The Toronto Maple Leafs’ season is over, so hell yeah we’re kicking off TLN’s draft coverage right away. There’s no need to delay, considering we now know that the Leafs are guaranteed one of the first four selections in the upcoming NHL Entry Draft. And with a 20% chance of winning the draft lottery and picking first overall, we may as well start with the almost consensus top prospect – Auston Matthews.
I say ‘almost’ because, somehow, there’s one scouting service out there that doesn’t agree Matthews is the top talent available in this year’s draft class. McKeen’s gives that honour to Tappara’s Patrik Laine, but literally everyone else believes that Matthews is the guy. HockeyProspect.com, ISS Hockey, and Future Considerations all have the Arizona-native ranked number one, while NHL Central Scouting lists Matthews as the top European skater.
Coming Up Matthews
So, about that – Arizona-native? European Skater? If you’re just now getting into the 2016 Draft, you may not have known that Matthews took a rather unusual development path for a young American forward. Despite his WHL rights held by the Everett Silvertips, and a shortlist of NCAA programs that included powerhouses like North Dakota, Denver, Michigan, Boston College, Boston University and Wisconsin, Matthews instead turned pro in Switzerland. In joining the ZSC Lions (based in Zurich), Matthews faced stiffer competition than he would have in either the WHL or NCAA, facing off against grown men as an 18-year old.
There’s no denying he faired pretty well. Matthews, a 6’2, 210lb centre with a left-handed shot, scored 24 goals and 46 points in just 34 games played. His 1.28 points-per-game clip trailed only Pierre-Marc Bouchard’s 1.37 pace (not counting former Leaf Robbie Earl and David Rundblad, who both scored at a higher clip but only played seven and 11 games respectively).
Matthews looked just as good when representing his country at this year’s World Junior Championships, scoring seven goals and four assists in seven games. Those 11 points put Matthews in a tie for team lead with Matthew Tkachuk, also good for fourth in tournament scoring and only trailing that ridiculous Finnish trio of Laine-Aho-Puljujarvi. I’m sure Matthews would have rather a silver or gold medal for his efforts, but considering just how young Team USA was, that bronze-medal finish is still pretty impressive.
When we talk about strengths and weaknesses in Matthews game, one of those lists is much longer than the other – that comes with the territory of being the best player available. Matthews is everything you would want in a top pick, with incredible hands, a great shot, and excellent skating ability. No, he may not been an absolute burner, but when you have as much on-ice smarts as Matthews, you don’t need to rely on simply blowing by the opposition. Two days removed from 2015 Draft eligibility, Matthews likely would have gone third overall behind Jack Eichel. That is not a knock – to be mentioned in the same breath as either of Connor McDavid or Eichel is an accomplishment in and of itself, and Matthews belongs in that discussion.
What Others Are Saying
Matthews has dazzled with Zurich of the Swiss NLA; his combination of elite hands and skating ability fully on display in what has turned out to be the ‘ideal’ platform for him. He can wheel and deal and pick apart a league which is light on physical play, full of open space, and all too accommodating.
It’s not a knock against Matthews but instead a situation that may perhaps lead to developing some ‘bad habits’. His defensive play and intensity away from the puck has been noticeable in between the sparkling moments. Like Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel this season, he will have to make certain adjustments upon arriving in the NHL next fall.
From ESPN’s Corey Pronman [Insiders, highly recommended]:
Matthews is a prospect of equivalent talent to Buffalo’s Jack Eichel at the time of Eichel being drafted, and is the favorite to be picked first. Matthews’ pure skill level is the highest in this draft class. The things he can do with the puck border on freakish, considering his frame. He also has above-average speed and great hockey IQ. He has been on a tear in the NLA since returning from the WJC. While some may scoff at the league and say his numbers aren’t impressive in a global sense, recent studies have shown the NLA has actually surpassed the top Finnish league, and is nearly on par with the AHL, with many ex-NHLers making Switzerland their post-North America destination.
More Than A Perfect Fit
We normally take some time during each prospect profile to talk a little about how this player or that player would fit in well with the Leafs going forward. Sometimes, we shy away from certain players because of a preference for another, or a glaring hole in their game, or maybe because there are so many similar players already within the system. None of this applies with Auston Matthews.
Toronto is already blessed with a couple blue chip forward prospects in William Nylander and Mitch Marner, but quite frankly, neither hold a candle to Matthews. We’re talking about a generational talent (you know, the kind that comes around every year) and a true face-of-the-franchise type player. In fact, Matthews is so good that he could single-handedly shift the Leafs offseason priorities – it’s not unreasonable to think that Toronto shies away from offering Steven Stamkos a big, expensive contract if they feel Matthews can fill that top-line centre role for the next decade at a significantly lower cost.
If the Leafs win the lottery, Matthews is a no-brainer. While Laine and Puljujarvi may have closed the gap in recent months, Matthews is still the top prize available. Not only would Matthews immediately become Toronto’s best player, but he’d also change aspirations and expectations immediately – if all goes well, we could comfortably toss out all of the ‘Tank Nation’ jokes we haven’t made yet.