TORONTO — Auston Matthews will be on the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ mind for the next few weeks.
The Leafs will have a 20 per cent chance of landing the No. 1 overall pick at the NHL draft lottery on April 30. It’s been 31 years since the club picked first at the draft and are guaranteed the best odds of doing so again this summer after a last-place season.
Matthews, a six-foot-two American centre, is expected to be picked first by whichever club ends up winning the first overall selection.
“He’s a big, talented guy,” Toronto head coach Mike Babcock said of Matthews. “But all we know for sure is that we have an 80 per cent chance of not being in on that pick. We know we’re going to get a top-four pick, that’s all we know and we’re going to be ecstatic with whoever we get.
“Some young man’s going to be fortunate to get to be a Leaf.”
A member of the U.S. national team development program for three seasons, Matthews spent this past year in the Swiss Hockey League, scoring 24 goals and 46 points in 36 games for Zurich.
He would join a promising pool of young talent in Toronto, fronted by the last two top Leafs picks – 19-year-old William Nylander and 18-year-old Mitchell Marner – the latter starring for the London Knights this season.
“Well, I think when you’re in our situation, you’re excited about every draft,” Leafs team president Brendan Shanahan said.
“The odds are stacked against us that we’ll pick first, we understand that.”
Though in ownership of the best odds, teams with the worst record don’t always end up landing the No. 1 overall pick at the lottery. The last four teams to finish last did not up not picking first, including the Buffalo Sabres last year.
The Maple Leafs can pick no lower than fourth overall and the club currently has 11 other picks beyond their first selection, including an additional first round pick acquired from Pittsburgh in the trade that sent Phil Kessel to Pittsburgh last summer.
The NHL has tweaked the draft lottery in recent years to spread out the odds of lottery success.
Shanahan said the draft would be at the “backbone” of the team’s building project.
Mark Hunter, the Leafs director of player personnel, will be steering the draft for Toronto for the second straight summer. Hunter, a long leader and owner of the London Knights, is known for his ability to scout young talent.
He led his first NHL draft for the Maple Leafs last summer in Florida.
“He’s like a dog on a bone,” Babcock said. “Even when he tells his wife he’s coming home for supper, the truck usually veers and goes to a game, which I really appreciate. And in the end those are the guys that make you good. You need players and the more players you have the better chance you have to be a good coach.”
The Leafs last had the No. 1 pick in 1985 when the club selected Wendel Clark from the Saskatoon Blades.
Toronto general manager Lou Lamoriello acknowledged that doing so again could alter off-season plans.
“We know one thing now, we’ll be one of (the first) four and we’ll prepare accordingly and know where all our other picks are,” Lamoriello said.