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Should the Maple Leafs have picked Patrik Laine instead of Auston Matthews?

Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports

Some years, the first pick in the NHL Draft is not a franchise savior.

Take Nail Yakupov, the top pick in the 2012 Draft. The Edmonton Oilers selected him, but he is now a member of the St. Louis Blues. In four seasons as an Oiler, Yakupov never scored more than 17 goals in a season and finished with a cumulative plus/minus of -88.

New York Islanders’ fans surely regret the No. 1 selection of Rick DiPietro in 2000. DiPietro was a solid goalie with a career 2.87 goals-against average, but his career ended after only 11 seasons due to various injuries. In his final five NHL seasons, DiPietro played 50 of a possible 410 games.

In the 2016 NHL Draft, the presumed savior was Auston Matthews. The Toronto Maple Leafs selected the 19-year-old and it looked like he was well on his way to winning Rookie of the Year after his four-goal NHL debut.

But what if the best player in the Draft was not taken with the first pick?

In April, only two months before the NHL Draft, Bob McKenzie of TSN penned an interesting article. In it, McKenzie said that the clear No. 1 overall pick to most was still Matthews, but that opinion had changed as the Draft got closer.

TSN ran a poll for that article and in it, eight of 10 scouts listed Matthews as the best prospect.

Who was the player that the other two scouts listed?

The NHL’s third-best goal scorer.

In the last 10 years, some of the No. 2 picks have been just as good or better than the No. 1 overall picks. Victor Hedman, Drew Doughty, and Tyler Seguin are just a few of the exceptional second picks in NHL drafts.

This year, the No. 2 pick is being overshadowed by Matthews, but shouldn’t.

Patrik Laine has quietly been the best rookie of the 2016-17 NHL season.

The 18-year-old Finland product leads all rookies with 12 goals and 18 points. Laine is tied for third in the NHL in goals and has already recorded two hat tricks. His Winnipeg Jets are only a point out of a playoff spot, only a year after finishing 35-39-8.

It is not as if Matthews has done nothing since his debut, but he only has five goals in the 20 games since his four-goal debut. Matthews does not even lead his own team’s rookies in points; Mitchell Marner (7+11) has 18 to Matthews’ 17 (9+8).

Matthews was even upstaged by Laine in the only meeting between the two players this season. Laine recorded his first NHL hat trick on Oct. 19 as his Jets defeated Matthews’ Maple Leafs 5-4. To make things worse for Matthews, Laine scored the overtime-winning goal. Matthews only mustered an assist in the loss.

Matthews vs Laine has the potential to be as good as the Alex Ovechkin vs Sidney Crosby rivalry. While Ovechkin and Crosby were No. 1 picks in consecutive drafts, Matthews and Laine were consecutive picks in the same draft. Regardless, because of the NHL lockout in 2004-2005, Ovechkin and Crosby debuted in the same season just like Matthews and Laine.

It is too early to know if Laine is better than Matthews. The stats say yes, but Laine has done better in a small sample size and it is not as if Matthews has not done anything this season.

It’s been a decade since Ovechkin and Crosby debuted and there is still a debate today on who is better. Crosby has a more rounded game and has won the Stanley Cup twice, but Ovechkin is this generation’s best goal scorer and has more individual trophies than Crosby.

In 10 years, a similar debate may be made for Matthews and Laine. Both are phenomenal players and even if Laine had gone first overall and Matthews second, their teams would not mind. Either player would have been a welcome addition. 

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