How valuable would it be to have a top-three pick in the 2016 NHL Draft at First Niagara Center in Buffalo?
"It would be huge," said Paul Castron, New Jersey Devils director of amateur scouting. "Anyone that was able to bump up into one of those top three picks should be excited and would definitely be getting a player with star potential."
Castron, of course, has the mindset of every other NHL scout when discussion shifts to the top of this year's draft class. After center Auston Matthews of Zurich in Switzerland, right wing Patrik Laine of Tappara in Finland and right wing Jesse Puljujarvi of Karpat of Finland, there are many solid but interchangeable blue chip prospects for the taking on the draft board.
The Devils are one of 14 teams hoping for an opportunity to move into the top three when the results of the 2016 NHL Draft Lottery are announced from Toronto on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports). The lottery this year will assign the first three picks of the draft via three separate drawings.
Castron is in his first season as director of amateur scouting for the Devils after spending the previous 16 seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets, including the last nine as scouting director.
The Devils have never selected first in the draft, but did win the lottery under a different set of rules to jump four spots to No. 4 in the 2011 draft and select defenseman Adam Larsson. They have a three percent chance at winning this year's drawing for the No. 1 pick.
Anyone that was able to bump up into one of those top three picks should be excited and would definitely be getting a player with star potential. - Paul Castron
"The general consensus is that because Matthews is a center, he's probably considered the choice among the three," Castron said. "But when I watch Laine, it's like watching a 6-foot-4 Brett Hull with the way he shoots the puck. I'm not saying Laine is going to score 700-plus goals as Brett did in the NHL, but he's something pretty special so, to me, Matthews and Laine are No. 1 and No. 1A.
"Watching Puljujarvi play for Finland at the World Under-18 Championship in North Dakota last week was like watching a man playing with boys, really."
Matthews will next play for the United States at the 2016 IIHF World Championship scheduled May 6-22 in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia. Laine and Puljujarvi could each be asked to play for Finland when that roster is finalized Sunday.
"That would be pretty good if they're all out on the ice all at once and can battle it out against men and maybe have everyone rethink their order one more time," Castron said.
Laine and Puljujarvi each won a gold medal for Finland as linemates at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship in January. Matthews won a bronze medal for the United States at the WJC.
Matthews (6-foot-1, 210 pounds) tied for the tournament lead with seven goals in seven games. He tied for the U.S. lead with 11 points and was named to the tournament's All-Star Team. His goal total was one short of Jeremy Roenick's U.S. record set at the 1989 WJC.
Laine (6-4, 206) tied Matthews for the WJC lead with seven goals, and Puljujarvi (6-3, 203) led the tournament with 17 points and was named the best forward and most valuable player of the tournament. His point total was the second-highest by an under-18 player at a WJC. Jaromir Jagr of Czechoslovakia had 18 points at the 1990 tournament.
After the three drawings, the 11 remaining teams will be assigned draft spots No. 4 through No. 14 in inverse order of regular-season points. Castron believes this year's draft class is deeper than maybe some might want you to believe.
"If you take away Connor McDavid, this year's draft is as good or maybe even better than last year when you begin ranking the top 15 players," Castron said. "There are some dynamic players in this class, even where we're sitting at No. 11 in the order. I'm pretty excited about who we might get."
Castron also feels that beside the usual suspects at forward, including Pierre-Luc Dubois of Cape Breton, Matthew Tkachuk of London, Alexander Nylander of Mississauga, Julien Gauthier of Val-d'Or and Clayton Keller of USA Hockey's Under-18 National Team Development Program, there are quite a few defensemen who might be selected in the top half of the first round.
"I do think it's tilted toward the forward position but defensemen Mikhail Sergachev [of Windsor], Jakob Chychrun [of Sarnia], Olli Juolevi [of London] and Jake Bean [of Brandon] are probably the defensemen who everyone has in some sort of preferred order," Castron said. "Any one of these guys could go at any point and once the first one it taken, there could be a run."