The entire NHL community turned its attention to the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, N.Y., on Friday for the first round of the Entry Draft.
As has often become the case, much of the pre-draft headlines had little to do with the 30 NHL hopefuls, but instead a host of trade rumors and speculation.
By the time the clock winded down on the Toronto Maple Leafs to make the first overall selection, the focus quickly returned to the players. First and foremost, and to no surprise at all, was the selection of center, Auston Matthews. After taking the unconventional path as a North American opting to play professional European hockey in Switzerland, Matthews was the clear-cut number-one prospect for the year.
For Toronto, they get a much-needed top center with the ability to set up plays, score goals and use his big frame to his advantage. From the nontraditional market of Scottsdale, Arizona, he is not just the face of the 2016 draft class, but also for the league’s continued growth in American hockey, something that was on display throughout the evening.
Oh Say Can You See
As if the 2015-16 season wasn’t tough enough on Canada, who saw no Canadian teams make the postseason for the first time since 1969-70, they also were defeated by the Americans, they also saw a record-12 U.S.-born players taken in the first round. The previous record of 11 was set at the 2010 draft in Los Angeles.
In total, 6 states were represented in the first round including two Arizona-born players picked within the top-six of the draft in Matthews (1st, Toronto) and Matthew Tkachuk (6th, Calgary).
While born in Arizona, Tkachuk made his youth hockey impact felt in another state that became highly represented on Friday in Missouri, whose St. Louis program saw four others drafted into the first round including Clayton Keller (7th, Arizona), Logan Brown (11th, Ottawa), Luke Kunin (15th, Minnesota) and Trent Frederic (29th, Boston).
Also represented was Michigan, Minnesota, New York and North Carolina.
Much of the talk in the weeks leading up to the draft was about this year’s top three which consisted of Matthews and Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi, two Finnish wingers who showed exceptional skill at the winter’s World Junior Championship. Joined alongside Hurricanes prospect, Sebastian Aho, the trio scored 44 points in 7 games en route to winning gold.
Even if the Maple Leafs were going to get the number one prospect in the draft, the likes of Laine and Puljujarvi appeared to be enough to satisfy the Winnipeg Jets and Columbus Blue Jackets, who each won the the draft lottery to move up in the first round.
Still, much speculation arose over both picks prior to their official announcement. Though Laine was ultimately picked by the Jets, the Blue Jackets opted instead to select Pierre-Luc Dubois with the third overall selection. Dubois, who turned 18 on Friday, led the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles in scoring with 99 points in 62 games.
Even trades were hard to come by in a draft that won’t likely be remembered for its explosive fireworks on the trade front. At least not on its inaugural day.
The draft did open with a pair of deals involving the Montreal Canadiens, who traded Lars Eller to Washington for a pair of future second round draft picks, and proceeded to acquire Andrew Shaw in exchange for a pair of picks in Saturday’s second round. Shaw’s availability became somewhat publicized following his reported $4.5 million per season contract demand.
Three deals also saw teams maneuver picks to move throughout the draft, including New Jersey who moved back one spot with Ottawa, Philadelphia, who agreed to a deal with Winnipeg to move back and St. Louis, who moved up in a deal with Washington.
Perhaps the most interesting swap of the evening was the deal that saw Detroit trade the 16th overall pick along with the contract of Pavel Datsyuk to the Coyotes in exchange for the 20th selection.
In making the acquisition, Arizona helped themselves attempt to reach the league’s $54 million cap floor, in taking on the $7.5 million cap hit that doesn’t require any actual dollars spent due to Datsyuk’s decision to return to Russia with one season remaining under contract.
The deal, which allowed the Coyotes to jump up several spots and select Jakob Chychrun, was among the first in the career of 27-year-old general manager, John Chayka. Thirty-three years his junior, Ken Holland told reporters he will look to use the new-found cap space on signing a forward.
Something Holland and every GM is now able to do. With the interview or courting process open for business beginning Saturday, June 25, teams can now reach out to the players and agents of upcoming unrestricted free agents.While it is not a tremendously deep free agency class it does entail the likes of Steven Stamkos, who will be among the most sought-after free agents in recent memory. With Detroit’s recent freeing of space, they’ll be among the many looking to add the center’s services.