TORONTO - The cross-border rivalry between Buffalo and Toronto could soon feature a battle between American forces.
The Maple Leafs won the NHL Draft Lottery on Saturday night, giving them the right to select Auston Matthews with the No. 1 pick in June. The Arizona native has already been favorably compared to the Sabres' Jack Eichel, and the centers would have at least four face-to-face meetings every year to see who should be the next face of U.S. hockey.
While Matthews is the heavy favorite to go first, Leafs President Brendan Shanahan refused to commit. The top three draft-eligible prospects - Matthews and Finnish forwards Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi - are expected to make immediate impacts.
"We're going to pick the player that we think is best," Shanahan said in the headquarters of CBC television. "We have a good idea who that player is, but I think that's something that we'll discuss more as a group and sort of confirm some of the things we already think.
"I don't think there's any real need for us to reveal it now. I'll just say that our scouts were very pleased with tonight's result."
While the lottery meant the world to the last-place Leafs, it was essentially meaningless to the Sabres. The league's new lottery system, which featured drawings for the top three picks, failed to impact Buffalo. The team had a 39.2 percent chance of retaining its eighth overall pick, and it did because the three winners already were scheduled to draft ahead of Buffalo.
Winnipeg vaulted from sixth to second by winning the lottery for the No. 2 pick, while Columbus jumped from fourth to third.
"There's probably not a wrong decision in one, two or three," Winnipeg General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said. "We're just excited that we get an opportunity to make one of those."
Buffalo, meanwhile, will draft in the top eight for the fourth straight year. The organization added defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen with the No. 8 pick in 2013 and selected Sam Reinhart and Eichel with back-to-back No. 2 picks. The Ristolainen selection was the only other time the Sabres have drafted eighth.
The Sabres will host the draft June 24-25 in First Niagara Center.
"The one thing that everybody has said - and it's true - is that this is a very deep draft with a lot of very good players," Shanahan said. "A lot of teams are going to the draft in Buffalo this year that are going to get impact players for their hockey teams."
Ticket information for the draft has not been released, but Toronto fans will likely lunge at the chance to invade downtown. They make their presence known at Sabres home games, and chants of "Go, Leafs, Go" could echo through the arena and Cobblestone district during draft weekend.
"I think there will be a good presence of Leafs fans in Buffalo for sure," Shanahan said. "Quite honestly, our Leaf fans have been so supportive of what we set out and told them we were going to do. They showed up enthusiastically to all the games. They're very supportive whenever I see them on the street. They needed some good news.
"While there's still a lot of work to be done, this was some good news for them, and they deserved it. I hope they're out in the streets of Toronto right now just feeling a little bit better."
The lottery process finalized the top 14 picks. After Toronto, Winnipeg and Columbus open the selection show, Edmonton, Vancouver, Calgary, Arizona, Buffalo, Montreal, Colorado, New Jersey, Ottawa, Carolina and Boston will follow. The remainder of the round will be determined by the standings and playoff finishes.
Edmonton, Vancouver and Calgary felt the negative effects of the new lottery system. The Oilers, originally set to select second, fell to fourth. Vancouver also dropped two places, from third to fifth. Calgary fell one spot to sixth.
Buffalo was still in the running for the top pick when the four-ball lottery sequence reached its final ball. The Sabres needed No. 9 to appear, but instead the Leafs' No. 13 popped out of the machine.
"I wouldn't put too much pressure on any one player," Shanahan said. "This is not going to be a savior. That's not how the game is played these days. You need to have a full team. This is the beginning, but it's good news and well-welcomed news for the city of Toronto and our fans."
Matthews, who is in Europe preparing for the world championships with the U.S. national team, stayed up until the wee hours to watch the lottery. He grew up going to Coyotes games and hoped to see their logo revealed in the top spot.
"A lot of mixed emotions," Matthews said during the broadcast. "It's nice to have a little clarity. There's nothing set in stone, and we're still a bit away from the draft. Whatever happens, happens. It'll work out for itself."