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NHL Draft

Top Draft prospects take batting practice

Finnish defenseman Juolevi impresses at Coca-Cola Field

by Adam Kimelman @NHLAdamK / Deputy Managing Editor

BUFFALO -- Forward Matthew Tkachuk watched defenseman Olli Juolevi all season as teammates with London of the Ontario Hockey League, but he might have been as impressed as ever by his performance Wednesday.

Juolevi and Tkachuk were joined by four other top prospects for the 2016 NHL Draft, Zurich center Auston Matthews, Tappara right wing Patrik Laine, Karpat right wing Jesse Puljujarvi and Cape Breton left wing Pierre-Luc Dubois, for batting practice prior to a Buffalo Bisons baseball game at Coca-Cola Field. The Bisons are the top minor-league affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays.

During his two rounds in the cage, Juolevi showed impressive power for a player who never had swung a baseball bat before Wednesday.

"I played Finnish baseball [pesapallo], but that's a whole different game," Juolevi said. "It was great, so much fun. Just like a once-in-a-lifetime chance because I'll never play [baseball professionally]."

Juolevi spent this season showing why his future will be in the NHL. He helped London win the Memorial Cup and Finland win the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship. He's No. 5 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters for the 2016 draft.

Video: RAW | Matthews at Batting Practice

"Surprisingly he did very, very well," Tkachuk said of Juolevi's batting session. "I know the Finns don't get a lot of practice over there. Olli, maybe being in North America for a whole season, he might have watched a little bit of baseball. He made a lot of good contact. He was going the other way with it. That's something that you can't teach.

"He made contact, but he went pretty deep on a couple of them. Pretty impressive. He doesn't weigh a whole lot, but for his size (6-foot-2, 188 pounds) he let a couple go."

Matthews also was impressed by Juolevi.

"He almost nailed the batting practice coach six times," Matthews said. "So I'd say he had the best round up there."

Juolevi had a simple explanation for his success Wednesday: "First-time luck. That's the best thing you can have."

None of the six hockey players cleared the fence at Coca-Cola Field (it's 325 feet down the lines, 367 to right-center field, 371 to left-center field and 404 to center field), but Tkachuk and Matthews hit balls near the warning track.

"Matthews you could tell played," said Bisons hitting coach Richie Hebner, who pitched to the prospects. "The [Finnish] kids, I don't think they've had a bat in their hands. But they had fun. … You could tell [Matthews] played. He's from Arizona. He hit some balls good."

Video: Top Prospects Take Batting Practice

Matthews was a catcher and first baseman in between hockey games growing up in Arizona. His father, Brian, played baseball until an arm injury in college ended his career.

Matthews said it's been a while since he swung a bat, so father had some advice for son Wednesday.

"He was bugging me," Matthews said. "All the stuff he used to tell me when I was growing up, he texted me. … Just hands back and whatever, stuff like that. Baseball stuff. Haven't heard it in a while. He said enjoy it."

Tkachuk enjoyed the day; he was finally able to get away from hockey. He's been going basically from the end of July when he attended USA Hockey's summer national junior evaluation camp, all the way through the Memorial Cup, when he scored in overtime in the championship game May 29. Then he had the NHL Scouting Combine in Buffalo, a trip to San Jose to watch Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final, and now he's back in Buffalo waiting for his name to be called at the draft.

The draft will be held at First Niagara Center on June 24-25. The first round is Friday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports); rounds 2-7 are Saturday (10 a.m. ET; NHLN, SN, TVA Sports 2).

"It's awesome," Tkachuk said. "Takes your mind off the serious stuff happening. When I was hitting in the batting cages, I wasn't thinking about what's happening Friday. That's why they have these things; to enjoy as much as you can away from the draft."

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