Arizona-born Matthews goes 1st in NHL draft; Finns follow
BUFFALO, N.Y. >> On the heels of the NHL expanding into Las Vegas, the Toronto Maple Leafs are pinning their future on Arizona-born center Auston Matthews.
Amid chants of "Go Leafs, Go!" the 18-year-old from Scottsdale was selected by Toronto with the first pick in the NHL draft Friday night. Though the Maple Leafs had kept their decision under wraps since winning the draft lottery in April, Matthews was the expected choice.
NHL Central Scouting ranked the 6-foot-2, 210-pound play-maker as its top draft-eligible project, and he's also a natural center, a top-line position that's difficult to fill. Matthews already has pro experience after spending last season with Zurich in the Swiss Elite League.
Matthews, who grew up a Coyotes fan, became the seventh American selected at No. 1, and first since the Chicago Blackhawks chose Patrick Kane with the top pick in 2007.
For Toronto, Matthews represents a significant piece in general manager Lou Lamoriello's extensive rebuilding plans to restore relevance to one of the league's most high-profile franchises. The Maple Leafs have missed the playoffs in 10 of the past 11 years, and spent last season purging high-priced contracts and veteran talent with a focus on rebuilding through youth.
Matthews arrives at a time when the Maple Leafs usher in the 100th year of professional hockey being played in Canada's largest city.
The Winnipeg Jets selected Finnish forward Patrik Laine with the second pick, before the draft took a slight turn.
The Columbus Blue Jackets passed over Finnish forward Jesse Puljujarvi to take Quebec-born forward Pierre-Luc Dubois. Puljujarvi was regarded the third-best prospect, just ahead of Dubois in the Central Scouting rankings.
And the Blue Jackets' selection came a day after general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said he was considering trading the pick. Kekalainen, who is from Finland, also noted he wouldn't take a player based on his nationality.
Puljujarvi was selected fourth by Edmonton, which was shopping the selection in an effort to acquire a top defenseman for a team stocked with young forwards.
Laine, regarded as a pure goal-scorer, has the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of fellow countryman, Teemu Selanne, who began his career in Winnipeg in 1992.
The Vancouver Canucks completed what became a run on Finns, by selecting defenseman Olli Juolevi at No. 5.
It marked the first time three Finnish-born players were selected among the top five picks. And it reflected how the nation has begun to dominate on the world state.
Finland won the 2015 world championship and the 2016 world junior championships, and lost to Canada in the world championship final last month.
Two trades involving the Montreal Canadiens were announced by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman before the second pick.
Montreal traded forward Lars Eller to Washington for the Capitals' second-round draft picks in 2017 and '18. The 27-year-old Eller has two seasons left on his contract at a salary-cap hit of $3.5 million.
The Canadiens then acquired forward Andrew Shaw from the Blackhawks for two second-round picks. Montreal sent the 39th and 45th picks to cap-strapped Chicago for the pending restricted free agent.
Numerous Maple Leafs fans made the two-hour drive to Buffalo to be on hand for their team selecting first for only the second time in the draft. Toronto selected Wendel Clark first in 1985. Each time Maple Leafs began cheering, their rival Sabres fans began booing.
Before the draft began, Bettman announced that the league's annual pre-draft rookie combine will return to Buffalo for a third consecutive year.
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