Sporting wispy beards and hopeful smiles, several of the top prospects for this year’s NHL entry draft visited SAP Center Monday morning to meet players who are participating in the Stanley Cup Final and chat with the media. The youngsters — born in 1997 and 1998 — were scheduled to return Monday evening to watch the Sharks play host to the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 4 of the Final.
The Toronto Maple Leafs will have the No. 1 pick in the draft, which will be held June 24-25 in Buffalo, N.Y.
Winnipeg, Columbus, Edmonton and Vancouver round out the top five.
The Ducks have the 24th pick. The Kings don’t have a first-round pick because they dealt it to Carolina for rent-a-defenseman Andrej Sekera, who played just 16 games for them before being injured. He left the Kings last summer to sign with Edmonton as a free agent. Carolina will choose 21st.
Center Auston Matthews, who grew up in Scottsdale, Ariz., has long been the consensus No. 1 pick and is considered a generational talent. But 6-foot-4 right wing Patrik Laine, who was voted the most valuable player in Finland’s runner-up performance in the World Championships last month, has been gaining ground. “At this point, we’re quite even,” Laine told reporters during the recent NHL Combine.
Laine, who helped Tappara win the Finnish Liiga championship, said he’s not afraid people will perceive him as brash because of his self-assurance. “They can think what they want to think. I don’t care,” he said Monday. “People who know me better, they know that I’m a good guy. I have a lot of confidence the right way. It’s not a bad thing.”
Laine said his favorite player while he was growing up was former Duck Teemu Selanne, “like every other kid in Finland,” and that he wouldn’t mind playing in Winnipeg, where Selanne began his outstanding NHL career. “It would be nice to play there, of course, where he used to play and see where everyone was crazy about him and he’s coming back for the outdoor game,” Laine said, referring to Selanne’s visit for the Winnipeg Jets’ contest against Edmonton on Oct. 23 at Investors Group Field in Winnipeg. “So it would be quite nice to play there.”
Although Matthews is American, the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau lists him among European skaters because he played last season for Zurich in the Swiss league. He became a fan of the Arizona Coyotes as a child and began playing the sport at increasingly higher levels as he grew to a powerful 6 feet 2 and 215 pounds. Blessed with all the tools — speed, size, skill, vision — he scored 24 goals and 46 points in 36 games in the Swiss League last season.
For him to come from a nontraditional hockey area and become a likely No. 1 pick might be inspirational to kids who live in cities where youth hockey isn’t as popular as other sports.
“I think it’s been growing a lot, not only in Arizona but in California and Texas and Florida,” Matthews said. “It’s pretty cool to see more players come out of these areas and be able to succeed and move on to high levels.”
The top prospects list also includes Scottsdale native Matthew Tkachuk, son of former NHL standout Keith Tkachuk. However, the family lived in Arizona only until he was 3 years old, when Keith Tkachuk’s career took the family to St. Louis. Matthew, who plays left wing — like his dad – considers St. Louis to be the place he grew up.
Matthew said he has many good memories of Blues players — including David Backes – coming to his house and playing video games and basement hockey with him and his younger brother. Playing against Backes has crossed his mind.
“He’s a really nice guy and I think we’d give each other a hug after the game, but during the game I don’t think he’s going to be too easy on me,” Tkachuk said. “He was awesome at the house and I’ll remember him and the rest of the guys there for the rest of my life. Seeing the way he went about his routine, especially at a young age trying to prove himself in the NHL, was pretty cool.”
Some other NHL bloodlines among the top prospects: forward Jonathan Dahlen, son of Ulf Dahlen; left wing Alexander Nylander, son of Michael Nylander; defenseman Jakob Chychrun, son of former tough guy Jeff Chychrun; center Logan Brown, son of Jeff Brown; and left wing Kieffer Bellows, son of Brian Bellows.