilling matchup between Matthews and Laine only shined the spotlight even brighter on the importance of the NHL's current and widespread youth movement. Teams across the league are getting younger and putting way more faith in 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds to play prominent roles within their organization.
As we saw with the Eichel vs. McDavid narrative last year, the Laine vs. Matthews matchup is compelling, and it will gain headlines, but it is more of a sidebar to what should be another incredibly talented rookie class. Last season, there was an embarrassment of riches when it comes to first-year talent and that only continues this year.
In just one week, 15 players have already scored their first NHL goal. On top of Matthews' and Laine's hot starts, others are showing an ability to play the game at a high level already. Matthews' teammate William Nylander is already up to four points, as is Philadelphia Flyers rookie Travis Konecny, who leads all rookies with four assists so far. Defensemen like Zach Werenski of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Brandon Carlo of the Boston Bruins are logging big minutes and not getting swallowed up by top competition.
The early returns and the roles that some of these youngsters are already taking on with their teams should make for an extremely compelling Calder Trophy race that will probably end up being much more than just Laine vs. Matthews.
And there's much more to it than just the Calder race. The young players appear to be changing the game for the better. The influx of young talent, which includes recent rookie classes of preceding years, might just be one of the main causes for the increased scoring to start the season. At least that's the theory that Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper floated (via TheScore):
"The one thing, I think if you look at the youth that has been injected into the National Hockey League and the skill, that in itself is going to raise the scoring and coaching is not going to be able to take that out of it because the guys are too good," Cooper told reporters.
"So I believe in that sense there is going to be more scoring just because of the talent level that these young kids possess, It's unreal to watch.
"But eventually when the goalies start getting into their rhythm - they're a big part of why goals aren't scored - and when that starts to roll goal scoring is going to go down. I don't expect it to dip (like) last season, I expect it to be on the rise."
This is a very good thing for the league as a whole.
While the top two picks from last summer's draft are going to deservedly get most of the attention this season, don't sleep on the rest of this rookie class. As each year passes, the league gets a little faster and a little more skilled. The more these young players succeed, the better the league becomes as a result.