ON the heels of the NHL expanding into Las Vegas, the Toronto Maple Leafs are pinning their future on Arizona-born centre 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 playmaker as its top draft-eligible project, and he’s also a natural centre, 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.
Finnish-born forwards Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi rounded out the three top prospects.
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.
Winnipeg was set to select second, followed by the Columbus Blue Jackets, whose general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said he’s considering trading the pick depending upon which two players are taken ahead of him.
Two trades 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.
Also, Chicago traded forward Andrew Shaw to Montreal for the Canadiens’ two second-round picks — No. 39 and 45 — in this year’s draft.
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.