As the 2016 NHL Draft approached, there were questions about how this class would be remembered. Unlike 2015, which featured talent and depth that you typically only see once in a decade, there was a little less certainty about just how great this group could be.
Now with five seasons under their belt, the top-ten picks of the 2016 NHL Draft have been able to show whether or not they will become the next faces of the league. So, how have these players developed their game so far?
The 2016 NHL Draft was held on June 24-25 at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, New York.
1. Auston Matthews – Toronto Maple Leafs
For the Toronto Maple Leafs, the 2015-16 season felt like a controlled burn. While they wouldn’t admit to openly tanking, the franchise was bad in what felt planned, selling off veteran players while calling upon their youth to start proving that they could be starters. This led Toronto to the leagues’ worst record in 2016, and eventually the first overall pick. As a team experiencing a deep rebuild, this pick was vital to their future success, as missing on a selection like this could set their rebuild back years.
After much debate, the Maple Leafs selected offensive phenom Auston Matthews in hopes that he could be one of the final pieces of their rebuild. After earning his spot on Toronto’s starting roster out of training camp, Matthews demolished all expectations by scoring four goals in his first NHL game.
Following this incredible effort, he just kept scoring, posting 40 goals and 69 points as a 19-year old, while winning the Calder Trophy in the process. Since his rookie season, Matthews has posted at least 30 goals 60 points and was on pace to break 50-goals scored in 2019-20 before the season was paused.
To put it simply, Matthews has been everything that the Maple Leafs could have hoped for in a top draft pick. He is a true game-breaking offensive talent that has helped reshape their line-up, and he will continue to be a fixture of the organization for years to come.
2. Patrik Laine – Winnipeg Jets
When it comes to raw offensive talent, few prospects at the 2016 Draft could match Patrik Laine and his deadly scoring ability. Playing against men in Finland, he still posted 17 goals and 33 points as a 17-year-old, making him look like a true can’t miss prospect.
This potential led the Winnipeg Jets to select Laine second-overall and immediately bring him onto their starting line-up for the 2016-17 season. Despite only being 18-years-old, he scored like a veteran, posting 36 goals and 64 points in his rookie season.
While on the ice, there was no doubt that Laine had special goal-scoring ability. In his first four seasons, he was on pace to break 30-goals scored and 50-points, a feat few players achieve so early in their careers. He also finished second in the goal-scoring race in 2017-18, posting 44 goals in 82 games.
Off the ice, however, there were rumblings that things weren’t perfect between Laine and Winnipeg. During the 2020 offseason, he requested a trade, which became a true blockbuster that sent himself and Jack Roslovic to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Pierre-Luc Dubois (who we will discuss shortly) and a 2022 third-round pick.
Since joining Columbus, things haven’t gone well for Laine. His scoring totals are far below his career averages, and he hassn’t found a rythm with the team. Given that he is a restricted free-agent this offseason, there will be many questions about whether or not the Blue Jackets will be able to re-sign him or if they will swing another trade to try and get some value out of this move.
Given his age and ability, though, there’s no reason to believe that Laine’s best years aren’t still in front of him. Should he continue to grow his game, he could be a true offensive force no matter which team he ends up playing for.
3. Pierre-Luc Dubois – Columbus Blue Jackets
At third overall, the Columbus Blue Jackets selected big-bodied forward Pierre-Luc Dubois, who was seen as one of the top North American skaters heading into the draft. While there were some questions about if there were better options still on the board for Columbus, as soon as Dubois made his debut for the team, he proved that he was something special on the ice.
In 2017-18, his rookie season, Dubois scored a solid 20 goals and 48 points. Where he made his mark on the team, though, was with his physical, defensive play. At 6-foot-3, he was that big-bodied forward that could bully his way around the ice, posting an impressive 127 hits along with a Corsi For Percent (CF%) above 55 and a Fenwick For Percent (FF%) near 57.
In four seasons with Columbus, this became the style of play Dubois was known for. He was that elite two-way player who could chip in 50 points, 100 hits, and steady defensive play each season.
While things were going well on-ice for Dubois, off it there was turmoil between him and the Blue Jackets. This led to an eventual trade request, which was granted when he was sent to the Jets in the blockbuster Laine deal.
Since joining the Jets, Dubois has continued to play well, adjusting his play to a different role with the team. He is still a dominant defensive forward, but his offense hasn’t bloomed with the franchise just yet. However, as a team ready to make a playoff run, Winnipeg will lean heavily on him throughout the 2021 postseason.
4. Jesse Puljujarvi – Edmonton Oilers
Heading into the draft, many saw Finnish forward Jesse Puljujarvi as, at minimum, the third-best player available. After a dominant performance at the World Junior Championships, where he was the top scorer, won MVP, and helped carry Team Finland to a Gold Medal, he saw his stock soar, with some arguing that he could become the first-overall pick.
While he didn’t make it that high on draft day, the Edmonton Oilers didn’t wait when they saw Puljujarvi slip to them at fourth-overall, selecting him to complement their already skilled core of young talent.
Believing they had an impact player, Edmonton brought Puljujarvi over to the NHL immediately, where he started in just 28 games while splitting some of the season with their AHL affiliate, the Bakersfield Condors. Through 2018-19, he continued splitting playing time with both the Oilers and Condors, never really managing to establish himself as a full-time starting forward.
Eventually, this led Puljujarvi to return home to Finland for the 2019-20 season, where he played for Karpat of Liiga, posting 24 goals and 53 points in 56 games. Regaining some confidence in his game, he returned to the NHL for the 2020-21 shortened season, where he has posted 15 points while taking on around 15 minutes of ice-time each night.
If he wasn’t selected so early on in the draft, these totals would be fine. As such a hyped offensive player on one of the most gifted offensive teams in the NHL, it is hard to not look at his career so far without some disappointment. There is still plenty of time for the young Finnish forward to blossom into a dominant player, though, and he is starting to find he was with the Oilers this season.
5. Olli Juolevi – Vancouver Canucks
As the first defenseman selected in 2016, the Vancouver Canucks had high hopes that Olli Juolevi was going to be a future stud on their blue line. At 6-foot-3, he had the size of a dominant NHL defender who also skated with skill and grace, giving him the toolkit of a complete all-around player.
Unfortunately for Juolevi and the Canucks, injury has slowed his career trajectory. After joining Vancouver’s AHL affiliate in 2018-19, he suffered an injury after just 18 that cost him the rest of the season. Following this, he struggled with a hip issue that kept him out of the lineup for most of the 2019-20 season.
Finally, in 2020-21, he made his regular-season debut for the Canucks, playing 15 games while posting one goal. While this hasn’t been a home run selection for Vancouver, Juolevi is still just 22-years-old, and if he can get healthy, he could still find a more permanent role with the franchise in the coming years.
6. Matthew Tkachuk – Calgary Flames
When you have the name Tkachuk, there is a certain expectation of the kind of player you will become. For Matthew Tkachuk, he has managed to live up to his father’s legacy as a tough-as-nails forward who is just as willing to get into a scrap on the ice as he is to contribute on the scoresheet.
Since being selected by the Calgary Flames, Tkachuk has left his mark on the franchise, playing in over 300 games and posting over 100 goals while laying down over 450 hits. To put it simply, he is the exact kind of player that you despise playing against, but love having on your side of the ice.
Barring a sudden shift in the franchise’s plans, Tkachuk will be a keystone player for Calgary to build around for years to come. He is that sort of power forward that you can spend years looking for, so to get him with the sixth-overall pick made this selection a perfect fit for the Flames.
7. Clayton Keller – Arizona Coyotes
As a team in need of high-end offensive talent, the Arizona Coyotes bet on Clayton Keller to become the new face of their offense when they selected him seventh-overall. As a gifted forward, he appeared to be the right player to take on this role.
It didn’t take long for Keller to make his impact on Arizona, either. As a rookie during the 2017-18 season, he scored 23 goals and 65 points, while earning a nomination for the 2018 Calder Trophy. After that incredible season, he followed it up with a more subdued 14 goal, 47 point campaign, which still led the team in scoring.
Despite this setback in production, the Coyotes wasted no time locking down Keller to a long-term deal. In Sept. 2019, they signed him to an eight-year, $57.2 million deal, making him one of the premier forwards for the franchise.
Since this signing, Keller has been a solid, if not underwhelming contributor for Arizona. He hasn’t played poorly by any means, but his offense hasn’t taken that next step either. He has leveled off around 15 goals and 40 points, which is not what the Coyotes had hoped for when he inked that extension. The good news, though, is he still is an incredibly talented forward who is growing his game. Given more time, he should become that dominant scorer in the desert.
8. Alexander Nylander – Buffalo Sabres
For the Buffalo Sabres, getting the chance to draft another top-10 prospect one year after they added Jack Eichel to their roster was an opportunity to set the tone of the franchise for years to come. If they nailed this pick, they could have a one-two punch down the middle that you build a championship contender around.
Looking to seize upon this opportunity, the Sabres selected Alexander Nylander, a Swiss-born forward and brother of William Nylander, who was named OHL rookie of the year in 2015-16, raising his pre-draft stock into the top ten. Despite having a toolkit that could dominate the league, he was expected to need some time to translate his game to the NHL.
Now, looking back at this pick, we can say that it was a bust for Buffalo. In three seasons with the franchise, he started in just 19 games, posting six points. While he saw some success in the AHL, it wasn’t nearly what was expected from a top-ten pick, leading to him being traded to the Chicago Blackhawks for defenseman Henri Jokiharju.
Since joining Chicago, Nylander has been okay, but not exceptional. In 2019-20, he posted 10 goals and 26 points in 65 games but has been forced to sit out the 2020-21 regular season due to a knee injury he suffered in the playoffs. So, while there is still a chance he could establish himself in the league, this will get hard and harder as he works through serious injury and back into consistent ice-time.
9. Mikhail Sergachev – Montreal Canadiens
For the Montreal Canadiens, Mikhail Sergachev will forever be a top-ten pick that they look back on and think… what could have been? It wasn’t that Sergachev failed to develop into a full-time NHL starter, but the fact that they chose to trade the young Russian defenseman to the Tampa Bay Lightning in a package for Jonathan Drouin.
In his first season with the Lightning, Sergachev scored nine goals and 40 points, the most for a rookie defenseman in franchise history. While he hasn’t quite reached those same scoring heights again, Sergachev has developed into one of Tampa Bay’s best young players.
Now in his fourth full season, Sergachev is exactly what Tampa Bay needs on their blue line. He can take on 20-plus minutes of ice-time each night while contributing to the scoresheet and playing a sound defensive game. As the Lightning continue to push for championships right now, he will factor into their future and be a key contributor to their success. Plus, he’s already etched his name onto the Stanley Cup, making him the only player to do so in the 2016 top-ten so far.
10. Tyson Jost – Colorado Avalanche
When you look at how the Colorado Avalanche built themselves into a Stanley Cup contender, one major factor was by making the most out of their top-ten picks when they had the opportunity. The franchise added superstar talent like Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon, and Mikko Rantanen through the draft, getting hit after hit after hit with their picks.
Despite finding so much outstanding talent this way, even the Avalanche aren’t perfect on draft day. This can be seen with their first pick of the 2016 draft, Tyson Jost, who was expected to become that next offensive star for the franchise. Instead, he has been just good, but also largely buried in their line-up. In five years with the Avalanche, he has scored just 35 goals and 84 points, while taking on a relatively small role with the franchise
While he still has high upside, it’s unlikely that he will ever find his game in Colorado. Given this, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Jost traded in the near future so he can get a fresh start with a new franchise.
2016 Top-Ten Featured Hits and Misses
As the 2016 top-ten picks continue to establish themselves in the NHL, this group has been a bit of a mixed bag. While some players still need time to grow into their game, others have become true stars. Given the class they had to follow up, this group has still been impressive so far.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.