BUFFALO, N.Y. (KDKA/AP) – Once the “Go Leafs, Go!” chants subsided after Toronto selected Arizona-born center Auston Matthews with the first pick in the NHL draft, the Finns began their march to the podium.
Three players from Finland were selected among the top five picks, the most by the northern European nation.READ MORE: Highland Park Bridge Ramp Closure On Rt. 28 Now In Effect As Construction Project Gets Underway
“They’ve got a good thing going on there,” Canucks President Trevor Linden said after Vancouver rounded out the run of Finns by selecting defenseman Oli Juolevi with the fifth pick. The Winnipeg Jets selected forward Patrik Laine second, and Edmonton took forward Jesse Puljujarvi at No. 4.
The draft had an international flavor to it, starting with Matthews becoming the seventh American-born player to be selected No. 1, and first since the Chicago Blackhawks chose Patrick Kane with the top pick in 2007.
“My heart was beating. It was very nerve-wracking,” Matthews said, noting the Maple Leafs had not tipped their hand on who they were going to select since winning the NHL draft lottery in April. “Once they called my name, it was definitely a sigh of relief and a lot of excitement.”
Matthews, who grew up a Coyotes fan in Scottsdale, Arizona, was expected to be selected first.
NHL Central Scouting ranked the 6-foot-2, 210-pound play-maker as its top draft-eligible project, and he’s also a natural center, 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.
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.
“He’s an elite player with an elite drive train,” Toronto coach Mike Babcock said. “He’s going to make us better, and he’ll develop into a top, top center in the National Hockey League.”
As for the Pittsburgh Penguins, they did not have a pick in the first round following last year’s trade with Toronto for Phil Kessel. However, rumors are swirling around goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury’s name after a standout post-season run for Matt Murray.
General Manager Jim Rutherford addressed reporters as the first day of the draft was wrapping up:
During a week in which the NHL expanded into Las Vegas, the draft reflected the changing international nature of the sport.READ MORE: How To Shop Smart As Amazon Prime Days Get Underway
Starting with Columbus selecting Pierre-Luc Dubois at No. 3, only three Canadian-born players were taken among the top 10 picks. That matches last year’s total, which was the fewest for Canada in the draft.
Finland’s presence a reflected how the nation has begun to dominate on the world stage.
Finland won the 2015 world championship and the 2016 world junior championships, and lost to Canada in the world championship final last month.
“It’s a huge thing for our country, ourselves and the players,” Laine said. “I think it shows to everybody that we have good juniors, and we can be good at those tournaments and we can get drafted high.”
Laine, regarded as a pure goal-scorer, has the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of fellow countryman, Teemu Selanne, who began his career in Winnipeg in 1992.
The Calgary Flames addressed several needs by selecting forward Matt Tkachuk – the son of former NHL star Keith Tkachuk – with the No. 6 pick, and acquired goalie Brian Elliott in a trade with St. Louis. The Flames have had difficulty filling the goalie spot after Jonas Hiller, Karri Ramo, Joni Ortio and Niklas Backstrom split the duties last season
The Detroit Red Wings gained relief under the salary cap by trading the contract of veteran star Pavel Datsyuk, who is leaving Detroit to play in Russia next season. Detroit freed up $7.5 million in cap space by dealing Datsyuk to Arizona. The teams swapped first-round picks, with the Coyotes moving up four spots to No. 16, where they selected defenseman Jakob Chychrun.
The Coyotes also had the seventh pick, with which they drafted center Clayton Keller.
Montreal completed two trades. The Canadiens dealt forward Lars Eller to Washington for the Capitals’ second-round draft picks in 2017 and ’18. The Canadiens then acquired forward Andrew Shaw from the Blackhawks for two second-round picks. Montreal sent the 39th and 45th picks to cap-strapped Chicago for the pending restricted free agent.
The loudest cheers were reserved for the Sabres, and began when owner Terry Pegula took the stage to welcome everyone to Buffalo.
Another roar went up when Buffalo used the eighth pick to select forward Alexander Nylander. His father, Michael was a 15-year NHL veteran, and his brother William plays for the Maple Leafs.
Before the draft began, Bettman announced that the league’s annual pre-draft rookie combine will return to Buffalo for a third consecutive year.Vice President Kamala Harris Set To Arrive For First Visit To Pittsburgh
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