Jack Eichel will be front and center for Team USA at the World Junior Championship, but another big, talented pivot is right behind him. Meet Arizona’s best hockey player and the early leader to go first overall in 2016.
Team USA has won two of the past five world junior championships and based on the talent available to the team, another title soon wouldn’t be surprising. Part of the challenge will be replenishing the roster when the top recruits join the NHL early and it seems like a foregone conclusion that Jack Eichel will be in The Show next season, rather than chasing gold in Finland. Luckily for America, Auston Matthews isn’t eligible for the NHL draft until 2016 – and he may be just as good as Eichel.
Matthews plays for the same National Team Development Program that honed Eichel’s skills before the 2015 prospect headed to Boston University. Both players have admirable hockey frames at 6-foot-2 and 194 pounds. Both dominate as centers and both are late birthdays, meaning they will be some of the most mature prospects of their draft class because they missed the cut-off date for the previous draft by small margins.
Eichel has rightly been touted as one of the most exciting American prospects in history, but Matthews is no slouch. In fact, the younger phenom is on pace to put up more points than Eichel did when he was with the NTDP last year. Matthews has 49 points in 27 games (1.81 points per game), while Eichel posted 87 in 53 appearances (1.64). So with a spot at Team USA’s world junior camp on the line, Matthews is probably someone you need to know about now.
“He’s worth talking about,” said NTDP coach Don Granato, who is also an assistant for the world junior squad. “When we first got him here, I thought we had a chance to have the next first overall American. There’s such an inner burn with him that separates him from others. He challenges himself to win every drill in practice. It pushes his skill development to the point where it has developed immensely in two years.”
Born and raised in Arizona, Matthews caught the hockey bug when he was four or five. An uncle had season tickets to the NHL’s Coyotes and young Auston started playing on top of watching. Playing elite hockey in the Southwest meant a lot of travel to Chicago, Detroit and Canada and also a lot of doubt on the part of opponents from more traditional puck markets.
“We definitely surprised some teams,” Matthews said. “They kinda looked at us like, ‘a team from Arizona, probably not going to be very good.’ But we pulled out some big wins.”
As for his place in the national picture, Matthews said he didn’t really know how good he was until the NTDP offered him a tryout for the vaunted squad.
“I did really well,” he said. “And that’s when I realized that I could hang with the top kids in this country.”
An early injury kept him under the radar last season, but since then Matthews has been a steamroller. His junior rights are owned by the Western League’s Everett Silvertips and he has visited the team’s facilities, while he is also planning on visiting NCAA schools as this season wears on. His top choices are (in no particular order) Boston University, Boston College, Michigan, North Dakota and Denver and without a doubt he will be a game changer wherever he ends up.
“His hand-eye co-ordination, vision of things behind him, vision of things that are going to unfold, is incredible,” Granato said.
A big fan of Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Toews, Matthews doesn’t simply rest on his gaudy offensive numbers to get by, even though you get terrified for opposing defensemen and goaltenders when he barrels down the ice with the puck.
“I like to play an overall game,” he said. “I can make plays and put the puck in the net, make players around me better.”
If he can do that for Team USA, the Americans will have two phenom centers at their disposal. And if Matthews can match Eichel on the big stage, the team will be very hard for any other national squad to handle.