Maple Leafs' overhaul continues with 1st pick in NHL draft
BUFFALO, N.Y. >> Hiring coach Mike Babcock and general manager Lou Lamoriello last offseason was the Toronto Maple Leafs' first major step in their high-priced bid to restore relevance to one the NHL's most recognized franchises.
The next significant piece in the Maple Leafs' rebuilding plan will be added Friday night, when Toronto has the first pick in the NHL draft. Though Lamoriello has been careful not to tip his hand, the consensus is the Maple Leafs will usher in the 100th year of pro hockey being played in Toronto by pinning their future on Arizona-born center, Auston Matthews.
The 18-year-old Matthews, who played pro hockey in Switzerland last season, is ranked first by NHL Central Scouting. Matthews has the chance to be the seventh U.S.-born player selected No. 1, and first since Patrick Kane by Chicago in 2007.
The next two rated players are Finnish-born forwards Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi.
The Maple Leafs have plenty riding on their selection.
They're in the midst of a top-to-bottom overhaul after finishing with the NHL's worst record and missing the playoffs for the 10th time in 11 years.
"I don't know if it changes the timetable, but it certainly helps with the plan," Maple Leafs President Brendan Shanahan said after Toronto won the draft lottery in April. "I think that we will feel satisfaction and validation if and when we get to the point where we're truly a Stanley Cup-contending team."
Matthews is aware of the speculation of being Toronto-bound.
"Of course the possibility kind of runs through your head," said Matthews, who had 24 goals and 46 points in 36 games for Zurich, and then led the United States with six goals in 10 games at the world championships in Russia last month. "I'm trying to take it day by day and enjoy this whole experience. I don't know. We'll see what happens come Friday."
Though Flames President Brian Burke expects the draft order to be Matthews, Laine and Puljujarvi, Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff declined to speculate who might still be available when Winnipeg selects second.
"Nothing surprises you in this draft," Cheveldayoff said Thursday.
There's more uncertainty regarding what teams will follow Toronto and Winnipeg.
The Columbus Blue Jackets have the No. 3 pick, and general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said he wants to see which two players are taken ahead of him before determining whether to trade out of the spot.
"We've been taking phone calls all day today, all day yesterday, and there's a lot of interest in that pick," said Kekalainen, noting he's had trade discussions with each team in the top 10. "I think we're getting some serious and real offers right now."
The Edmonton Oilers are shopping the No. 4 pick, with GM Peter Chiarelli in the market to add an established defenseman to a team stocked with young forwards.
"There's a lot of talk, and it's no secret we're in the market for a defenseman, and we're fully engaged," said Chiarelli, who guessed there's a better than 50 percent chance Edmonton will retain the pick. "It'll ramp up until tomorrow."
The Vancouver Canucks select fifth followed by the Calgary Flames at six in a draft order that features all seven Canadian-based teams selecting in the top 12. That's a reflection of Canada's franchises being shut out of playoff contention last season for the first time since 1969-70, when Toronto and Montreal both missed the postseason.
What's also missing are top-ranked Canadian-born prospects in a draft class that could have as many as eight Americans among the first 15 players selected. Left wing Pierre-Luc Dubois, who is from Quebec, is expected to be selected among the first six picks.
The draft order has already been altered this week, with the Maple Leafs trading the 30th pick to Anaheim in a deal to acquire goalie Frederik Andersen.
The upcoming free-agency period, which opens July 1, looms over the draft, especially with teams being allowed to begin meeting with prospective free agents on Saturday. Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos has a chance to lead the crop of free agents, with both Toronto and Buffalo among the contenders to sign him.
Though he'd prefer going first, Laine said he'd welcome the opportunity to be drafted by Winnipeg, where former Finnish star Teemu Selanne began his career in 1992.
Puljujarvi speaks little English, but made it clear where he believes he should be selected.
"I think I go to No. 1," he said.
Puljujarvi had minor surgery a few weeks ago to repair his left MCL.
Canucks GM Jim Benning said the operation went well and he doesn't expect it will affect Puljujarvi's draft ranking.
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