At last, Toronto Maple Leafs fans have something to celebrate as the NHL club has finally won something of note since it last hoisted the Stanley Cup way back in 1967. The Leafs lucked out on April 30th by winning the NHL Draft Lottery in Toronto and will now select first overall at this June’s ceremony in Buffalo. This isn’t the first time the franchise has been awarded the top pick, but they received it by default in 1985 when they selected Wendel Clark number one overall. The Leafs finished dead last in the 1983/84 campaign just like they did this season, but there was no complicated lottery system in place three decades ago. This means the team actually had to win something this year to receive their reward, even if it was just a lottery.
Maple Leafs’ fans shouldn’t get carried away though. If there’s any NHL team out there that could end up blowing the top draft pick it’s surely Toronto. This is a very creative club when it comes to finding new ways of disappointing their fans. It wouldn’t surprise diehard Leafs’ supporters if the youngster they choose first overall doesn’t end up being the best player of the draft a few years down the road. As it stands, it appears Toronto will likely select 18-year-old centre Auston Matthews of the U.S. with their pick. Matthews played just a 36-game season this year and racked up 24 goals and 22 assists for 46 points while skating in the Swiss League with Zurich. He posted just three assists in four playoff games though.
The Leafs still have a lot of work to do before heading up to the podium though since there are at least two other players who could be worthy of the number one pick. These are wingers Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujärvi, both of Finland. In fact, Laine was just recently named the MVP of the Finnish Elite League’s playoffs after leading his team Tappara to the championship. The Leafs will be able to do some more homework and scouting on Matthews and the left-winger Laine as they’ll both be playing for their respective countries at the upcoming IIHF World Hockey Championships in Russia. If Laine is a standout at the tournament and Matthews is simply average then the Leafs will really have their work cut out for them when deciding who to choose.
There are several other excellent prospects in this year’s draft following the Arizona-born Matthews and the two Finnish stars. These defenceman Olli Juolevi (London Knights), also of Finland, as well as forwards Alexander Nylander (Mississauga Steelheads), Tyson Jost (Penticton Vees), Matthew Tkachuk, (London Knights) and Pierre-Luc Dubois (Cape Breton Screaming Eagles). This means the eventual best player in the draft could actually be drafted anywhere from first to eighth. The Leafs have been looking for a big first-line centre since Mats Sundin left the team though and that’s why they’ll likely take Matthews.
There were a couple of other big winners in the lottery as the Winnipeg Jets had a 7.5 per cent to draft first overall and the Columbus Blue Jackets had a 9.5 percent chance. The Jets jumped from sixth place to second overall while Columbus moved from fourth to third. But with the talent available even the Edmonton Oilers who dropped from second to fourth, the Vancouver Canucks who dropped from third to fifth and Calgary Flames who slipped from fifth to sixth, could still end up with the eventual best player.
Regardless of who they take in the draft, the Leafs are bound to get an elite prospect and it could have a big impact on their roster decisions during the offseason. However, the team’s fans have another thing coming if they think that an 18-year-old youngster playing about 17 minutes per game is going to turn the franchise around. Still, they have reason to feel optimistic at least until June 24th and hopefully for a few years beyond that.