Arizona-born Matthews goes 1st in NHL draft
BUFFALO, N.Y. — Once the “Go Leafs, Go!” chants subsided after Toronto selected Arizona-born center Auston Matthews with the first pick in the NHL draft, the Finns began their march to the podium.
Three players from Finland were selected among the top five picks, the most by the northern European nation.
“They’ve got a good thing going on there,” Canucks President Trevor Linden said after Vancouver rounded out the run of Finns by selecting defenseman Oli Juolevi with the fifth pick. The Winnipeg Jets selected forward Patrik Laine second, and Edmonton took forward Jesse Puljujarvi at No. 4.
During a week in which the NHL expanded into Las Vegas, the draft had an international flavor to it with a record 12 Americans selected in the first round, besting the old mark of 11 in 2010.
It began with the 18-year-old Matthews who became the seventh American-born player to be selected No. 1, and first since the Chicago Blackhawks chose Patrick Kane with the top pick in 2007.
“My heart was beating. It was very nerve-wracking,” Matthews said, noting the Maple Leafs had not tipped their hand on who they were going to select since winning the NHL draft lottery in April. “Once they called my name, it was definitely a sigh of relief and a lot of excitement.”
Matthews, who grew up a Coyotes fan in Scottsdale, Arizona, was expected to be selected first.
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.
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.
“He’s an elite player with an elite drive train,” Toronto coach Mike Babcock said. “He’s going to make us better, and he’ll develop into a top, top center in the National Hockey League.”
Upcoming free agency also loomed over the draft.
Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman provided few updates regarding contract talks Steve Stamkos, while saying he’d prefer signing and trading the captain than lose him for nothing.
The Lightning have leverage to do so .Under NHL rules they’re the only team that can offer Stamkos an eight-year contract, while others are limited to seven years.
Starting Saturday, pending unrestricted free agents such as Stamkos are allowed to speak with all teams, but can’t sign a contract until July 1.
The Calgary Flames addressed several needs by selecting forward Matt Tkachuk — the son of former NHL star Keith Tkachuk — with the No. 6 pick, and acquired goalie Brian Elliott in a trade with St. Louis. The Flames have had difficulty filling the goalie spot after Jonas Hiller, Karri Ramo, Joni Ortio and Niklas Backstrom split the duties last season
The Detroit Red Wings gained relief under the salary cap by trading the contract of veteran star Pavel Datsyuk, who is leaving Detroit to play in Russia next season. Detroit freed up $7.5 million in cap space by dealing Datsyuk to Arizona. The teams swapped first-round picks, with the Coyotes moving up four spots to No. 16, where they selected defenseman Jakob Chychrun.
The Coyotes also had the seventh pick, with which they drafted center Clayton Keller.
Starting with Columbus selecting Pierre-Luc Dubois at No. 3, only three Canadian-born players were taken among the top 10 picks. That matches last year’s total, which was the fewest for Canada in the draft.
Finland had four players selected in the first round, with center Henrik Borgstrom taken 23rd by Florida.
The number of first-round selections reflected how the Finns have begun to dominate on the world stage.
Finland won the 2015 world championship and the 2016 world junior championships, and lost to Canada in the world championship final last month.
“It’s a huge thing for our country, ourselves and the players,” Laine said. “I think it shows to everybody that we have good juniors, and we can be good at those tournaments and we can get drafted high.”
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.
Montreal completed two trades. The Canadiens dealt forward Lars Eller to Washington for the Capitals’ second-round draft picks in 2017 and ‘18. 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.
The loudest cheers were reserved for the Sabres, and began when owner Terry Pegula took the stage to welcome everyone to Buffalo.
Another roar went up when Buffalo used the eighth pick to select forward Alexander Nylander. His father, Michael was a 15-year NHL veteran, and his brother William plays for the Maple Leafs.
Before the draft began, Bettman announced that the league’s annual pre-draft rookie combine will return to Buffalo for a third consecutive year.
Rounds 2-7 will be held Saturday.
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