The Colorado Avalanche are back atop ice hockey's mountain after dethroning the two-time defending champions. Behind a goal and an assist from Nathan MacKinnon,…
The 2016 NHL Entry Draft took place at First Niagara Centre in Buffalo, New York over the weekend.
It provided some great and historic storylines as we head full-tilt towards a new season. Here is my analysis of the top three picks in this year’s Draft:
No. 1: Auston Matthews (Scottsdale, Arizona, United States) – Toronto Maple Leafs
Hard to tell who is more excited about the American phenom going first overall – the Toronto Maple Leafs or those who have campaigned tirelessly to grow hockey in non-traditional American markets, of which the Arizona desert certainly is one or proponents of American hockey. I believe Matthews’ selection ahead of a good crop of talent is a triumph for all concerned.
Matthews, who grew up playing on synthetic rinks near Phoenix, is a prodigious talent and one of those can’t-miss picks. He’s a player with an already-immense skill set, with room for improvement.
In short, he’s a budding superstar, the likes we haven’t seen since Sidney Crosby was taken by the Pittsburgh Penguins. In a similar vein to Crosby, Matthews is the sort of guy you build a franchise around. There’s been plenty of pain in Toronto recently, but the arrival of the American is going to change that and probably fairly quickly, too.
That Matthews will learn the NHL ropes from head coach Mike Babcock, no slouch behind the bench, will only accelerate his progress, and it won’t be long before the Great White Hope for the Leafs is dominating the league.
At the very least in 2016-17, we’re likely going to see a Calder Trophy (award for rookie of the year) campaign from Matthews. But, possibly, a whole lot more than that.
If you saw the big centre play for Team USA either at the World Junior Championships over the Christmas-New Year period or, more recently, at the senior level World Championships where he more than held his own, you have a good idea what he can do. And, remember, he’s only going to get better.
Even in Zurich, where Matthews went for his draft year to learn the game under former NHL head coach Marc Crawford, the American dominated. In thirty-six games he scored twenty four goals and picked up an additional twenty-two assists for forty-six points, at an average of 1.28 points per game.
He was head-and-shoulders the best player in the Swiss-A League and becomes the first player from that lead to be taken No. 1 overall in the NHL draft.
Look, let’s not mince words here: the Leafs drafted Matthews to lead their most visible NHL franchise – one that’s been largely starved of real success, mind you – to Stanley Cup championship glory. If he can do that, and play a starring role, he might very well get the keys to the city handed over on a silver platter.
Draft Day in Buffalo could be the start of huge things for Matthews and the Leafs.
No. 2: Patrik Laine (Tampere, Finland) – Winnipeg Jets
The Winnipeg Jets got a good one in Laine in a selection that, like Auston Matthews going to Toronto, didn’t exactly surprise anyone. We’d seen this one coming for months, and Jet fans are likely giddy with excitement to see what the Finnish youngster can do for a franchise yet to taste ultimate success, a Stanley Cup championship.
Laine might be the sort of player to help them on their war. He absolutely dominated at the World Junior Championships (seven goals, MVP honours and, as you might expect, a place on the tournament’s All-Star team) where Finland won the gold medal in rather emphatic fashion. The Fins were the most impressive and fun-to-watch team in that tournament, largely thanks to the lengthy highlight reel Laine amassed.
As if that wasn’t enough, Laine impressed at senior-level World Championships, too, netting seven goals as the Fins won a silver medal – and where he really sent a message to the hockey world that he was the real deal.
He netted seven goals for the tournament, landed a spot on the tournament’s All-Star team, and earned MVP honours to boot. Scouts have long pointed out that Laine already possesses an NHL-calibre shot, and he showed it on the ice against some of the best NHLers there are.
Of course, the Jets in their previous incarnation have good success drafting Finnish players, with the great Teemu Selanne leading the franchise for many productive years. Just a little pressure here, because Selanne is one of the most revered figures in hockey full stop, and is almost a god up in Winnipeg.
Laine, a natural scorer off the wing with speed, size and a cannon for a shot, equalled goalie Kari Lehtonen as the highest-drafted NHL player in Finland history. Not a bad name to be alongside. He’s tall at six-foot-4 and weighs in at over 200 pounds, so when he hits guys, they’re absolutely going to know about it.
This kid is going to be heaps of fun to watch!
No 3: Pierre-Luc Dubois (Ste-Agathe-des-Monts, Quebec, Canada) – Columbus Blue Jackets
Well, we didn’t have to wait long for the first shock of Draft Day, courtesy of the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Columbus Blue Jackets helped Dubois celebrate his eighteenth birthday by selecting the Canadian with the third overall pick, when most mock drafts leading into Friday evening had the Jackets taking Finland’s Jesse Puljujärvi.
The Quebecois power forward’s scouting report suggests he can play competently at all three offensive positions and is a strong skater, possessing a deceptive quickness. The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League product has just completed his second season in the league with the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, and after a slow start had a strong post-Christmas run to finish runner-up in the scoring race, with forty-two goals and ninety-nine points.
Although Dubois was universally expected to be a top ten pick, he was not expected to go in the first three, and had been somewhat lost in the talk concerning Matthews, Laine and Puljujärvi – the Big Three of this year’s draft – but the Blue Jackets pounced early, perhaps because they heard his juniors coach compare him to Philadelphia Flyers star Claude Giroux, who also played in Cape Breton. High praise, indeed.
It’s worth noting that the sudden acceleration in his offensive production coincided with a shift from the wing into centre, and that’s where Dubois has told the media and his new franchise that he’d like to play.
No doubt, being taken earlier than expected, the pressure is on Dubois to be good, and to bring glamour and success to a franchise that hasn’t seen much of either since entering the NHL back in 2000. Time will tell whether this was a good pick or not.