Team USA forward Auston Matthews had a monster 2016 World Junior Championship, but it wasn’t enough to keep him the definite No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft.
Some quick takes in the wake of the 2016 World Junior Championship won by Finland with Russia taking the silver and the USA the bronze:
• Auston Matthews came into the tournament as the presumptive top pick in next June’s NHL draft and the big American center did nothing to damage his stock. He led all scorers with seven goals (one shy of the U.S. mark set by Jeremy Roenick in 1989) and left scouts with a clear impression of his ability to mature into a No. 1 center in the NHL.
“I don’t think he’s getting enough credit for what he accomplished here,” one scout said from Helsinki. “This is a tournament that’s typically dominated by 19-year-olds and he’s a draft-eligible player who carried the offense of a team that [won a bronze medal]. He was every bit as good as we hoped he'd be.”
That said, Matthews’ play at crunch time did open the window a little bit to talk of a shakeup at the top of the draft. As impressive as he was early on, he was a non-factor in Team USA’s most important game, its 2–1 semifinal loss to the Russians. He was frustrated by a defensive posture that was designed to take him out of the game, and he blew his assignment on the play leading up to the winning goal.
It was only one lackluster performance, a blip in the grand scheme of more than two years of appraisals. But while he maintained his stock, Finnish sensations Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi strapped rockets to theirs. Puljujarvi, who scored a tournament leading 17 points in seven games, was named MVP of the tournament. Laine was named to the All-Star Team after tying Matthews with a tournament-leading seven goals in seven games.
Both were consensus top-10 picks before the tournament. Now, both appear to be top-three locks, with an outside chance to supplant Matthews at the top of the draft.
“You want to see a player raise his game at big moments,” another scout told SI.com. “Puljujarvi did that. From the moment the tournament started until he had that gold medal, he was the best player on the ice ... that was a dominant performance.
“I think it’s still Matthews,” the scout said of the choice to be made at No. 1. “But [Puljujarvi] made the decision more difficult, that’s for sure. I don’t think anyone would be stunned if [he went first.]”
Laine, who scored the winning goal in Finland’s elimination win over Canada, may have done even more to improve his standing.
“I think it’s a stretch that [Laine] would go [first overall], but you never know what another team needs or how they’ll view a player," the scout said. “He’s a natural goal scorer. He has magical hands. He’s a pure talent. You put him with a playmaking center and just watch what he does.”
The first scout suggested that Laine, who worked the wing for Finland, might be converted to center in the NHL. “That’s how I see him. It’s easy to focus on his hands, but he has tremendous vision and is a very strong skater, very mobile. With his size (6' 3", 200 pounds), he might be better suited for the middle.”
Matthews remains the favorite for June, but going first is no longer a foregone conclusion. The road to the 2016 draft suddenly looks a lot more intriguing.
• If anyone’s stock was hurt by this tournament, it was probably a player who wasn’t even in Helsinki. Big defenseman Jakob Chychrun was widely viewed as a possible consolation prize to Matthews, but after missing the cut for Team Canada he could slip. The team’s need could come into play—Edmonton, for example, needs a top blueliner more than it does another scoring forward—but Laine, Puljujarvi, American winger Matthew Tkachuk and Swedish winger Alex Nylander all suggested that they might be better bets for teams that are looking to draft the best player available. Slick puck-moving defenseman Olli Juolevi also impressed for the gold medalists, and may now be seen by some teams as the best blueliner available.
• The bronze medal win by Team USA provided a nice showcase for a trio of Boston Bruins prospects. Forwards Ryan Donato (56th, 2014) and Anders Bjork (146th, 2014) each scored a pair of goals, and defenseman Brandon Carlo (37th, 2015) chipped in with one in their 8–3 drubbing of Sweden. Donato and Bjork project to be energetic depth players at the NHL level but Carlo has a chance to be something more. At 6' 5", 203 pounds, he has the size, high-end mobility and temperament to mature into a top-four shutdown player. If his offense comes around (he went 2-1-3 in the tournament), a first-pair role isn’t out of the question.
• Canada's leading scorer might be back for a shot at redemption at next year’s tournament. Maple Leafs prospect Mitch Marner (4-2-6) had his moments—that metahuman video-game move he put on three Finnish defenders in the quarterfinal loss was a jawdropper—but he was ineffective for long stretches, held back by his lack of strength. It’s possible that he could get a look by the Maple Leafs next fall, but it’s more likely that his physical limitations will add a year to his development process. If he’s available for Team Canada, he should be a difference maker in 2017.
• While Marner underwhelmed, another Leafs prospect made a name for himself with his vision and creativity. Dmytro Timashov, Toronto’s fifth rounder in 2015, was one of Sweden’s most dynamic weapons throughout the tournament, showcasing surprising playmaking ability with several “did-you-see-that?” dishes. He was as guilty as the rest of his teammates in his team’s bronze medal game meltdown, but prior to that he was a consistent threat, making plays out of nothing. Timashov, who has 18 goals and 53 points in 29 games for the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, looks like a late-round steal.
• The Predators have to be thrilled with the play of Russian captain Vladislav Kamenev. He didn’t just score in the tournament. He scored the big goals, including the last-minute equalizer and the OT winner in the quarterfinal against Denmark and the opening goal in the gold medal game. Outside of Russia’s semifinal win against Team USA, in which he was merely average, Kamenev played with intensity and purpose to lead the his team to the silver medal. The 19-year-old forward, selected by Nashville in the second round of the 2014 draft, has six goals and 14 points in 24 games with Milwaukee of the AHL this season. With the Preds eager to find an offensive spark, there will be some pressure to bring him up to the big club. The smart play is to leave him where he is and allow him to get stronger while continuing to acclimate to the North American game.
• One scout raved about the play of Flyers prospect Ivan Provorov. “Just a beast. Best defenseman in the tournament.” The 2014 first rounder should be in Philly next season.
• Still hard to figure out how Canada’s penalty kill was a tournament-low 59%. Certainly not the only issue that tripped them up, but unlike other personnel problems this was one that could have been addressed as the tournament wore on. Not a good look on Kelly McCrimmon, the assistant coach in charge of the unit.
The numbers game
• How about those Panthers? Florida's franchise-record 10 game win streak is the longest in the NHL since Boston’s 12-game run in March 2014. Goalie Roberto Luongo's eight straight wins are also a team mark and equal his career best with Vancouver in 2009.
• On Tuesday night, forwards Nick Foligno (19:44) of the Blue Jackets and Mikael Granlund (19:46) of the Wild each scored in two seconds during the final minute of the third period. They tied the record for the fastest two goals in NHL history, set on Dec. 19, 1987 when forwards Ken Linseman (19:50) of the Bruins and Doug Gilmour (19:52) of the Blues scored two seconds apart in the third period of St. Louis’s 7–5 win.
• The Flames are hot at home, now having won 12 of their last 14 games at the Saddledome.
• Elliotte Friedman talks Jonathan Drouin trade particulars, Dustin Byfuglien rumors and the next outdoor game in this week's 30 Thoughts column.
• Thanks a lot, NHL. This sort of silliness is why we can’t have nice things.
• For a couple of teams at least, the 1995 NHL draft keeps on giving. For a couple others, man, that one still hurts.
• The NHL’s most recognizable linesman called it a career last night after 29 years. All the best in retirement, Mike!