NHL Hockey

Leafs' Matthews, Jets' Laine kick off sophomore campaigns

WINNIPEG, Manitoba -- Second verse, same as the first.

After spending their entire rookie seasons being endlessly compared to one another, Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine are kicking off their sophomore campaigns with a head-to-head matchup.

Matthews' Toronto Maple Leafs open their season on the road against Laine's Winnipeg Jets on Wednesday night, and speculation is already running rampant about which of the young superstars will outdo the other.

No pressure, fellas.

The pair finished 1-2 in Calder Trophy voting for the rookie of the year -- the Maple Leafs center took home the honors after scoring 40 goals and 29 assists in 82 games while the Jets winger produced 36 goals and 28 assists in 73 games.

Both players are downplaying the media-made rivalry. After all, there is no award for sophomore of the year. Well, at least not yet.

In fact, Matthews told the media after the Maple Leafs' morning skate on Tuesday that he likes the Finnish sniper and they occasionally hung out during the NHL's public-relations junket leading up to the 2016 draft.

"He's a good guy. He's obviously a (heck) of a player," Matthews said. "(The rivalry) is part of what (the media) makes it out to be."

Laine, who notched his first NHL hat trick in a 5-4 overtime victory on Oct. 20 during the Maple Leafs' only visit to Winnipeg last season, downplayed any one-on-one competition between the two.

"There might be a rivalry, I don't know," Laine said. "I've only played two games against Toronto. Yeah, they were exciting games and they were tight games."

The Leafs returned the favor, beating the Jets 5-4 in OT at Toronto in February.

"It's two good, teams, two young groups," Laine said. "I'm just thinking about who we are playing against as a team. The media and all of the people around hockey have made a bigger deal out of (the players' rivalry) than it really is. I just want to focus on playing against Toronto and focus on this team. It's going to be a fun night, for sure."

The Maple Leafs might want to avoid taking penalties against the Jets. Laine led his team during the preseason with four goals on the man advantage, all on one-timers, plus one at even strength. Matthews, meanwhile, scored five goals and added two assists in the preseason.

A couple of Maple Leafs players have close ties to the Jets.

Eric Fehr, a Winkler, Manitoba, native who won a Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 but played in Winnipeg in 2011-12, appears to have locked down the fourth-line center spot. Ron Hainsey, who played the first two seasons back in Winnipeg after the team relocated from Atlanta, was signed in the offseason and will play in one of the top two defense pairings.

A pair of Swedes battled it out for the last remaining spot on the Maple Leafs' defense, with Andreas Borgman edging out Calle Rosen. Defensemen Timothy Liljegren and Rosen were sent to the AHL Toronto Marlies on Tuesday, while defenseman Roman Polak was released from his professional tryout contract but will continue to practice with the team.

The Jets, who have won three of their past four home openers, embark on a three-game road trip after the Wednesday opener. Toronto will return home to face the New York Rangers at Air Canada Centre on Saturday.

Updated October 4, 2017

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