All of the hype leading up to this year's World Juniors tournament is surrounding the battle between the expected #1 and #2 picks in this year's NHL Draft: Canada's Connor McDavid and Team USA's Jack Eichel. And deservedly so. Age is the only reason both players are not in the NHL right now. But this tournament is also shaping up to be a coming out party for American forward Auston Matthews, one of the favorites to go first overall in the NHL Draft the year after this one.
Matthews has had an incredible first half of the season with the United States National Team Development Program's U18 squad. He's scored 49 points in 27 games this season, including 11 points in seven games against NCAA Division I competition. His 1.57 points per game in D-1 would put him second in the nation behind only Jack Eichel for best scoring average in the country. Matthews has drawn comparisons to Eichel in terms of talent, and some, myself included, think he could end up being an even better prospect than Eichel when all is said and done. It's rare to have such special talents come along in back-to-back years, but Eichel's success has helped carve an example for Matthews.
"I think he's definitely a really good player to look up to," said Matthews. "I had the opportunity to play with him for a little bit last year, and just kind of see the stuff he does: his work ethic and his skillset. He can do everything on the ice as fast as possible. He's a player I look up to a lot because he's an American and he's so highly-touted for the upcoming draft."
It was last year's World Juniors tournament, when Eichel was one of the top US forwards at the tournament, that Eichel really made a name for himself as one of the top prospects in the world. This year, Matthews will have the same opportunity at the World Juniors to really establish himself as a superstar-in-the-making.
So what makes Matthews such a special player? I took a closer look at Matthews on November 21st, when the NTDP U18s took on the University of Minnesota, at the time ranked fourth in the country in an exhibition game at Minnesota's Mariucci Arena. The U18 squad won 5-4 in overtime and it was a banner night for Matthews. He scored two goals, including the overtime winner, added an assist, and took a game-high 10 shots on goal.
If anything, Matthews was more impressive than the numbers suggest on that night. He was electric nearly every time he touched the puck, creating scoring chance after chance .
Matthews is a strong, powerful skater with excellent foot speed. He's very difficult to defend one-on-one because he does an excellent job of changing speeds while on the rush, making it very difficult for the opposing defenseman to maintain a proper gap. Twice in the game, he baited a defenseman on a one-on-one rush by feigning like he go to the outside before hitting him with a burst of speed to the inside and beating him cleanly for a great scoring chance.
He's also an excellent puck-handler. It's like the puck is connected to his stick by a magnet. He's not quite as strong on his stick as Jack Eichel is with the puck, but he can be a little more creative with the puck, and his combination of strength and quickness allowed him win nearly every 50/50 puck battle. He was also exceptional in the face-off circle, winning 13 draws against 7 losses for a 65% face-off percentage.
Matthews showed off deadly finishing ability against the Gophers as well. His first goal came on a nice forehand-to-backhand move and he roofed a backhander over the Minnesota goalie. His second goal, in overtime, came on a rush up the right side of the ice where he beat the goalie over his glove with a wicked wrist shot.
He also added an assist on a third period goal, and while he didn't show up on the scoresheet on the NTDP's late game-tying goal, teammate Matthew Tkachuk credited Matthews for driving hard to the net without the puck, drawing the opposition's defensemen towards the net, and clearing a passing lane for Tkachuk to receive a pass and get a clear shot on goal.
Put simply, Matthews is one of the most exciting offensive prospects the US has produced in recent memory. He has the potential to make the same type of impact as a 17-year-old at the World Juniors that Jack Eichel did last year, or Phil Kessel did nine years ago, and solidify himself as the top prospect for the 2016 NHL Draft.