In 2016, the Toronto Maple Leafs faced a pivotal decision that stirred a great amount of debate across the hockey world. Seven years later the discussion has been put to bed in a very emphatic way.
There are certain decisions that stand out as pivotal moments that shape the trajectory of a franchise. The Toronto Maple Leafs faced one of those, which resulted in turning the fortunes of the organization for the better.
However, the Leafs may have come close to a massive misstep.
Heading into the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, there wasn’t a full consensus on who was the best available player.
7-Year Toronto Maple Leafs Debate Finally Comes to Emphatic End
For months leading up to the draft, two prospects stood out among their peers.
They were Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine. While the pair didn’t yet have their matching tattoos, both players did have a similar upside. Jesse Puljujärvi’s name was sometimes also brought into the conversation, but it was almost always as the third-best option.
While the majority of scouts gave Matthews an edge over Laine, it was the play of Team Finland in the 2015-16 Under 20 World Junior Championship (WJC) that gave many of them doubts. Puljujärvi was the tournament’s leading scorer.
According to Elite Prospect, he recorded five goals and 12 assists in seven games. His teammate, Laine, scored seven goals in those same games along with six assists. The effortless nature in which Laine managed to put pucks past goaltenders had the hockey world buzzing.
Matthews also played in that tournament. Skating for Team USA and playing the same number of contests as both Puljujärvi and Laine, he finished with two fewer assists and the same number of goals as Laine.
Every one of those three top prospects had a compelling showing, making their case to be the first overall pick of the upcoming draft.
Laine boasted to the media that there was only one right decision on who needs to hear their name called first from the NHL Draft podium. In Laine’s opinion, it was clearly himself. There were also several scouts that agreed.
Even though Matthews was ranked as the top European skater by NHL Central Scouting at the time, followed by Laine, there were a number of scouts who thought that Laine was a truer sniper. It was believed by some that he would outscore Matthews when they both made it to the NHL.
On Draft day, the Toronto Maple Leafs didn’t listen to those voices who suggested they should take a chance on Laine.
They took Matthews as they should have. Laine, went second-overall to the Winnipeg Jets. Pierre-Luc Dubois went third, which surprised some. However, he was the top ranked North American skater by NHL Central Scouting. Dubois was selected third by the Columbus Blue Jackets. Puljujärvi rounded out the top-four when the Edmonton Oilers made him their pick.
Auston Matthews vs Patrik Laine Today
Fast forward to present day and the choice couldn’t be clearer that Matthews was the way to go.
The man has not just set Toronto Maple Leafs records, but he has also collected NHL hardware in the form of a Calder Trophy, Hart Trophy, two Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophies, and a Ted Lindsay award. He has also been named to six NHL All-Star teams. While Laine has made the All-Star game, he hasn’t collected any NHL awards.
As it turned out, the effortless play in the NHL was carried out by Matthews and not Laine.
While Matthews continues to put a great distance between himself and Laine, the debate as to who would have a better NHL career appears to be over once and for all with the coaching decision out of Columbus on Sunday.
The Blue Jackets head coach Pascal Vincent decided to make Laine a healthy scratch for the first time in his career. Forcing Laine to sit out for the game against the Philadelphia Flyers followed a third period benching in the previous contest against the Arizona Coyotes. Laine was made to miss most of that period.
While Matthews’ star continues to rise, Laine is in the middle of a rough patch. This isn’t to suggest that Laine is through in the NHL. He’s only 25-years-old and will continue to play regularly in the league. Afterall, he’s under contract until the end of 2025-26 with a cap hit of $8.7M.
One thing is for certain. The Toronto Maple Leafs are very happy they went the conventional route in 2016 and drafted one of the best players to ever put on the blue and white jersey.