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2016 NHL Draft Preview: Meet Hockey’s Next Generation

Getty/Ringer illustration
Getty/Ringer illustration

For all the ragged magnificence of the NHL playoffs, and with all due respect to that admirable slog, there’s something so refreshing every year about the first couple of weeks after the Stanley Cup. A fortnight of absurdity, speculation, and truly bizarro-land vibes begins with the NHL Awards show in Las Vegas, builds with the eager frenzy of the NHL draft, and blasts us into the offseason with a showcase of trades and free-agent signings that light up the landscape like Fourth of July fireworks. No longer is the hockey world dominated by the last two teams standing; this is the time to be reminded that there are 30 NHL franchises — 31 soon! — and that even the most beleaguered among them might remember laughter one day.

The 2016 NHL entry draft, held this Friday and Saturday in Buffalo’s revamped downtown arena district, has all the makings of a particularly raucous time, and not just due to all the rabid locals who will be on hand to check out the player the Sabres select eighth overall. The roads from Toronto will be lousy with Maple Leafs fans caravanning down to see their team choose first overall for the first time since selecting the beloved Wendel Clark in 1985. (Both the Sabres and the Leafs have amassed double-digit numbers of draft picks, so they’ll be busy beyond the first round.) And really, the First Niagara Center will be inundated with visitors from everywhere north of the Falls: Six of the top 10 lottery picks are held by Canadian franchises, whose fans are as passionate as they are tortured.

Each year the NHL draft has its reliable quirks: those terrible/perfect photo shoots; that annual yearbook photo of Daryl Katz’s kid; and the gleeful we-have-a-trade-to-announce interruptions from Gary Bettman. There’s a chance the commish could be particularly chatty on Friday. With many teams bumping up against the salary cap, and with a Las Vegas expansion draft on the horizon, this draft could feature a fair bit of day-of wheeling and dealing. (Already, some choice “dim-bulb” rumors have been flying.)

And this is all before you even consider the crop of young talent that will be showcased at the NHL’s most hopeful event. There’s Auston Matthews, the Arizona-born sensation who got to this point with the help of a Ukrainian skating coach and a stop in Switzerland. There’s Patrik Laine, the young Finnish breakout star who conducts interviews like he’s FaceTiming with bae. There’s the son of an NHL Hall of Famer and a baby-faced rookie general manager looking to make a splash and a whole lot of teams giving this analytics thing a fair shake.

To choose a first-round draft pick is to enter the uncertain business of extrapolation: Which twitch may turn into a tic? What’s a phase, and what’s personality? With the way they obsess over IQs and growth curves and theories of development, NHL scouts and executives often sound like the neurotic parents of newborns. Matthews and Laine, the presumptive one-two selections in Friday night’s first round, were born only seven months apart. But in circles like these, where time is measured in weeks and progress in percentiles, that kind of gap can feel like forever.

For Matthews, a square-jawed and silky-pawed center who grew up a rink rat in the literal hockey hotbed of Arizona, it’s not so much those seven months that matter as it is two measly days. Were Matthews born just a little bit earlier back in September of 1997 — on the 15th, instead of the 17th — he would have been eligible for last year’s draft. Instead, in the grand tradition of so many bright young things armed with ambition and time to spare, he spent a gap year in Europe.

Eschewing the typical routes of NCAA hockey or Canadian juniors for a roster spot with the Zurich Lions of the Swiss National League A, Matthews scored 46 points in 36 games. Having played mostly 3-on-3 hockey in an offbeat mini-rink facility outside Scottsdale for much of his formative years, Matthews has stickhandling skills that are rare for a player of his size and an agility honed through lessons with an eccentric skating guru. He’s also a poster child for how the league’s oft-ridiculed Sun Belt strategy can broaden hockey’s base. (In his Wednesday announcement about the Las Vegas expansion team, Bettman made a point to say that Matthews got hooked on hockey thanks to the Arizona Coyotes.) Should Matthews be selected by the Maple Leafs, his knack for carving out some breathing room in an otherwise smothering situation would presumably come in quite handy.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that he will be the Leafs’ pick, particularly after the last few months that Laine (pronounced Line-ah) has had. After Team Finland took the silver medal in last month’s World Championship — a major international tournament that features dozens of established NHL players — Laine, who just turned 18 in April, became the competition’s youngest MVP. (Weeks earlier, he was named the top postseason player in the Finnish Liiga.) Laine not only broke a scoring record for a player of his age that had existed since 1939, he doubled it.

With his lopsided grin, Laine makes for an entertaining interview, reclining with earbuds and drawling in Desiigner-like cadence about using Coca-Cola cans for target practice. He spoke of dealing with his white-blond hair like it was some sort of flowering plant, telling TSN, “I let it grow all season and then cut it down.” For some prospects, being on the younger side can introduce uncertainty, but Laine’s recent play at such a tender age is one of his noteworthy assets. If Matthews’s biggest edge when it comes to being the first overall pick is playing center; Laine’s top selling point is that he plays older. “He’s in the ninety-nine-point-nine-nine-nine-ninth percentile!” a proud parent and/or scout might crow.

Laine is part of a strong Finnish draft class that also includes Jesse Puljujarvi, who is widely projected to go third, and Olli Juolevi. Matthew Tkachuk, the son of Keith — that U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer whose last name was an onomatopoeia for his crushing style — played with Matthews in the U.S. National Team Development Program and is another lottery candidate. Canadians Pierre-Luc Dubois, Logan Brown, and Jakob Chychrun will likely be off the board early. Not so much with Sean Day, who, at age 15, became the fourth prospect to be granted Exceptional Player Status, allowing him to compete in major juniors a year early. He has struggled to live up to the designation ever since, a reminder that even so-called sure things aren’t always so.

In some ways, Day might be lucky: He enters Friday night with low enough expectations that he could well turn out to be a steal. The draft is an inexact science: For all the preparation that goes into it, for all the projections and emotions, it often comes down to making educated guesses, trying one’s best, and understanding that everyone develops at his own rate. The last time the NHL draft was hosted by Buffalo, in 1998, the first, sixth, and 171st picks were Vincent Lecavalier, Rico Fata, and Pavel Datsyuk: a Stanley Cup winner, a spectacular flameout, and a future first-ballot Hall of Famer, respectively. This is why drafts are intriguing and frustrating and completely inscrutable. You just never know how those silly babies are going to grow up.

An earlier version of this piece didn’t clarify that Keith Tkachuk is a member of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, rather than the Hockey Hall of Fame. Also, Alexander Nylander was mentioned in a list of Canadian prospects; Nylander was born in Canada but grew up in Sweden. He’s been removed from that list.