Alexander Ovechkin | Washington Capitals 1st Round Draft Pick, 2004 | Photo: Dave Sandford/Getty Images
With at most a handful of games left in the Stanley Cup finals remaining, the sun is quickly setting on the 2015-16 NHL season. For almost half of the NHL’s teams, this culmination happened back in April at the conclusion of the regular season. For the President’s Trophy-winning Washington Capitals and fifteen other teams, the playoffs afforded the chance to move into a different time zone of hockey and allow them to postpone the eventual end by several days or weeks. But now, night draws near for all the NHL teams and with it the doldrums of summer.
However, the absence of sticks and skates on ice surfaces does not mean the sport grinds to a halt. The off-season is a tremendously exciting and dynamic time in the sport. The weeks leading into the summer months often carry forth a great deal of change and tumult for many organizations as they try and reshape their rosters to better compete in the coming season and perhaps beyond.
Ironically, it is the unlucky few who finished at the bottom of the league’s standings this season who have the most to look forward to in these next few weeks. Hope and optimism are in great abundance now after supplanting the disappointment that hung over many teams as they closed their arena’s doors for the last time this spring. The reason for optimism is simple, and it marks the first major offseason event to come: the draft.
From June 24-25, all 30 NHL teams will gather at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, NY to select from the more than 200 eligible players in the draft. For many teams, the draft is the foundation for their franchise’s future. Talented young players are not only the key to competing in a salary cap world, they are the cornerstones of organizational identities that keep fans coming to arenas year after year.
Before we introduce you to this year’s probable top five picks, let’s take a trip down memory lane and go back to 2004:
As always, the first few selections in the draft tend to be those viewed as having the most talent and upside, and therefore likely to have the most impact at the NHL level, although this is certainly not a hard and fast rule as the draft is a very inexact science bordering on art form. With that in mind, here are the players likely to go in the first five picks of the draft:
- Auston Matthews (Toronto Maple Leafs)
The consensus top player in the draft for much of the season, Matthews has done little to disappoint such lofty expectations. Missing eligibility for last year’s draft by just two days, the 6-foot-2, 200 pound American is the total package of size, speed, and skill. Matthews raised eyebrows when he elected to spend the season with the ZSC Lions in the Swiss National League, eschewing the conventional route of playing with a Canadian major-junior team or going into the NCAA. The gamble certainly paid off, as the young Matthews more than held his own against grown men. Despite missing 14 games with a back injury, Matthews still managed to score 24 goals and 46 points in just 36 games, and finishing in the top-ten for both goals and points. Matthews also performed well in his major mid-season test at the World Junior Championships in Helsinki, Finland with seven goals and 11 points in seven games for the bronze medal-winning Team USA. His performance earned him an invite to continue playing overseas, again as a member of Team USA in the World Championships in Russia, where he led the team with six goals and nine points in 10 games.
Matthews’ dominant resume speaks to his talent and abilities. He possesses great hockey I.Q. and instincts in all three zones. A great distributor of the puck, Matthews possesses the creativity and play-making abilities teams covet in a top-line center. He utilizes a quick-releasing wrist shot to great effect that could make him lethal on a power play. Perhaps more than anything, Matthews’ prowess and commitment to the defensive side of the game helps separate him from the pack. Even at such a young age, he shows commitment and polish in the defensive zone that will allow him to garner considerable ice time from a young age which, if history is any indication, will help him grow and develop rather quickly. Matthews is likely to be an impact player at the NHL level sooner rather than later and is a no-brainer for a Toronto Maple Leafs team in desperate need of a two-way center with high offensive upside as they move through their rebuild. Matthews will be the face of the franchise as soon as he dons a Maple Leafs sweater and will deserve it in every way after such an impressive season.
- Patrick Laine (Winnipeg Jets)
The only player to realistically challenge Matthews for the top spot in the draft is Finland’s Patrick Laine (pronounced “Lion-ay”). The Finnish winger is physically a man among boys for an 18-year-old, listed at 6-foot-4, 210 pounds. This NHL-ready frame helped Laine, like Matthews, thrive in a league of grown men as he garnered 17 goals and 33 points in 46 games playing with Tampere of the SM-Liiga. As solid as his regular-season performance was, Laine stood out more than anyone else in this draft (including Matthews) at the international level, helping lead Team Finland to a gold medal at the World Junior Championships in Helsinki and a silver medal at the World Championships in Russia. Laine’s performance in the latter was quite stunning as he tied for the tournament lead in goals with seven and finished tied for fourth in points with 12.
Laine’s size isn’t the only thing freakish about the young Finn. He possesses an incredible blend of skill that will make him very difficult to defend against once he gets acclimated to the NHL game. More of a goal-scorer than a playmaker due to a lethal wrist shot and one-timer, Laine possess a great deal of offensive creativity in his passes and possesses jaw-dropping one-on-one skill. While his defense still needs refinement, Laine’s skills, size, and knack for stepping up in pressure situations will have the Winnipeg Jets running to the podium to call his name at the podium. Laine will step in as the top player in one of the league’s best prospect pools and should help Winnipeg become a legitimate powerhouse in the Western Conference in the not-too-distant future.
- Jesse Puljujarvi (Columbus Blue Jackets)
Team Finland thrived at the international level this year, and although Patrick Laine was a principle reason for that success, he was not without help in the form of lineman Jesse Puljujarvi (pronounced “Pool-you-yar-vee”). The 6-foot-3, 200 pound winger had a terrific season with Karpat in the Finnish Liiga this year, tallying 13 goals and 28 points in 50 games. Like Laine, Puljujuarvi was a bright light for Team Finland’s gold medal-winning performance on home ice at the World Junior Championships, with five goals and 12 points in seven games as the tournament’s leading scorer.
Puljujarvi is a smooth-skating, dynamic offensive forward. His vision and hockey I.Q. give him incredible passing skills and the kind of high-end offensive skill scouts covet. Combined with above-average NHL size, Puljujarvi is difficult to contain and has the wheels and hands to burn opponents with both his playmaking and NHL-caliber wrist shot from anywhere in the offensive zone. He also compliments this with hustle and solid instincts in the defensive zone giving him true range as a forward. With Ryan Johansen now in Nashville, the Blue Jackets need top-end offensive players to compliment young defensemen like Ryan Murray and Seth Jones. General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen is as good as anyone at evaluating talent and knows the players from his native Finland better than anyone else. There’s little chance Pulijujarvi falls past a Blue Jackets team in need of someone with his skills. Capitals fans and the rest of the Metropolitan Division will become acquainted with him in short order, and not in a good way.
- Matthew Tkachuk (Edmonton Oilers)
While the top-three selections in this draft are certain, the event really begins with the fourth pick and the Edmonton Oilers. Selecting at fourth overall is an unusual change for a team that has picked no lower than third overall for what seems like forever, but the hockey gods spoke during the NHL Draft Lottery and willed that the Oilers be given the fourth pick.
Having underachieved for several seasons, the Oilers are seen as having squandered the incredible fortune that has landed them the likes of Connor McDavid, Taylor Hall, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov, and other top draft choices that, for whatever reason, have not been able to rebuild as quickly. The reason likely stems from the fact that, while Edmonton possesses more than enough skill from their forwards to score goals, they have been woefully ineffective at keeping pucks out of their own net.
So why do they draft a winger instead of a defenseman? Two reasons. The first and foremost is that most general managers subscribe to the notion that (especially if you’re drafting in the top-10) you take the best player available regardless of need. No one knows what will happen in the future or what your needs will be, but drafting the best players will ensure that whatever happens you’ll have impact players on your roster. This is where the Oilers find themselves.
With the glut of offensive talent at their disposal, they don’t need someone like Matthew Tkachuk (pronounced “Kuh-chuck”) as of right now. But things can change in a hurry, and there’s no arguing that Tkachuk is a tantalizing option to have at your disposal moving forward. Tkachuk is the son of former NHL power-forward Keith Tkachuk. While he may not possess his father’s powerful stature at the moment, at 6-foot-1, 195 pounds, Tkachuk should fill out his frame and be able to withstand the rigors of the NHL game. True to his bloodlines, Tkachuk has made a name for himself as a tenacious and productive offensive player, as he had 30 goals and 107 points in just 57 games with the Memorial Cup-winning London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League (the alma mater of Patrick Kaine and Corey Perry, among others). With great speed, a high hockey I.Q., and crisp playmaking skills, Tkachuk has all the tools to be an effective top-six winger at the NHL level.
And this brings us to the second point mentioned earlier. The Edmonton Oilers are in a state of flux and have a logjam in their top-six. It’s more than likely that one (or both) of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or Nail Yakuopov will be traded at some point in the near future as neither has lived up to expectations in Edmonton and would benefit from a fresh start. Trading players with such offensive upside could help bring in young, talented defensemen to shore up the glaring weakness in the Edmonton organization. Additionally, with Taylor Hall’s injury history, it would help to have an insurance policy at left wing moving forward. Tkachuk has all the tools to excel in an offensive role moving forward, and should he fall to the Oilers, will give them plenty of flexibility in terms of roster construction in the future.
- Pierre Luc-Dubois (Vancouver Canucks)
Once a dominant force in the Western Conference, the Vancouver Canucks are now fully embracing the need to rebuild for the future. Overly reliant on Henrik and Daniel Sedin, the Swedish twins who were the driving force of one of the league’s more potent offenses in the last few seasons, the Canucks have their marching orders under team president Trevor Linden and general manager Jim Benning to incorporate more youth into their lineup.
While the Canucks have a few solid prospects for their forward ranks, they could always use more, and no player left on the draft board fits their philosophy more than Pierre Luc-Dubois (pronounced “Luke-doo-bwah”). The 6-foot-3, 205 pound forward had a terrific season with Cape Breton of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, scoring 42 goals and 99 points in 62 games. Dubois possesses a terrific blend of size, physical strength, and hockey I.Q. that will serve him well in the NHL. He uses his speed and positioning well at both ends of the ice and has the size to wear down opponents physically. He is a versatile forward who can line up at all three spots up front, further adding to his potential as an NHL regular.
While he does not possess the flashy offensive skills as those listed above him on this list, Dubois has all the tools to be an effective, two-way center at the NHL level. With Jared McCann traded to Florida in return for defenseman Erik Gudbranson, Dubois should help fill the void down the middle behind Bo Horvat as the Sedins take a step back in the coming seasons. Dubois reflects an organization that is shifting more towards well-rounded, two-way players to improve possession as they become less and less reliant on the offensive wizardry they have been treated to by the Sedins for more than a decade. Dubois will certainly help ease the transition as Vancouver tries to regain its status as a Western Conference contender once again.
By Keith Leonard