BUFFALO -- For the first time in almost two decades a Canadian-born and raised player might not be selected among the top five picks at the 2016 NHL Draft, which will be held at First Niagara Center in Buffalo on June 24-25.
Zurich center Auston Matthews (6-foot-2, 216 pounds) of Scottsdale, Ariz., is projected to be the first American-born player chosen No. 1 since forward Patrick Kane was selected by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2007. Matthews is expected to be followed by right wing Patrick Laine (6-4, 201) of Tappara in Liiga, Finland's top professional league, and right wing Jesse Puljujarvi (6-3, 208) of Karpat (Liiga).
The pecking order gets a little dicey after the big three since most NHL scouts believe there are several interchangeable players among the next 10 selections, leaving many to believe there may be a few more trades to be made.
The first round of the 2016 draft is Friday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports). Rounds 2-7 are Saturday (10 a.m. ET; NHLN, SN, TVA Sports 2).
Several non-Canadian born and raised players are in the running for spots No. 4 and No. 5. The list includes forwards Matthew Tkachuk (United States) of London in the Ontario Hockey League, Alexander Nylander (Sweden) of Mississauga (OHL), Logan Brown (United States) of Windsor (OHL) and Clayton Keller (United States) of USA Hockey's Under-18 National Team Development Program in the United States Hockey League.
Defensemen Jakob Chychrun (United States) of Sarnia (OHL), Olli Juolevi (Finland) of London (OHL), Charles McAvoy (United States) of Boston University (Hockey East) and Mikhail Sergachev (Russia) of Windsor (OHL) are also strong candidates.
Chychrun plays for Canada in international events, but was born and raised in Boca Raton, Fla. Nylander was born in Calgary, but grew up in Chicago and Washington and represents Sweden internationally.
"It's certainly going to be interesting to see when the first Canadian-born and raised player gets drafted," said NHL Director of Central Scouting Dan Marr. "I think these things go in cycles. I don't think it says anything. There's good players that come from everywhere. USA Hockey continues to grow. Europe has always brought good players. These things are a little cyclical."
Many expect forward Pierre-Luc Dubois of Cape Breton in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League to be the first Canadian-born and raised player selected. Dubois is from Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, Quebec, the same town where Tampa Bay Lightning left wing Jonathan Drouin was born and raised.
It remains to be seen if Dubois is chosen among the top five.
The last time a Canadian-born and raised player wasn't chosen among the top five was 1999, when Patrik Stefan (Czech Republic) went No. 1 to the Atlanta Thrashers, followed by Daniel and Henrik Sedin (Sweden) to the Vancouver Canucks, Pavel Brendl (Czech Republic) to the New York Rangers, and Tim Connolly (United States) to the New York Islanders.
"I think it's deep in the first round," said Dallas Stars director of amateur scouting Joe McDonnell. "No one does a bad job in scouting these players anymore; maybe 15 years ago you could target a player and expect him to be there but not anymore. This year, I think it could be a bang-bang-bang type situation where each team scout has a different order list of the same players."
The fact so many players are regarded as equals could set the stage for a trading bonanza during each day of the draft.
"There's going to be a lot of players left over from the first day that teams thought would be long gone and that might generate some trade action, which is fun," Marr said. "It's not deep at the tail end of the draft, maybe you'll see more 19 year olds and European players drafted. That's what I would anticipate. The last few years the number of 19-year-old players being drafted has risen and I'm sure that will continue."
Matthews, No. 1 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of international skaters, had 24 goals and 46 points in 36 games for Zurich in National League A, Switzerland's top pro league. He won the league's Rising Star award and was second in voting for most valuable player. He will represent Team North America in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.
Laine, No. 2 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of international players, had seven goals and 12 points at the 2016 IIHF World Championship and was named tournament MVP for Finland, which won the silver medal. He also was named MVP of the playoffs in Liiga after helping Tappara win the championship. He was added to Team Finland's roster for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.
"They're both going to be impact players," Marr said of Matthews and Laine. "They're probably going to be able to step in and have an influence on the teams drafting them; helping in the outcome of some games. They're both very special and highly skilled, and at the top end that's what you're looking for in the draft."
Puljujarvi, No. 3 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of international skaters, had 28 points in 50 games with Karpat and a tournament-best 17 points in seven games to help Finland win the gold medal at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship. His scoring total was one point shy of Jaromir Jagr's single-tournament record for an under-18 player set in 1990.
"Jesse's got that work ethic," Marr said. "He's got that attitude out there that he's not going to be denied on the play. He brings that same drive and determination, and he brings that same skill set where he can go out on the ice and influence the game at any point."
Among the promising defensemen, Chychrun (6-2, 200) is No. 4 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters, followed by No. 5 Juolevi (6-2, 188), No. 6 McAvoy (6-0, 199), and No. 8 Sergachev (6-2, 221).
"The defensemen in the top 10 of this draft class also have bright NHL futures ahead of them," Marr said. "All are excellent skaters and each play a certain style which makes it a very subjective exercise to differentiate them because they all are very good, and each possess certain skills and attributes which will allow them to bring value to an NHL club."
Tkachuk (6-1, 202), No. 2 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters, is the son of U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member Keith Tkachuk. He ranked second in the OHL with 77 assists and fifth with 107 points in 57 games.
Nylander (6-0, 178), ranked No. 3 on Central Scouting's final North American list, was named the 2016 OHL Rookie of the Year after leading Mississauga with 28 goals and 75 points in 57 games. He is the brother of Toronto Maple Leafs center William Nylander, and son of retired NHL player Michael Nylander.
The highest-ranked scholastic player is left wing Riley Tufte of Blaine (Minn.) High School. Tufte (6-5, 211), No. 17 on Central Scouting's final ranking, won the Mr. Hockey Award as the most outstanding senior boys scholastic hockey player in the state.
The top North American goalie is Evan Fitzpatrick (6-2, 203) of Sherbrooke (QMJHL). He went 18-26-8 with a 3.42 goals-against average, .896 save percentage and two shutouts in 54 games. Sweden goaltender Filip Gustavsson (6-1, 190) of Lulea Jr. in Sweden's junior league is No. 1 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of international goaltenders. He is projected to be the first goalie selected.