(Reuters) – The long-suffering Toronto Maple Leafs selected American center Auston Matthews with the first overall pick in the 2016 National Hockey League Entry Draft in Buffalo on Friday.
The 18-year-old native of Scottsdale, Arizona was a dominant force in Switzerland’s top professional league last season and was Team USA’s best player at the world championships in May.
Matthews offers speed, strength, excellent hockey sense, a quick and accurate shot and improving defensive play, and is widely expected to have an instant impact on a Toronto team that have not won a Stanley Cup since 1967.
“I do feel Matthews is a No. 1 center with a reliable two-way game,” Thomas Roost, who evaluates prospects in Switzerland and Germany for NHL Central Scouting, told nhl.com. “He’ll probably score 30 to 35 goals in his best years.”
The 6-foot 2-inch center played on the Zurich Lions’ first line last season and finished 10th in league scoring with 24 goals and 22 assists in 36 games.
He also had nine points in 10 games while playing for a weak U.S. team at the world championships that lost in the bronze medal game.
Following the selection of Matthews, European players dominated the early picks.
Finnish goal-scoring winger Patrik Laine, 18, was drafted second overall by the Winnipeg Jets, with Canadian left-winger Pierre-Luc Dubois taken third by the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Laine, who has great offensive instincts and a nose for the net, is expected to make an immediate difference for the Canadian team that has a slew of quality young NHL players and an impressive prospect pipeline that is reaching a boil.
A large, powerful forward who likes to score, Laine models his playing style after his favorite NHL player, Russian scoring sensation Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals.
He impressed at last month’s world championships in Russia when he tied the tournament high by scoring seven goals for a Finland team that won the silver medal.
Laine was named the Most Valuable Player, best forward and tournament All-Star at the world championships, and also led Tappara to their league championship.
Going fourth to the Edmonton Oilers was 18-year-old Swede Jesse Puljujarvi, a big hard-shooting, strong-skating winger.
The Vancouver Canucks rounded out the top five selections by taking another player from Finland, defenseman Olli Juolevi.
(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Larry Fine/John O’Brien)