BUFFALO, New York — The Toronto Maple Leafs are counting on an American phenom to change the direction of their franchise.
The Maple Leafs selected Arizona-born center Auston Matthews with the first overall pick of the 2016 NHL draft on Friday night. Matthews became the seventh American to be chosen first overall and the first since 2007, when Patrick Kane went first overall to the Chicago Blackhawks. On Wednesday, Kane became the first American to win the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player.
Matthews, 18, has been considered the consensus top pick for months due to his size, creativity and work ethic. At 6-foot-2, 216 pounds, he has the potential to become the Maple Leafs’ first true franchise center since Mats Sundin departed in 2008.
Toronto has lacked star power up the middle for years and has been in a rebuilding mode for much of the last decade. The Maple Leafs missed the playoffs in 10 of the past 11 seasons and finished with the worst record in the NHL (29-42-11) this past season. They attempted to move in a different direction in recent seasons with several changes within their front office. Hall of Famer Brendan Shanahan was named team president in April 2014, and general manager Lou Lamoriello and head coach Mike Babcock joined the team last offseason.
Matthews is the first No. 1 overall pick by the Maple Leafs since fan-favorite Wendel Clark was selected first overall in 1985.
As expected, right winger Patrik Laine was chosen second overall by the Winnipeg Jets.
Laine has drawn comparisons to Teemu Selanne with his top-end scoring touch. He helped lead Finland to the 2016 World Junior Championship, scoring 13 points (seven goals, six assists) in seven games. He will get the chance to follow in Selanne’s footsteps; Selanne was chosen 10th overall by Winnipeg in 1988.
The Columbus Blue Jackets had the first surprise of the draft at third overall by selecting Pierre-Luc Dubois. Finland right winger Jesse Puljujjarvi was expected by most to go third overall behind Matthews and Laine.
Dubois plays with an edge and brings a physical presence. He’s added close to 50 pounds to his 6-foot-3 frame over the past two years.
The Edmonton Oilers selected Puljujjarvi with the fourth overall pick. Puljujjarvi is known for his playmaking and two-way game. He was named MVP of the 2016 World Junior Championship with 17 points (five goals, 12 assists) in seven games.
Olli Juolevi became the first defenseman off the board and the third Finnish prospect in the top five after being selected fifth overall by Vancouver. Juolevi plays with poise and is intelligent on the back end.