Although the 2016 NHL draft class might not feature the same amount of star power as last year, when Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel made their arrivals, it's still a strong group. Auston Matthews leads a headline trio that also includes Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi.
One area where this draft may hold the edge over last year is first-round depth. Teams should be able to land a high-quality prospect into the middle of the opening round. Last year, things started to drop off a bit after the first seven or eight selections.
With that in mind, let's check out a mock draft for Round 1 based on how things currently shape up, with the draft lottery still on the horizon. That's followed by a closer look at the top three selections.
1st-Round Mock Draft
|2016 NHL Draft: Round 1 Mock|
|1||Toronto Maple Leafs||Auston Matthews, C, Zurich (NLA)|
|2||Edmonton Oilers||Patrik Laine, RW, Tappara Tampere (SML)|
|3||Vancouver Canucks||Jesse Puljujarvi, RW, Karpat (SML)|
|4||Columbus Blue Jackets||Matthew Tkachuk, LW, London (OHL)|
|5||Calgary Flames||Alexander Nylander, LW, Mississauga (OHL)|
|6||Winnipeg Jets||Jacob Chychrun, D, Sarnia (OHL)|
|7||Arizona Coyotes||Pierre-Luc Dubois, C, Cape Breton (QMJHL)|
|8||Buffalo Sabres||Olli Juolevi, D, London (OHL)|
|9||Montreal Canadiens||Julien Gauthier, RW, Val-d'Or (QMJHL)|
|10||New Jersey Devils||Dante Fabbro, D, Penticton (BCHL)|
|11||Colorado Avalanche||Tyson Jost, C, Penticton (BCHL)|
|12||Ottawa Senators||Jake Bean, D, Calgary Hitmen (WHL)|
|13||Carolina Hurricanes||Michael McLeod , C, Mississauga (OHL)|
|14||Minnesota Wild||Clayton Keller, C, U.S. Under-18|
|15||Boston Bruins||Mikhail Sergachev, D, Windsor (OHL)|
|16||Detroit Red Wings||German Rubtsov, C, Vityaz Podolsk (RUS)|
|17||Philadelphia Flyers||Charles McAvoy, D, U.S. Under-18|
|18||Nashville Predators||Keiffer Bellows, C, Sioux Falls (USHL)|
|19||Boston Bruins (from SJ)||Riley Tufte, LW, Fargo (USHL)|
|20||Tampa Bay Lightning||Alex DeBrincat, RW, Erie (OHL)|
|21||Anaheim Ducks||Luke Kunin, C, Wisconsin (NCAA)|
|22||New York Islanders||Max Jones, LW, London (OHL)|
|23||Arizona Coyotes (from NYR)||Carl Grundstrom , LW, Modo (SHL)|
|24||Carolina Hurricanes (from LA)||Markus Niemelainen, D, Saginaw (OHL)|
|25||Florida Panthers||Logan Brown, C, Windsor (OHL)|
|26||Winnipeg Jets (from CHI)||Samuel Girard, D, Shawinigan (QMJHL)|
|27||Toronto Maple Leafs (from PIT)||Carter Hart , G, Everett (WHL)|
|28||St. Louis Blues||Libor Hajek, D, Saskatoon (WHL)|
|29||Dallas Stars||Will Bitten, C, Flint (OHL)|
|30||Washington Capitals||Rasmus Asplund, C, Farjestad BK (SWE)|
Breaking Down Top Picks
1. Toronto Maple Leafs: Auston Matthews, C, Zurich
Matthews is a top-flight prospect with all the tools to become a franchise player. He's also versatile, possessing the playmaking ability and hockey sense to play center or the size and powerful shot necessary to become a goal-scoring winger.
The Arizona native decided to test himself by playing pro hockey in Switzerland during his draft year rather than going the traditional junior or college route. He told Sam Borden of the New York Times that playing against older opponents simply felt like the right move.
"I have nothing against college hockey or junior hockey," Matthews said. "They produce tons and tons of really great players. But to have this opportunity—to live over here, to play in this league—it just seemed right."
He never looked out of place despite going up against players with more experience who were often bigger and stronger, as well. He tallied 46 points (24 goals and 22 assists) in 36 games and became a more well-rounded player as the season wore on.
Ultimately, both Laine and Puljujarvi made charges toward the top spot over the past year, but all signs point to Matthews holding them off and coming off the board first. He's a game-changing talent capable of making an instant impact next season.
That's exactly what the Leafs need. They have begun the process of retooling their roster, but the search for a franchise cornerstone to jump-start a new era continues. Winning the lottery and landing Matthews would eliminate the most important remaining aspect of the rebuild.
2. Edmonton Oilers: Patrik Laine, RW, Tappara Tampere
Laine is already a physically imposing presence with a nose for the net. His line with Puljujarvi and Sebastian Aho at the World Junior Championships was borderline unstoppable at times, not to mention being the main reason Finland won the gold medal.
What sets him apart from the rest of the class, and gives him the slight edge in the race for No. 2 with his fellow Finnish rising star, is his shot. He's going to arrive to the NHL with an absolute laser, as highlighted by Scott Wheeler of FC Hockey:
Most prospects reach the NHL while still working to develop their shot. Sam Reinhart of the Buffalo Sabres, who's taken a big step forward this season, is a perfect example. But it appears that's a hurdle Laine has already made the jump.
The only real question is whether he'll ever become a good enough skater to put up high-end offensive numbers. But all the other tools are there, and he should be capable of handling a top-six role pretty quickly upon arriving to the league.
Although the Oilers have shown landing a constant stream of top-five forwards in the draft doesn't guarantee success, there isn't a defenseman or goaltender worth taking ahead of Laine. So if they get a top-three pick, a player such as Nail Yakupov could be traded for a blueliner instead.
3. Vancouver Canucks: Jesse Puljujarvi, RW, Karpat
Puljujarvi is right there with Laine in terms of overall talent, so it ultimately could come down to what a team is looking for in a prospect. He's a more polished skater than his Finnish counterpart but is still discovering his scoring touch around the net.
He moves around the ice well, both in terms of quickness and acceleration. That said, his stride combined with the fact he hasn't filled out his frame quite yet make for a unique look. Zachary DeVine of Hockey Prophets commented on the prospect's skating:
While he's battled some inconsistency in terms of offensive production, the World Junior Championships showed how good he can be when everything is clicking. He led the tournament with 17 points in just seven game en route to the championship.
Expectations should be kept within reason once he makes his debut because the lack of natural scoring prowess could limit his production as a rookie. Eventually, everything is going to click, however, and he'll emerge as a terrific top-six winger.
Should he land with the Canucks, it will be intriguing to see if the team immediately places him on a line with Daniel and Henrik Sedin. He may not be fully prepared for that type of role, but Vancouver isn't ready to contend, leaving less downside, and it would likely accelerate his development.