There's a good chance three international prospects will be selected among the top five picks for the first time in 15 years when the 2016 NHL Draft is held June 24-25 at First Niagara Center in Buffalo.
Heading the list of exceptional talent playing in Europe this season is center Auston Matthews of Zurich in National League A, the top professional league in Switzerland. Matthews, 18, is No. 1 on NHL Central Scouting's midterm list of international skaters, released Tuesday.
Matthews, a native of Scottsdale, Ariz., opted to play this season for Zurich, where not only is he playing against older, more physically developed competition, he's coached by former NHL coach Marc Crawford.
The 6-foot-1, 210-pound left-shot center is second in National League A with a 1.23 points-per-game average. He has 19 goals, 32 points and a 21.11 shooting percentage in 26 games this season.
He also turned in a dominant performance to help the United States win the bronze medal at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship. In seven games he tied for the tournament lead with seven goals, his 11 points tied for the U.S. lead and he was named to the tournament all-star team. Matthews' seven goals were one shy of Jeremy Roenick's U.S. record of eight at the 1989 WJC.
"Matthews is the best prospect available for the 2016 draft," said Dan Marr, NHL Director of Central Scouting. "I don't believe his play and success this season has surprised NHL scouts, yet it remained to be seen if he would be able to meet the expectations. And to date he has shown the hockey world what he is all about.
"For an 18-year-old to immediately step into a professional league and lead a team is extraordinary. During the World Junior tournament it was impressive to note the continued growth and maturity of his game as he was able to lead the way and do what was needed at important times in the games."
Matthews could be the first American-born player selected No. 1 since Patrick Kane by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2007.
Washington Capitals assistant general manager Ross Mahoney said Matthews has bolstered his stock by playing against men in Switzerland this season.
"I think that's helped him as far as the strength and physical play," Mahoney said. "He was physical before. But when you're playing against men, some who have already played in the NHL, that can only make you better. He's had to move the puck quicker, he's had to make plays a little bit faster, and the strength is also a big thing. He showed that when he came back to play in the World Junior Championship against players in his age group that he was a little more dominant physically than he might have been if he hadn't been playing in Switzerland the previous three months."
Two outstanding Finnish forwards are ranked behind Matthews, Karpat right wing Jesse Puljujarvi and Tappara right wing Patrik Laine.
Puljujarvi (6-3, 203) was a major reason Finland won the WJC gold medal. He led the tournament with 17 points, the second-highest ever by an under-18 player at the WJC, one behind the 18 points Jaromir Jagr of Czechoslovakia had at the 1990 tournament. He was named the best forward and most valuable player of the tournament.
In 33 games with Karpat in Liiga, Finland's top professional league, he has five goals, 13 points and 96 shots on goal.
"He's big, mobile, skilled, an all-around winger who can score and pass," said Goran Stubb, NHL Director of European Scouting. "He's got excellent skating power, plays with determination, wins most battles. He plays with confidence and has all the tools needed to become a star, including the size, skill, speed and willpower."
Laine (6-4, 206) has eight goals, 17 points and 145 shots on goal in 25 games for Tappara. He tied Matthews for the WJC lead with seven goals also had 13 points for Finland.
"He has excellent puck skills, quick hands and an unbelievable one-timer," Stubb said. "He's a tough and aggressive competitor who likes and can deliver hard hits. He can shoot or find linemates with smooth, nice passes and is a very good mobile skater."
The last time the 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 Avangard Omsk in Russia went No. 3 to the Tampa Bay Lightning and Stanislav Chistov of Omsk in Russia went No. 5 to the Anaheim Ducks. The sixth player picked in 2001 was Mikko Koivu of TPS in Finland by the Minnesota Wild.
Rounding out the top five on NHL Central Scouting's midterm list of international skaters are center Rasmus Asplund of Farjestad in the Swedish Hockey League, and right wing Carl Grundstrom of Modo in the SHL.
Asplund (5-11, 176) had three goals and five points in seven games for Sweden at the WJC. He has three goals and 10 points in 27 games for Farjestad.
"He's a smart, effective two-way center," Stubb said. "He's not very big or strong but compensates his lack of size with smartness, mobility and excellent playmaking skills. He makes the play at top speed and handles the puck extremely well in traffic."
Grundstrom (6-foot, 194) had one goal on nine shots in seven games for Sweden at the WJC. He has three goals and eight points in 30 games for Modo.
"He's a power forward, a hard worker and excellent competitor," Stubb said. "He's stocky, strong and likes to play an aggressive style. He likes to get under the skin of the opposition and is a reliable two-way team player."