Auston Matthews, the American-born center who took the unique route of playing in Switzerland during his draft season, is No. 1 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of international skaters for the 2016 NHL Draft.
Matthews, a 6-foot-1, 210-pound native of Scottsdale, Ariz., had 24 goals and 46 points in 36 games for Zurich in National League A, Switzerland's top professional league. He played against older, more experienced competition, some of whom had played in the NHL, and succeeded. Matthews was second in voting for league MVP.
"The expectations were that he would be able to play [in Switzerland] but I don't think the expectations were that he'd be able to impact the way he did," said Dan Marr, Director of NHL Central Scouting. "I think anyone who has followed his career was pleasantly surprised how he was able to go over there and handle himself and contribute the way he did."
Matthews also helped the United States win the bronze medal at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship, tying for the tournament lead with seven goals in seven games. He also tied for the U.S. lead with 11 points and was named to the tournament all-star team.
His goal total was one short of Jeremy Roenick's U.S. record set at the 1989 WJC.
"During the season [Matthews] improved most in plays without the puck, and his shooting is already high end," said Thomas Roost, who evaluates talent in Switzerland and Germany for NHL Central Scouting. "He is very strong on the puck and can shed off attacking defensemen, sometimes with ease. He comes out of the corners with the puck, creates options and is a good playmaker."
Matthews also intensified his physical game during the NLA playoffs, according to Roost.
"He managed his zone entries with unbelievable ease thanks to good skating and excellent puck management," Roost said.
Matthews remained No. 1 from the January midterm rankings, but there were changes in the players rated behind him.
The most notable change is right wing Patrik Laine, who plays for Tappara in Liiga, Finland's top pro league. He moved one spot ahead of right wing Jesse Puljujarvi of Karpat in Finland for No. 2 on the list.
"Laine has proven [in the second half of the season] that he is at his best in the big games," said Goran Stubb, NHL Central Scouting Director of European Scouting. "Puljujarvi has also played great but has not scored the big goals. Both are great, great players, sensational teenagers dominating the Finnish playoffs right now.
"Laine, at the present, is just a little bit better."
A 6-4, 206-pound forward, Laine had 17 goals, 33 points and 253 shots on goal in 46 games, and averaged 17:16 of ice time. He also tied Matthews for the WJC lead with seven goals to help Finland win the gold medal.
"Laine is a typical sniper with a very impressive one-timer; he came up big in big spots," Stubb said. "Puljujarvi is a hard worker all over the ice and an all-around player."
Puljujarvi (6-3, 203) also was part of Finland's gold-medal winning WJC team. He 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.
Puljujarvi had 13 goals, 28 points and 175 shots on goal while averaging 15:04 of ice time in 50 games with Karpat.
Stubb said there isn't much separating the top three international skaters.
"Any one of these three could go first," Stubb said. "Depending on if a team needs a complete center [Matthews], an excellent, hard-working forward [Puljujarvi] or a sniper who is also a playmaker [Laine]."
The last time three European skaters went among the top five picks at the draft was 2001 when Ilya Kovalchuk of Spartak in Russia went No. 1 to the Atlanta Thrashers, Alexander Svitov of Omsk in Russia went No. 3 to the Tampa Bay Lightning and Stanislav Chistov of Omsk went No. 5 to the Anaheim Ducks.
Rounding out the top five on Central Scouting's final ranking of international skaters are center Rasmus Asplund of Farjestad in the Swedish Hockey League, and center German Rubtsov of Russia's under-18 team in the top Russian minor league.
Asplund (5-11, 176) had four goals, 12 points and a plus-10 rating in 46 games for Farjestad. Rubtsov (6-2, 178) had 12 goals, 26 points, a plus-12 rating and 78 shots on goal in 28 games.
"Asplund is a finesse-type of player and Rubtsov is a hard-working all-around skater with an excellent set of tools," Stubb said. "Rubtsov might be the sleeper among the top players in this draft."
The No. 1 international goaltender is Filip Gustavsson of Lulea in Sweden's junior league. The 6-1, 184-pound left hander was 4-2-0 with a 2.17 goals-against average and .910 save percentage in six games.