The Toronto Maple Leafs have won the draft lottery, giving the franchise its first No. 1 pick since 1985 when future captain Wendel Clark was selected.
The Leafs finished the season with the league’s worst record at 29-42-11, giving them a 20 percent chance to win the lottery. It’s the first time since 2010 that a team with the best odds managed to secure the top spot.
This was the first year the top three picks were determined via lottery. The Winnipeg Jets secured the second pick on Saturday night and the Columbus Blue Jackets received the third choice.
“I’m still just a little bit rattled from this experience. That was a really tense moment for all of us,” Leafs president Brendan Shanahan told Sportsnet. “We earned this the hard way. It wasn’t a whole lot of fun this year. Our coaching staff and our management staff did a lot of good things in Toronto. This will certainly help.”
Although Shanahan didn’t tip his hand as to who the Leafs will be taking, their prize is expected to be 18-year-old center Auston Matthews from Scottsdale, Ariz.
Matthews broke Patrick Kane’s United States National Team Development Program scoring record last season, but missed the cutoff for the 2015 NHL draft by two days. He opted to play for former NHL coach Marc Crawford and the Zurich Lions in the Swiss National League, instead of joining the WHL’s Everett Silvertips or an NCAA team. There, Matthews recorded 24 goals and 46 points in 36 games, finishing 10th in SNL scoring.
Matthews also led the United States to a bronze medal at the World Junior Championship, recording seven goals and 11 points in seven games. He’ll play for the Americans at the World Championship, which start next week.
“It’s nice to have a little bit of clarity,” he said to Sportsnet via video conference from Helsinki. “(Although) nothing’s in stone.”
Matthews was ranked as the top prospect in the sneak peek for the 2016 draft in THN’s Future Watch issue.
Right behind him was Finnish right winger Patrik Laine of Tappara. Laine has gained some buzz in recent days after being named the MVP of the SM-liiga playoffs. He posted nine goals and 14 points in 17 games. He also helped Finland earn its second world junior gold medal in three years and was named to the all-star team after recording seven goals and 13 points. Like Matthews, Laine will play in the upcoming world championship.
And then there’s fellow Finn Jesse Puljujarvi, who played for Karpat. All the two-way center did this year was earned MVP honors at the world juniors, a rate feat for an undrafted player. He recorded five goals and 17 points in the tournament – finishing one point behind Jaromir Jagr’s scoring record for a 17-year-old player set in 1990. Puljujarvi then helped Finland to a world under-18 gold last Sunday, recording a hat trick in a 6-1 win over Sweden.
Regardless of who the Leafs pick, it’ll be a key piece of their rebuild.
“It’s a help,” Shanahan said. “It’s a team sport. It’s not about one guy. That’s one thing (coach) Mike (Babcock) and (GM) Lou (Lamoriello) really believe in. But certainly when you have the opportunity to pick first overall, it’s an important opportunity for the Toronto Maple Leafs, it’s an important moment for our fans. Our ownership group has given us the support to do this build the right way. There’s a little bit of luck here. It’s a lottery. We’re just happy to be lucky today.”