It’s been a tough few weeks for the Leafs since the turn of the calendar – 2016 hasn’t been kind to them at all, and after dropping five of their last seven in regulation the club now sits just one point up on the Jackets for dead last in the NHL.
While it should be noted the current gap between the cellar dwellers and the playoff bubble teams is not as significant as years past (think Buffalo and their dive to the bottom last season), the Leafs are now firmly in top pick territory and should remain there as they unload a few veterans next month. For that reason, it’s time to talk about first overall. It’s time to talk about Auston Matthews.
We can’t get into the first overall discussion without touching on the draft lottery, and this year things are a little different. Instead of just the top spot being determined by a numbers draw, the first three slots will be up for grabs.
(This only took me four attempts, via NHL Lottery Simulator)
As it stands, the last place team again has a 20% chance of picking first, second last has 13.5%, third last 11.5% and so on. The odds obviously change for second and third pick depending on who wins the one before it. So, if things stay on course, the Leafs should have an 11.5% or greater chance to draft Auston Matthews.
It’s sometimes difficult to know if a number one pick is ready to be an impact NHL player right away. Phenoms like McDavid and Crosby obviously were, and the rest make the jump as well, but obviously some years are different than others. Nugent-Hopkins probably wasn’t quite as ready physically as a guy like McDavid, for example.
So which end of this spectrum is Matthews closest to?
Well, let’s put it this way: There’s a strong argument out there that had Matthews been born just two days earlier and eligible for last summer’s draft, he’d be playing in the NHL already this season.
Here’s what Bob McKenzie had to say about Matthews before this season got under way:
Scouts aren’t too concerned that Matthews has taken the unprecedented step of a potential No. 1 pick playing his draft year in the Swiss League (for Marc Crawford in Zurich). Matthews only missed being eligible for last year’s draft by two days. Had he turned 18 on Sept. 15 instead his Sept. 17 birthday, he would most certainly have joined Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel in the NHL this season.
He’s a physically-mature, high-skill centre who projects, like McDavid and Eichel, as a No. 1 NHL pivot.
While quotes like that are exciting, it’s still sort of tough for many of us to get a read on just how good Matthews is. The last nine first overall picks have come from the CHL, and that usually means a little more exposure and an easier job for most of us in North America to make comparisons among peers. Matthews presents quite a different case, as he’ll be drafted from Zurich of the Swiss League after making the jump from the US NTDP last year. It’s a different path for a draft-eligible, but one necessitated by his level of skill and the waste of time that would have been him just beating up on kids all year in junior.
Matthews should easily step into the league next fall and be a major boost to a weak club immediately. If that club happens to be the Leafs he’ll likely join William Nylander and Mitch Marner, who’ll be doing the same.
Yes, as painful as it is to watch this formidable Babcock-coached team skate their guts out every night but fall short due to a blatant lack of skill, take comfort in the fact they now have a solid chance at getting a major shot in the arm next season in the form of a trio of future stars. All they have to do is stay put, or, even better, just embrace the tank.