NHL draft: Toronto Maple Leafs land Auston Matthews with top pick

By Mark Ludwiczak, The Sports Xchange
Auston Matthews. (Instagram/Toronto Maple Leafs)

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- After months of anticipation, Auston Matthews could finally breathe a sigh of relief. Now he can focus on the task at hand -- helping turn around a Toronto Maple Leafs franchise that has fallen on hard times.

The Maple Leafs selected the Arizona-born center with the first overall pick of the 2016 NHL draft in Buffalo. 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.


"My heart was beating as I was walking up there," Matthews said. "Very nerve-racking. Once they called my name, it was definitely a sigh of relief. A lot of excitement. It was a pretty unbelievable feeling."

Matthews 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.


"Our logic was very simple, I think," Maple Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello said. "In our opinion he was the best player available but not only being the best player he satisfies a need at center and is a complete player, one who can play 200 feet. So I think if you have chance of getting a player like that, it's really a no-brainer."

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 Lamoriello and head coach Mike Babcock joined the team last offseason.

Matthews didn't want to refer to himself as a "savior," but the expectations for the 18-year-old are sky high.

"Hockey's a team game, so there's really no savior," Matthews said. "I want to be an impact player. I believe I can be a franchise centerman, a No. 1 centerman in the NHL so that's my ultimate goal."


Matthews is the first No. 1 overall pick by the Maple Leafs since fan-favorite Wendel Clark in 1985.

After Matthews, Finland dominated the top of the draft. Three Finnish prospects were chosen within the first five selections.

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.

"I think it's easier to go there with a city and an organization that knows something about Finnish people and Finnish players," Laine said. "I hope that I could be able to do the same someday."

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.


"I think my ceiling and my potential is still far away," Dubois said. "Now everybody's talking about the two Finns and Matthews going 1, 2, 3, but over the next couple of years, I think I'll be in that discussion too. I think I developed later than others, but they draft for what you're going to be in your prime and not what you are right now."

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.

"That's not important," Puljujjarvi said of falling to fourth overall. "I like Edmonton and I'm very excited to go there. I'm very happy now."

Olli Juolevi became the first defenseman off the board and the third Finnish prospect after being selected fifth overall by Vancouver. Juolevi plays with poise and is intelligent on the back end.

Left winger Matthew Tkachuk became the second American off the board after being selected sixth overall by Calgary. The son of long-time NHL standout Keith Tkachuk, Matthew Tkachuk excels as a set-up man and is strong on his skates.


"I had them circled since I talked to them at the Combine and visited them after the Combine," Tkachuk said. "This is the place I wanted to be."

Another American went seventh overall after Clayton Keller was chosen by the Arizona Coyotes. Keller is extremely skilled but lacks ideal size at 5-foot-10, 164 pounds.

The Buffalo Sabres selected center Alexander Nylander eighth overall. The son of NHL veteran Michael Nylander, the Swedish right winger has terrific vision and instincts. Nylander is coming off a tremendous year with the OHL's Mississauga Steelheads with 75 points (28 goals, 47 assists) in 47 games.

Mikhail Sergachev became the second defenseman off the board, going to the Montreal Canadiens ninth overall.

Tyson Jost rounded out the top 10 after being chosen by the Colorado Avalanche. Jost has plenty of speed and lit up the BCHL with Penticton last year, scoring 104 points (42 goals, 62 assists) in 48 games.

Ottawa moved up one spot to select center Logan Brown 11th overall. The Senators sent the 80th overall pick to New Jersey in order to swap positions.

New Jersey selected fellow Canadian center Michael McLeod 12th overall. McLeod is a large, strong skater with speed at 6-foot-2, 185 pounds.


Defenseman Jake Bean went 13th overall to the Carolina Hurricanes. Bean is a tremendous offensive defenseman and had 64 points in 68 games with the Calgary Hitmen last season.

American defenseman Charlie McAvoy went 14th overall to the Boston Bruins. McAvoy made tremendous progress as a freshman last year at Boston University and had 25 points in 37 games.

The Minnesota Wild chose forward Luke Kunin 15th overall. Kunin has plenty of offensive upside and is coming off his freshman year at Wisconsin.

Notable picks from the second half of the first round included defenseman Jakob Chychrun (16th overall, Arizona) and center Henrik Borgstrom (23rd overall, Florida). Chychrun was expected by many to go much higher, likely in the top 10. Borgstrom was eligible for last year's draft but was passed over by every team.

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