SAN JOSE -- Five of the top prospects for the 2016 NHL Draft stood, slightly awkwardly, talking amongst themselves in the San Jose Sharks dressing room at SAP Center, a building where they could be playing in the future -- perhaps as soon as next season.
It was one more whirlwind moment in a whirlwind week of them in a whirlwind year of them, with Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, Matthew Tkachuk, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Alexander Nylander going from the NHL Scouting Combine in Buffalo, which ended Saturday, to here for Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Sharks (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports).
The prospects had just met two players who had been through all of this before, the twin pillars of the 1997 draft, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. Thornton, had gone No. 1 to the Boston Bruins, Marleau No. 2 to the Sharks.
In a few short weeks that could be Matthews, the Scottsdale, Ariz., native who played center this season for Zurich in Switzerland's top professional league, and Laine, a right wing with Tappara in Finland, being the first two picks of the 2016 draft, which will be held at First Niagara Center in Buffalo from June 24-25.
"[Thornton] and Marleau went through the same process," said Tkachuk, the son of United States Hockey Hall of Fame member Keith Tkachuk, who said he first met Thornton at the 2009 NHL All-Star Game in Montreal. "Look at them now. They're still playing and in the Stanley Cup Final. [Thornton said] just enjoy it and it's a long process, but it's fun too."
Said Matthews of meeting Thornton: "It's really cool. He's an unbelievable player for a long time. It was nice to talk to him. His wife is from Davos [Switzerland] so we were talking about Switzerland and just the experience I had there. He was saying to enjoy it, it's a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I'm just enjoying the whole process."
They met other players too, including Joe Pavelski, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Paul Martin of the Sharks. They watched some of the Sharks skate. They saw SAP Center. They met with the media. They spent time with each other.
It was all part of the package.
"It's been nice to get to know those other guys," Laine said. "They're good guys and we've had a fun time together, and it's been fun to be here."
But there are no budding rivalries, even among the players vying for No. 1 status.
"We know that hockey is the main thing, but we're friends and we don't have to talk about hockey and we know that we're going to be good players in the NHL someday," Laine said. "We don't have to compete in our free time. So we want to focus on some other things than hockey. We don't have to race in our free time."
For now they are sharing this wild and weird experience together. Before they become rivals.
"It was cool to be here, meet a lot of the players," Matthews said. "I mean, it's the Stanley Cup Final. So just looking at them and how calm and cool they are, it's pretty eye-opening."
Though it hasn't been the easiest of weeks, the prospects seemed to be soaking it all in. Soon their lives will be different. They will be draft picks instead of prospects. They will know where they are headed, where their lives and careers will begin.
Now there is just anticipation. And taking advantage of these opportunities.
"It's cool just to come here and take part in this," Matthews said. "I've never been to a Stanley Cup Final before so I'm very excited. It's been pretty crazy. It's a unique situation I think we're all in. Not many kids could take part in it. It's not something you take for granted. I think all of us are enjoying it. I think we're all looking forward to the draft coming up in a couple weeks."
Author: Amalie Benjamin - NHL.com