It’s not really a debate. Or it shouldn’t be.
Armed with the first pick of the NHL Draft for the first time in more than three decades, the Toronto Maple Leafs have the chance to grab the prototypical centre they’ve lacked since Mats Sundin left town eight years ago.
They’re not going to blow that chance by not taking Auston Matthews. Sure, Patrik Laine is an outstanding winger and goal-scorer. Jesse Puljujarvi, too. But if you’re the Leafs and you pass on Matthews, when, exactly, is the next No. 1 centre coming along?
So just as Matthews has been No. 1 all season on the Sportsnet Top 30, he’s staying there. But in a season when there’s been lots of movement in the draft order, there’s movement still. The biggest question early in the draft remains which player will go with the No. 4 pick, depending on whether Edmonton keeps it or moves it.
Like Matthews and Laine at the world championships, London Knights winger Matthew Tkachuk remains one of the few first-round candidates still playing with a chance to impact his draft position, as he and the Knights are one of four teams left jousting for the MasterCard Memorial Cup.
Tkachuk acknowledged that when Cape Breton’s Pierre-Luc Dubois passed him for No. 1 among North American draft eligible players in NHL Central Scouting’s final rankings, he noticed. And wasn’t happy about it.
“It was motivation,” said Tkachuk this week in Red Deer, Alta. “It happened before the playoffs, and I think I played my best hockey in the playoffs. So I’ve forgotten about it now.”
Brandon Wheat Kings defenceman Kale Clague will also be at the Memorial Cup, and after a difficult first half in which he saw his draft ranking drop, the puck-moving blueliner has sizzled down the stretch and in the playoffs, winning many scouts over again.
“Here’s what I’d say. If I’d gone away all winter and come back now and watched him play, he’d be exactly where I thought he’d be when we started out last fall,” said Wheat Kings GM and head coach Kelly McCrimmon.
Here’s Sportsnet’s final top 30 list:
1. (1) Auston Matthews, C, Zurich (Switzerland), 6-3, 195 lb. Scored the winning goal in the shootout on Thursday for the U.S. at the world championships. On an under-manned American team, he’s been a good 1-2 punch up the middle with Dylan Larkin. Matthews is NHL ready.
2. (2) Patrik Laine, LW, Tampere (Finland), 6-4, 200 lb. The big winger has been excellent at the worlds as well, keeping the Winnipeg Jets salivating at their chances of landing Teemu Selanne 2.0. Corey Perry obviously knows who Laine is already.
3. (3) Jesse Puljujarvi, RW, Karpat (Finland), 6-3, 198 lb. He’s not part of Finland’s team at the worlds, but last month he led the Finns to the title at the world under-18s with a hat trick in the gold medal game. He was also MVP of the world juniors in January.
4. (4) Matthew Tkachuk, LW, London (OHL), 6-1, 188 lb. Along with Christian Dvorak and Mitch Marner, he’s been part of the most explosive line in junior hockey this season. Some might question his skating, but never his smarts and toughness. In the OHL final against Niagara, he suffered a painful ankle injury and didn’t miss a game.
5. (10) Pierre-Luc Dubois, LW/C, Cape Breton (QMJHL), 6-3, 201 lb. He’s not as flashy as some forwards in this draft, but he can play all three forward positions and moved from No. 7 on Central Scouting’s North American list to No. 1 at year’s end. Had 99 points in 62 games.
6. (6) Olli Juolevi, D, London Knights (OHL), 6-2, 180 lb. Starred at the world juniors, now gets to use the MasterCard Memorial Cup to put his talents on display again. Most believe he’ll be the first defenceman to go in the draft.
7. (14) Tyson Jost, C, Penticton (BCJHL), 6-0, 195 lb. To some, he “removed the asterisk” from his draft status by playing so well at the world under-18s. Until then, scouts weren’t certain how to compare him to others because he played Tier II this season. A complete player and leader.
8. (20) Logan Brown, C, Windsor (OHL), 6-6, 200 lb. A big, overwhelming package who might need work but could be unique one day. Played very well for the Americans at the world under-18s after finally making his choice between the U.S. and Canadian programs.
9. (5) Alexander Nylander, LW, Mississauga (OHL), 6-0, 172 lb. Nylander seemed to wear down a bit after a long, long season that included the world juniors and the world under-18s. Had 28 goals and 47 assists this season with the Steelheads.
10. (10) Mikhail Sergachev, D, Windsor (OHL), 6-3, 195 lb. Was part of the hastily-assembled Russian team at the world under-18s after the entire team originally scheduled to go was pulled in a performance-enhancing drug scandal. Was third in scoring among OHL defencemen this season.
11. (16) Charlie McAvoy, D, Boston University (NCAA), 5-11, 195 lb. Too many scouts are talking about McAvoy for it all to be pre-draft smoke. Strong first season at BU, strong performance at the world juniors.
12. (7) Jakob Chychrun, D, Sarnia (OHL), 6-2, 194 lb. Has been under excruciating scrutiny all season as a player who many thought would challenge Matthews for No. 1. At the world under-18s, some scouts felt he raised his game in a semi-final shootout loss to Swedes.
13. (9) Clayton Keller, C, USNTDP (USHL), 5-9, 170 lb. Looks like he has the puck all the time. A Mitch Marner-type, he excels with puck movement and on-ice vision. Another one of the St. Louis minor hockey products dominating the first round. Had 107 points in 60 games.
14. (20) Logan Stanley, D, Windsor (OHL), 6-7, 210 lb. Easy to get excited about a big defenceman who has improved so dramatically this season. Was part of Canada’s team at the world under-18s.
15. (17) Dante Fabbro, D, Penticton (BCJHL), 6-1, 185 lb. Best defenceman for Canada at under-18s in North Dakota, partnering with Chychrun. Some see him as a seriously underrated prospect for this draft.
16. (11) Michael McLeod, C, Mississauga (OHL), 6-1, 184 lb. His blazing speed and leadership talents will be attractive to teams even if he’s not viewed as a natural finisher. Impressed scouts more as a fourth-liner at Ivan Hlinka last summer than as a first-liner at the under-18s last month.
17. (15) Jake Bean, D, Calgary (WHL), 6-0, 165 lb. Broke his foot in Game 4 of the Calgary-Red Deer playoff series and wasn’t able to participate in the world under-18s. Clever, puck-moving type. Size is the only question mark.
18. (19) Luke Kunin, C, University of Wisconsin (NCAA), 6-0, 190 lb. His abilities are likely to be much more on display next season when Tony and Don Granato start straightening out the Badger hockey program. Has flown under the radar all season.
19. (13) Max Jones, LW, London (OHL), 6-2, 189 lb. Suspended 12 games during the OHL playoffs for an illegal head shot on an Owen Sound player. An energy player with offensive skills, he’ll draw attention during the Memorial Cup.
20. (18) Kieffer Bellows, LW, USNTDP (USHL), 6-0, 189 lb. Played with Keller as his centre most of the year, scored 50 goals in 60 games for the U.S. National Team Development Program. Son of former NHLer Brian Bellows.
21. (12) Julien Gauthier, RW, Val d’Or (QMJHL), 6-4, 221 lb. Had 41 goals in 54 games this season, but was a post-season a disappointment when Foreurs went down in the first round. A big man who can score, he’ll likely get a second crack at playing for Canada at world juniors next year.
22. (24) Riley Tufte, LW, Blaine H.S. (Minnesota), 6-5, 205 lb. An unusual prospect to track. He played 12 games with USHL Fargo this season, then went back to high school to score 47 goals in 25 games, then re-joined Fargo for the final 15 games.
23. (22) German Rubtsov, C, Russian national U18 team (MHL), 6-1, 180 lb. There’s some mystery about this prospect as he was part of the Russian team that was withdrawn from the world under-18s because of a meldonium scandal. He didn’t play at world juniors, either. When seen, scouts have been very impressed.
24. (23) Alex DeBrincat, RW, Erie (OHL), 5-7, 165 lb. Had back-to-back 51-goal seasons with the Otters, most among all CHLers in those two seasons. It will be fascinating to see what team ignores his height and jumps all over his scoring talent.
25. (27) Pascal Laberge, C, Victoriaville (QMJHL), 6-1, 170 lb. Was the MVP at the Top Prospects Game in January. A solid, two-way centre who looks to be a very safe pick in this part of the draft. Battled through hand injuries this season.
26. (28) Rasmus Asplund, C, Farjestads (Sweden), 5-10, 175 lb. Ended up with a marquee role for the Swedes at the world juniors after William Nylander was knocked out of the competition with a concussion. Fast and slick.
27. (26) Kale Clague, D, Brandon (WHL), 6-0, 194 lb. A record-setting defenceman out of Alberta who broke Dion Phaneuf’s bantam scoring marks. Clague was very good at Ivan Hlinka tournament last summer then struggled in the first half for the Wheaties. His draft stock suffered, but he recovered with a strong second half and playoffs.
28. (30) Tage Thompson, C, Connecticut (NCAA), 6-5, 189 lb. Father Brent is a former NHLer. Big body up the middle who caught a lot of scouts eyes in his freshman season.
29. (NR) Filip Gustavsson, G, Lulea (Sweden) 6-2, 184 lb. Only one goalie (Ilya Samsonov) went in the first round last year, and that might be the case this year. Gustavsson is the highest-rated Euro netminder by NHL Central Scouting. He stopped 54 of 59 Canadian shots in the-final at the world under-18s.
30. (NR) Sam Steel, C, Regina (WHL), 5-11, 165 lb. Like Clague, Steel started the season ranked as a first-rounder, fell off, then recovered with a strong finish and a really good playoff for John Paddock’s Pats. Can make plays at high speed.
Nathan Bastian, C/RW, Mississauga (OHL), 6-4, 205 lb.
Carl Grundstrom, LW, Modo (Sweden), 6-0, 184 lb.
Vitalii Abramov RW, Gatineau (QMJHL), 5-9, 165 lb.
Frederic Allard, D, Chicoutimi (QMJHL), 6-1, 179 lb.
Tyler Benson LW, Vancouver (WHL), 6-0, 196 lb.
William Bitten C, Flint (OHL), 5-9, 145 lb.
Dennis Cholowski, D, Chilliwack (BCJHL), 6-1, 170 lb.
Dillon Dube, C, Kelowna (WHL), 5-10, 175 lb.
Brett Howden, C, Moose Jaw (WHL), 6-3, 190 lb.
Wade Allison, C, Tri-City (USHL), 6-3, 205 lb.