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Lady Luck smiles on the Leafs

by Adam Proteau / Toronto Maple Leafs

Lady luck and the NHL’s lottery process smiled on the Maple Leafs Saturday night, and as a result, Toronto will have the first overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft – their first No. 1 pick in more than three decades.

“We earned this the hard way,” Leafs president Brendan Shanahan said – referring to the Buds’ struggles and rebuild this past season – after the lottery results were revealed early Saturday evening. “When you have an opportunity to pick first overall, it’s an important moment for the Toronto Maple Leafs. It's an important moment for our fans and our ownership group, who have given us the support to do this build the right way.”

The Leafs entered the evening with the best odds at winning the lottery, but even then, they had only a 20 percent shot at locking in the right number combination. However, good fortune rewarded them in a highly emotional reveal on Rogers Sportsnet, one Shanahan admitted was nerve-wracking to be a part of. But Shanahan wasn’t about to label whomever the team picks at No. 1 as the player who singlehandedly wins Toronto a Stanley Cup.

“I wouldn’t put too much pressure on any one player,” Shanahan said. “This is a team game, we play a team style, the more players you can get of a high calibre, obviously, that’s a good thing. But we also recognize that, at this stage, whoever’s coming in here is going to be a young person, a rookie, and not going to have the weight of the world thrust on their shoulders. (They’re) not going to be a saviour. That’s not the way the game is played these days. You need to have a whole team.”

The draft order essentially played out as the odds dictated, with one notable exception in the Winnipeg Jets, who jumped from the sixth-best odds to win the second overall pick. (All of the first three picks were decided by separate lotteries.) But with Winnipeg GM Kevin Cheveldayoff beside him awaiting the final word, Shanahan broke out in a beaming smile when Toronto’s logo appeared as the winner of the first pick.

With the draft order settled, attention will turn to the prospects available – in Toronto’s case, all of them – in the draft, which will be staged June 24-25 in Buffalo, N.Y.. American-born centre Auston Matthews, who played in Switzerland’s top professional mens league as an 18-year-old in 2015-16 and amassed 24 goals and 46 points in 36 regular-season games, is the consensus No. 1 selection – and although Shanahan wouldn’t confirm which youngster will be pulling a Leafs jersey over his head, it’s safe to say Matthews is in the conversation.

Also in the mix for top spot at the draft are Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi, two highly-regarded young Finnish forwards who made a sizeable impact in the Finnish elite league. The 18-year-old Laine finished the regular season with 17 goals and 33 points in 46 games with Tappara, while the 17-year-old Puljujarvi had 13 goals and 28 points in 50 games for Karpat. Any one of Matthews, Laine and Puljujarvi will be able to help a young team evolve into a Stanley Cup contender, which is why Shanahan, Cheveldayoff and Columbus Blue Jackets president John Davidson were elated to be picking first, second and third respectively.

The top pick will be the first for the Leafs franchise since Toronto selected Wendel Clark in the 1985 draft. Clark went on to become one of the most iconic players in the organization’s history, and whomever Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello chooses in a couple months will have major expectations that come along with being the first overall selection.

But that type of talk is for another day. On a beautiful spring Saturday night in Toronto, it was enough – more than enough – for Leafs fans to bask in the glow of good luck, and the promise of better days ahead.

“This is a beginning, but it’s good news and welcome news for the city of Toronto and our fans,” Shanahan said. “Our Leaf fans have been so supportive of what we’ve set out and told them we were going to do. They showed up enthusiastically to all the games, they were very supportive whenever I see them on the street. They needed some good news. And while, like I said, there’s still a lot of work to be done, this was some good news for them. They deserve it. I hope they’re out in the streets of Toronto right now, feeling just a little bit better.”

Here is the current first round draft order for the 2016 NHL Draft:

1. Toronto Maple Leafs

2. Winnipeg Jets

3. Columbus Blue Jackets

4. Edmonton Oilers

5. Vancouver Canucks

6. Calgary Flames

7. Arizona Coyotes

8. Buffalo Sabres

9. Montreal Canadiens

10. Colorado Avalanche

11. New Jersey Devils

12. Ottawa Senators

13. Carolina Hurricanes

14. Boston Bruins

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