With the NHL draft lottery just around the corner, could a team draft Patrik Laine first overall? There is increasing speculation on who will be the number one overall selection. Auston Matthews has been on the top of many draft boards throughout the year but by no means is he the consensus top pick. Matthews played for the ZCS Lions of the Swiss National League (NLA) and had a fantastic year in Zurich. His play during the World Junior Championship was solid but somewhat disappointing during Team USA’s games against other top squads. However, that was one tournament, and the whole of his scouting report over the past few years is exceptional. Matthews’ time with the US National Team Development Program last year set the NTDP all-time single-season points record with 117. His stint in the NLA playing against men this year resulted in 46 points in only 36 games.
But as good as Matthews has been over the past two years, Patrik Laine has forced himself into the conversation and made the talk of who is the best player in the 2016 draft a valid debate. Laine was stellar at the WJC, forming one of the most feared lines at the tournament with Karpat teammates Sebastian Aho and Jesse Puljujarvi. Finland’s top line made a huge impression in Helsinki on their way to a gold medal for the host country. That tournament alone has helped many young players draft stock rise considerably. Laine was not done impressing fans and scouts.
Laine used the remainder of the Finnish Liiga season to make strides in his defensive game and overall positioning. His skating is very good, especially on his edges but his shooting is elite. Laine’s performance in the Liiga playoffs was a tour de force. Laine notched ten goals and five assists as a key contributor to Tappara’s championship. Laine also won the Jari Kurri Trophy as the Liiiga Playoff MVP, the youngest player to ever do so.
With the NHL Draft lottery just minutes away, here’s three teams would likely take Laine and his enticing mix of offensive vision, lethal shot and pro-ready size at first overall. They have their top centers in place, and two of them are in need of help on the right wing. After looking at Team Laine, Team Matthews features three teams are truly in need for a franchise center and would likely give Matthews an opportunity to start next year in the NHL.
Colorado Avalanche (Tenth position – 3.5% chance of first overall)
Matt Duchene, Nathan MacKinnon, and Mikhail Grigorenko are all very young and supremely talented. After Edmonton, Colorado is the second team most set at the center position. Help on the wing would be addressing a team need in addition to adding arguably the top player available in the draft. Colorado’s top threat on the right wing currently is 38-year-old Jerome Iginla, and his age alone is reason enough to consider drafting a replacement. The Avalanche do have Mikko Rantanen and JT Compher, so the right-wing position is not a glaring hole on a solid roster, but Laine is also comfortable on the off-wing as well. Adding the arguably top talent from the draft with the highest offensive ceiling would be the solid move for a roster with many pieces already in place.
Buffalo Sabers (Eighth position – 6% chance of first overall)
Two consecutive second overall picks were not the plan for General Manager Tim Murray. He has come away with franchise center in Jack Eichel last year and Sam Reinhart and drafted Zemgus Girgensons in 2013 as well. Hudson Fasching and Justin Bailey are both talented and young players on the right wing, but Laine with Eichel could form one of the most power duos in recent memory and form two strong lines with Fasching or Bailey slotting with Reinhart.
Edmonton Oilers (Second position – 13.5% chance of first overall)
Outside of the increased Alberta sports radio ratings should the Oilers win the lottery (again), they are well positioned for the big Finnish winger. Edmonton is arguably the most set at the center position of any non-playoff team. Generational talent Connor McDavid will anchor the top line obviously. Leon Draisaitl is ideally placed as the second center, as is two-way center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins centering a potential shutdown third line. Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle are the only wingers currently on the roster considered true first line talent. Laine would change that.
Toronto Maple Leafs (First position – 20% chance of first overall)
The “Shana-plan” is underway, and a team that was regularly bereft of young talent just a few years ago is now bursting at the seams with it. Some players played center in juniors but many project as wings in the NHL. Auston Matthews should slot in immediately as the second line center and move Tyler Bozak down a slot, perhaps for the best. On the other hand, the Leafs might try again to move Bozak should they land Matthews to bring in additional assets.
Columbus Blue Jackets (Fourth position – 9.5% chance of first overall)
After trading their number one center, Columbus is back on the hunt for a top pivot. But much like franchise defenseman, of which the Jackets might have three in Zach Werenski, Seth Jones, and Ryan Murray. Winning the lottery would be a no-brainer for Columbus. Matthews would take the spot of the recently departed Ryan Johansen and bolster a roster that lacks a real direction. Matthews will help hit the reset button and allow the franchise to take a hard look at moves to bring the team back to contention.
Arizona Coyotes (Seventh position – 6.5% chance of first overall)
Auston Matthews grew up in Arizona, and the Coyotes were the team that sparked his interested in hockey. Now in 2016, the Coyotes are in a position to bring Matthews home. It is not hyperbole to say Matthews might save the hockey in the desert. A homegrown talent of this magnitude could recharge the fanbase and spark interest as well as local pride in the Desert Dogs. On the ice, Matthews talent and youth would be a perfect fit for a team that boasts a very deep prospect pool. Rolling out Dylan Strome and Auston Matthews as your top two centers, alongside Anthony Duclair, Max Domi, Brendan Perlini, Christian Dvorak, well, you get the point.
However the draft lottery shakes out, there will still be over two months to debate who will be the top pick as well as the needs of the top team. Even more interesting would be one of the teams that could break either way on the Laine/Matthews debate, such as if the Calgary Flames were to win the lottery. The 2016 draft is shaping up to be one of the most interesting and talented of the last few years, and regardless of who wins the NHL draft lottery, fans are in for a treat. Team USA, featuring Matthews and Team Finland, featuring Laine, will face off at the World Championship on May 9.