When the Toronto Maple Leafs stepped climbs the stairwell towards the podium at Buffalo's First Niagara Center, it was almost a foregone conclusion that they would select Auston Matthews with the first pick of the 2016 NHL Draft.
On Friday night, in front of thousands of Leafs fans who travelled across the border to watch the spectacle, they did just that, drafting the soon-to-be first-line centre the team has missed since the departure of Mats Sundin nearly a decade ago during the 2007-2008 season.
Matthews, a 6-2, 216-pound centre from Scottsdale, Arizona, brings prolific ability not only as a powerful centre with size but also as a highly gifted puck-handler who can score from distance with an elite shot. A hard-working, driven puck-pursuer, Matthews also has the tools to blossom into a defensively responsible two-way option down the middle. As gifted as a passer as he is as scorer, Matthews can find teammates at full speed off the rush or in tight off the cycle. He does an excellent job of protecting the puck with his size and strength, and his stride is fluid and powerful -- though he won't wow you with his explosiveness.
With the puck, he can handle it in traffic and control it effortlessly on his backhand. Without it, he uses his agility and length to close off lanes and beat opposing players to loose pucks in the defensive zone. Because there is no one single area in his game that will hold him back at the NHL level, Matthews projects safely as a top-end centre. Unlike many of his highly-gifted teenaged peers, his patience with the puck and intelligence without it match an elite skill level.
He instantly propels the Leafs organization's pool of prospects to among the best groups in the NHL. With Matthews, Nylander and Mitch Marner, the Leafs have arguably three of the NHL's 10-best prospects (alongside the likes of Patrik Laine, Jesse Puljujarvi, Dylan Strome, Mikko Rantanen, Kyle Connor and others). He also becomes likely the most talented prospect the Leafs have ever drafted, with the centennial season around the corner.
Within the Leafs organization, Matthews slots in down the middle among two other highly gifted centres in Nazem Kadri and William Nylander. Moving forward into training camp, he will also almost certainly have the opportunity to play alongside gifted wingers such as James van Riemsdyk, Marner, and Connor Brown.
As a teenager, Matthews brings a pedigree that made him a U17 gold medalist, two-time U18 gold medalist (named best forward and MVP after leading the tournament in points with 15 in seven games the second time around), U20 bronze medalist (led Team USA in scoring and the tournament in goals, was named the tournament's top centre), NLA All-Star, NLA Most Improved Player, Swiss Cup champion (most points), Zurich's leading scorer in points per game, and Team USA's leading scorer at the Men's World Championships.
With the U.S. National Training Development Program, Matthews holds the record for most points in a season with 116, where he bested Patrick Kane's previous mark by 14 points and Jack Eichel's standout season by 29 points.
For a Leafs rebuild that intended to be a long process, Matthews eases some pain and expedites the process. The control the Leafs will have over Matthews, Nylander and Marner gives them young talent on affordable contracts for more than half a decade. The trio also solidifies the Leafs' pool of prospects as one of if not the best in the NHL -- though all three of them will likely graduate in October.
Because he won't be held back by a lack of a defensive presence as a rookie, Matthews should fit in smoothly with Mike Babcock. It wouldn't be surprising to see him immediately become an impact player and the focal point of the top powerplay unit. If he stays healthy, he should factor into the Calder Cup conversation too.
Regardless, the selection of Matthews marks one of the biggest days not highlighted by a Stanley Cup victory in Leafs history.
The Leafs are up next, barring any trades, with the 31st overall pick to start the day and the second round tomorrow morning. In this year's SB Nation NHL Mock Draft, we selected defensemen Samuel Girard 30th overall and he could very well be an option. I have also profiled several other options for the Leafs later in the first round, including triggerman Adam Mascherin, highly skilled Russian winger Vitalii Abramov and OHL standout Alex DeBrincat.
More to come from Buffalo. I'll have coverage all weekend long. Follow @scottcwheeler for updates.
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