June will be a big month in the career of Auston Matthews. But even before Matthews, long considered the favorite to be selected first overall at the 2016 draft, learns which team he’s likely to begin his NHL career with at the draft lottery, he’ll know whether or not he’ll be suiting up for Team North America at the World Cup. If you thought Matthews was already a lock, you may want to think again.
Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli, who serves as GM of Team North America along with Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman, told NHL.com’s Shawn Roarke that Matthews, 18, is facing “an uphill road” when asked if the 18-year-old would make the Canadian and American 23-and-under squad.
"We haven't ruled him out,” Chiarelli said, via Roarke. “But there are going to be some pretty good players (that are going to be) left off this team.”
North America has only seven spots remaining to fill following the 16-man roster announcement that came on Wednesday, and Chiarelli is absolutely right: there are going to be some good players left off the roster. Already there are some questioning how Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, a talented two-way center, was left off the initial roster, and the same goes for defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, who has been a standout and contender for the Calder Trophy this season with the Philadelphia Flyers.
Others left off the roster include Montreal Canadiens winger Alex Galchenyuk, Florida Panthers winger and former Calder winner Jonathan Huberdeau, Calgary Flames rookie Sam Bennett, and Arizona Coyotes rookie Max Domi. Those are only a few of the names Matthews will have to compete with for one of the final seven spots.
Though the World Cup is a best-on-best tournament, one hurdle for Matthews when it comes to making the team may be that Team North America is already loaded down the middle. They’ve got Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel — the 2015 draft’s first and second selections — to play center on their top two lines, as well as Nathan MacKinnon and Sean Couturier, both of whom are natural centers. Add in the potential for Nugent-Hopkins to make the team and there’s a bit of a logjam at center.
Matthews’ unfamiliarity with the NHL may also hurt his case, too. Said Chiarelli, per Roarke: "We've had a lot of viewings of him. We know what he is. He's got some obstacles because he hasn't played in the League. That may sound unfair because the kid is a talent; he has the strength, the skill and the speed.”
It’s worth noting, though, that Matthews has spent his entire season playing in the Swiss NLA, one of the most competitive men’s leagues outside of North America. In 36 regular season games, he had 24 goals and 46 points, finishing 10th in scoring with the fourth-highest points per game and second-highest among players who suited up in at least a dozen games.
If that isn’t enough for Matthews to make the team, don’t go thinking you won’t see him at the World Cup in the future, though. If his Swiss production is a sign of things to come, he’s a mortal lock for the 2020 World Cup, where there’s a good chance he could end up skating alongside McDavid and Eichel. Now there’s a frightening trio.