On Oct. 16, Maple Leafs rookie and 2016 first overall pick, center Auston Matthews did something that has never been done before. Matthews recorded four goals in a single game, the most ever for a rookie making their NHL debut.
While there was little debate over who the Leafs would pick at the 2016 draft, as they needed the best player available, the best rookie star, and a number one center, versatile winger Patrik Laine fell into the hands of the Winnipeg Jets at second overall. Of course Matthews’ feat has basically already solidified himself as Toronto’s next best thing in just one game. It didn’t long for the 18-year old Finnish star to replicate something, also. A mere week later, Laine registered his first career hat trick in just his fourth career game, against ironically the Toronto Maple Leafs, because why not?
Of course future centers don’t grow on trees, however for so many years we’ve seen the incredible model that is Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh. But for certain NHL teams (most of them) this can be debated. We don’t know right now if Matthews will be better than Laine in five years and the case could have been made for Laine easily. It is possible that Matthews is drafted as a center and develops into playing the wing, but this would definitely be reckless behavior by an NHL franchise. This all comes down to preference and roster make-up right now. We just have to be thankful this wasn’t another version of the Taylor Hall vs Tyler Seguin debacle and saga that we saw in 2010. A conundrum that still really hasn’t given us a clear answer.
This poses the question: which NHL teams could have realistically taken Laine over Matthews?
As stated before, when the Penguins have Crosby and Malkin down the middle of the ice as their two top centers, they are virtually unbeatable. The great thing about Laine on the Penguins is that Malkin also has tons of experience playing the wing. Matt Cullen and Eric Fehr provide good depth at center for now with Crosby out injured, and the return of their captain would clog things with Matthews. The age of Chris Kunitz is getting concerning, and although Phil Kessel still remains an elite goal scorer, questions about his versatility are eventually going to arise. Laine is more gifted than Kunitz will ever be, and whether he’s paired with Malkin or Crosby, this kid would thrive on the Penguins.
No team knows better than to build up the middle at center than the Calgary Flames. With their 2013 and 2014 first round picks, (sixth overall, and fourth overall respectively), Sean Monahan and Sam Bennett provide the Flames with incredible youth. A combined age of just 42 for these two youngster, Laine would fit right in as a winger on this relatively young team. With Mikael Backlund and Matt Stajan labeled as alternative depth at the center position, there seems as though there is no possible way Matthews is taken on this team. Auston could potentially be developed on the third or fourth line in the interim, but it just isn’t 100% doable.
Sharing similar ins and outs as the Calgary Flames, their fellow provincial NHL franchise, Laine makes a lot of sense for another young NHL team. An average age of just 25 is what the Oilers have, supported by 19 year old captain and future legend Connor McDavid. For years, the Oilers have preached building up the middle with such picks as Canadian Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in 2011 and German Leon Draisaitl in 2014 so in turn, you are definitely given the indication that Matthews doesn’t fit on this team, unless you put him on a wing somewhere. Of course recent free agent signings like Benoit Pouliot and Milan Lucic, paired with 2008 first rounder Jordan Eberle make up a pretty good wing core. The Oilers do have players such as Patrick Maroon and Zack Kassian who can obviously be upgraded upon as well.
Other considerations include: Boston Bruins, San Jose Sharks, Detroit Red Wings, Anaheim Ducks, and Tampa Bay Lightning.