BUFFALO, N.Y. — First, Canada's seven NHL teams were shut out of playoffs. Now, the nation's prospects are taking a backseat in a draft class top-heavy with international talent.
"I think it's going to be a curious side note as to when the first Canadian will actually be taken in the draft," NHL Central Scouting director Dan Marr said at the weeklong pre-draft rookie combine that closed in Buffalo on Saturday. "But I think these things do go in cycles so I don't think it says anything. There's just good players that come from everywhere."
Step aside, Saskatchewan. Hello, Scottsdale, of all places.
Two of the top-five-ranked prospects — Auston Matthews, who is projected to go first, and Matthew Tkachuk — are from the Arizona city. Another two are Finnish-born forwards, Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi.
Rounding out the list is Quebec-born Pierre-Luc Dubois for the draft, which will be held in Buffalo on June 24-25.
"That's hockey right now," Dubois said. "It's really fun to see these places that we wouldn't expect guys to be drafted in the first round. They're coming."
Matthews has an opportunity to become the first U.S.-born player selected first overall since 2007, when Chicago selected Patrick Kane. Should the Toronto Maple Leafs, who have the top pick, select Laine, he would become the first Finnish-born player to go No. 1.
Whether it's Matthews or Laine, it would mark just the second time in nine years a Canadian wasn't selected first.
Canada has produced five or more top-10 selections in nine of the past 11 drafts. Last year's draft was a significant exception, when just three Canadians were among the top-10 selections. The United States had three, with four others from Europe.
No one is suggesting Canada is losing its grip as the world's top hockey power.
"I think Canada is just fine," New Jersey Devils general manager Ray Shero said. "There'll be plenty of good Canadians in this draft."
And yet, the international makeup of this year's top prospects is a reflection that other nations are catching up.
"It's great news for American hockey, and the depth of American hockey," Shero said. He credits the impact NHL expansion into Arizona, California and Florida has had in attracting more youngsters.
That's reflected in the various hometowns listed by other top American prospects. Jakob Chychrun, the top-ranked
Tkachuk got into hockey naturally, and was born in Arizona while his father, Keith, played for the Coyotes.
Matthews, by comparison, turned to hockey at a young age and eventually gave up playing baseball.
"I was always really hockey first. I'd always miss baseball games or practices for hockey," Matthews said.
Finland has enjoyed a transformation since 2009, when its hockey federation began committing more resources to youth player development and hiring full-time coaches.
"That was the start of something good," Finnish-born Columbus general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. "That's definitely paid some dividends with medals and some of the individuals we're developing right now."
Finland has won bronze medals in each of the past two Winter Games. The nation won the 2011 world championships, and finished second in 2014 and '16. And Finland's world junior team in January won its second title in three years.
Ranked 12th among North American prospects, forward Michael McLeod is the top player listed from Canada's most populated province of Ontario.
McLeod is surprised by the number of non-Canadians ranked ahead of him.
"You don't really notice the talent outside of Canada until this year," McLeod said, before specifically noting the two players from Scottsdale. "Not really sure how much hockey they play out there, but it's obviously a growing game."
NOTES: Laine hurt his left knee during a workout on Friday, and was limited to taking part in upper body portions of the testing process on Saturday. ... Next stop for Matthews, Laine, Tkachuk, Dubois and Alex Nylander is