During one of the off-days at the World Junior Championship, the way the camera lights were pointed, Auston Matthews of Team USA was literally standing in the shadow of Jack Eichel. Don’t count on that lasting much longer. The Great American NHL Draft Hope of 2015™ (Eichel) and The Great American NHL Draft Hope of 2016™ (Matthews) were roommates at the WJC, a tournament that began what those at USA Hockey hope will be a long, championship-filled relationship.
It didn’t exactly work out as planned in 2015, but there’s still a lot of time left, particularly for Matthews, an Arizona-born and -trained center at the top of the charts for the 2016 draft. It’s akin to having the next great baseball prodigy come out of the Northwest Territories. But at 6-foot-2 and 194 pounds with a great work ethic and a deft touch, Matthews has made geography a moot point. Matthews has some company at the top of the 2016 draft list in the form of Finnish prospect Jesse Puljujarvi. The Swedish-born Finn represented his country as a 16-year-old in the world juniors and is playing a regular shift as a right winger for Karpat Oulu in the Finnish League.
And let’s not forget Jakob Chychrun, another 16-year-old boy-man playing defense for the Sarnia Sting of the OHL. Like Matthews, Chychrun is also a prodigy of the Sun Belt, having played his youth hockey in Florida. At 6-foot-2, 195 pounds, the son of former NHL defenseman Jeff Chychrun, could walk into an NHL dressing room without anyone batting an eyelash.
So while the hockey world debates the merits of Connor McDavid vs. Jack Eichel for 2015, you can expect just as much anticipation when it comes to Matthews vs. Puljujarvi (with some Chychrun added into the mix) for next season. Like Matthews, Puljujarvi is mature beyond his years – on and off the ice. He’s 6-foot-3 and weighs 196 pounds and does not look out of place against men for the defending champs in Finland. “I want to be stronger,” he said via an interpreter. “It’s a long time to the draft and I have much work to do.” Neither player dominated at the WJC, but both played regularly and proved they belonged. Puljujarvi did not get a point for the goal-starved Finns in five games, but led his team with 26 shots, while Matthews scored a goal and three points in a third-line role. Some scouts would have liked to see Matthews as a winger on a top line to see what he could accomplish. “He understands if he’s had a good shift, a poor shift and he’s able to channel it in the right direction and not get frustrated,” said Team USA coach Mark Osiecki. “He has a good handle on where he’s at as a player.”
That much is clear with Matthews, who played his youth hockey in Arizona before joining the U.S. National Team Development Program last year. All he has done since is outperform Eichel offensively each step of the way and establish himself as a generational player who can change the course of a game. One scout said at an under-18 Four Nations tournament in Sweden in December, Matthews excelled.
“He did things I’ve never seen,” he said. “He was absolutely dominant.” Puljujarvi didn’t play in that tournament because he was playing for Finland at an under-20 tournament where he led all players in scoring. Leading up to the WJC, both had established themselves as physical specimens. One scout said in a pre-tournament game against Sweden, Matthews swept aside 2014 first-rounder William Nylander with one arm and created a prime scoring chance. Next season will be an important one for both. They figure on being prominent parts of strong teams in the WJC and will be subject to more intense scrutiny during their draft years. Puljujarvi will continue to play in the Finnish men’s league, but the hockey world is still waiting to find out where Matthews will play. His major junior rights are owned by the Everett Silvertips of the Western League and Matthews says he’s “50-50” on whether to play major junior or go the U.S. college route. A lot of scouts surmise that since he hasn’t made a commitment to any school yet, that’s a good indication he’ll be playing major junior. “It’s not something I think about too much,” Matthews said. “I’m just trying to focus on now.”
This feature appears in the Feb. 16 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.