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NHL Draft

Potential top three draft picks have work to do

Matthews, Laine, Puljujarvi say they must improve to play in NHL next season

by Adam Kimelman @NHLAdamK / Deputy Managing Editor

BUFFALO -- Jesse Puljujarvi didn't hesitate when asked if he could play in the NHL next season.

"Of course I'm ready," Puljujarvi, a 6-foot-3, 203-pound right wing with Karpat in Liiga, Finland's top professional league, said Friday at the NHL Scouting Combine. "I'm a good skater and I'm a good player and I'm ready to play."

Puljujarvi, the No. 3 player on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of international skaters for the 2016 NHL Draft, isn't the only top prospect with NHL aspirations for next season. But Puljujarvi, who could be picked in the top three when the draft is held at First Niagara Center in Buffalo on June 24-25, has the game to match that confidence.

He 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.

"Jesse's got that work ethic," NHL Director of Central Scouting Dan Marr said. "He's got that attitude out there that he's not going to be denied on the play. He's a pretty complete player as well. But he's also got a good scoring touch. The thing you like about Jesse is you get the same game every time you see him 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."

Marr said Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine, expected to be the first two picks in the draft, also have that same ability to influence games upon entering the League.

"They're both going to be impact players," Marr said. "... Auston Matthews is pretty much a complete package. Can play any situation. He's got all the intangibles, all the skills and assets. Patrik Laine is a little bit more of a power forward scoring machine. He can score from almost anywhere. So you're getting more of a Brett Hull-type scorer with him."

Matthews, a 6-1, 210-pound center, played for Zurich in National League A, Switzerland's top league. He was runner-up in voting for the league's most valuable player award, and he led the United States in with six goals in 10 games at the 2016 IIHF World Championship.

He's expected to be selected by the Toronto Maple Leafs with the No. 1 pick, but said there are areas of his game he feels he needs to improve to make sure he's in the NHL next season.

"Just positioning without the puck, making sure defensively you're in the right position and right spots," he said. "When you go against the Sidney Crosbys, the Jonathan Toews, the Patrick Kanes, they're the type of payers that if you're off by a foot they're going to make you pay for it."

Matthews said the World Championship was a good test run for what he'll likely be facing next season.

"It was huge, just going against Canada, Russia, Finland," he said. "They're stocked with a lot of high-quality NHL players. You can go up against those guys and really compete, and I felt I held my own pretty well. Definitely gives you a lot of confidence."

Laine, a 6-4, 206-pound right wing, also excelled at the World Championship. He tied for the tournament lead with seven goals in 10 games, helped Finland win the silver medal and was named the tournament's best forward and most valuable player. That came after he won the Jari Kurri Award as MVP of the Liiga playoffs for his performance in helping Tappara win the championship.

Laine said with a strong summer of training he's confident he can play in the NHL next season.

"I have to get more power in my legs and everywhere in my body and get some more explosiveness and [quicker] reactions," he said. "I think if I improve those things I'll make it. I need to be more explosive if I want to play in the NHL and more [quicker] reactions because there's smaller ice so I think those are the most important things."

Explosiveness and first-step quickness is something Pierre-Luc Dubois, a 6-2, 201-pound forward with Cape Breton of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and Central Scouting's top-rated North American skater, will look to focus on this summer.

"I'm good on puck protection on the wall," he said, "so if I can get faster getting out of the corners, that would be good."

Dubois had 42 goals and 99 points in 62 games in 2015-16, moving from the wing to center. Scouts also were impressed by his defensive awareness.

"It's such a complete game," Central Scouting's David Gregory said. "He has the size and strength to be really tough to control and defend, but he can use that to defend as well. And you put that with the elite skater he is and the puck skills and the hockey sense, he's just a complete package to me."

Matthew Tkachuk had more time than most prospects to showcase his skills. The left wing with London of the Ontario Hockey League, Central Scouting's No. 2-ranked North American skater, had 30 goals and 107 points in 57 regular-season games, and in four games at the Memorial Cup he scored five goals, the last one in overtime in the championship game.

Marr said Tkachuk, the son of former NHL player Keith Tkachuk, is a candidate to be a top-five pick at the draft. But no matter where he's selected, Tkachuk said he knows what he has to do to earn an NHL job in 2016-17.

"If that's going to happen, I'm going to need the biggest summer ever and dedicating the summer to getting more explosive and trying to get those first three steps and getting faster and stronger because the NHL is a fast League and I need to get fast if I want to play in it," he said.

Forward Alexander Nylander (6-foot, 180) of Mississauga in the OHL, No. 3 on Central Scouting's ranking of North American skaters, said his goal is to join his brother, Toronto Maple Leafs forward William Nylander, in the NHL next season.

"I think I'm going to do everything this summer to get as prepared as possible for the NHL next year," he said. "I need to improve all areas of my game. I'm trying to get better at everything."

Three players picked in the first round of the 2015 draft played more than 10 games in the NHL last season: centers Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers (No. 1) and Jack Eichel of the Buffalo Sabres (No. 2) and defenseman Noah Hanifin of the Carolina Hurricanes (No. 5).

The players in the 2016 draft class will put in the work now to try to exceed that number.

"I don't normally like to go there with that because I don't know if it's a league for 18-year-olds," Marr said. "If they're good enough to make the team out of training camp then they're good enough. Every year there seems to be four or five players that fit that category. Not necessarily the first four or five players drafted. We'll see in September."

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