After a strong performance at the World Junior Championship and winning the gold medal with Finland, both Jesse Puljujarvi’s and Patrik Laine’s draft stock has risen quite a bit and with Jacob Chychrun not participating in the tournament, most pre-draft rankings have now Auston Matthews, Puljujarvi and Laine on top. No doubt, all three players are world-class talents, but there are a couple of indications that Arizona-born Matthews will go as first overall. I have come down to some areas of Matthews’ game where he is still ahead of Puljujarvi, Laine and other top-ranked prospects:
Matthews’ shot is NHL-ready and is a real powerful weapon. He possesses one of the best shots in the entire draft, if not the best. One of few prospects having a cannon like Matthews is probably Laine, who has a real powerful and accurate shot as well.
Matthews has a lightning quick release and possesses a wrister that is above average in terms of accuracy and shot power. He is able to beat goalies up high from the face-off point and often uses defenders as an additional screen. He knows when to use his heavy shot and when to go for the pass. Matthews is one of the more prolific shooters in the Swiss league and his shot is already considered to be elite as of now.
Dominant Play Against Men
There was some concern about Matthews’ decision to play his pre-draft year in Europe against men, but latest by now it is clear that this doesn’t harm him at all. It probably even raises his stocks as he plays a phenomenal season in the Swiss National League. With his 22 goals, he ties the league’s scoring list in goals and his 1.23 points per game are third-best in the entire league. Those are really impressive numbers and are higher than expected by many. Especially as he missed a couple of games due to an injury.
Auston Matthews extends goal-streak to 6 straight gms w/ empty net gl today; 1-1-2 in 4-2 win vs Geneve. Has 21-14-35 in 28 gms for Zurich.
— Mike Morreale (@mikemorrealeNHL) January 23, 2016
The numbers though are not the only impressive thing about Matthews’ play. The dominant way he plays against men is confirming him as the frontrunner for the first overall position. Laine and Puljujarvi, both also playing against men in the Finnish league, aren’t that dominant in their teams, and this has nothing to do with the difference between the Finnish and Swiss league as both leagues are very competitive. Although I have to add that Laine really picked up the pace after the WJC. Matthews delivered right from the beginning and if he continues to play like he is now then he will finish the season with a point production of over a point per game.
Play Around the Net
Matthews is extremely good in plays around the net. He has scored a lot of his goals being in the crease whether they came from a shot deflection or he executed on a rebound. Matthews uses his size and long reach to protect the puck and keep opponents away. He has a nose for the net and always seems to be positioned in the right direction in front of the net. Matthews has great hand-eye-coordination and uses it to deflect shots. He likes to hang around the net and make him available for feeds from behind the goal executing while using his strong wrister.
He evolved into a dangerous scorer with the ZSC Lions and gets more and more confident with each goal he notches. His play around the net is just excellent and above average in the 2016-draft class.
Auston Matthews says his defensive play and positioning has improved under Marc Crawford in Switzerland. pic.twitter.com/annn5ttlau
— Craig Custance (@CraigCustance) December 15, 2015
Matthews has improved his defensive game a lot under former NHLer Marc Crawford. He backchecks well and uses his long reach to interrupt passes or tries to deflect shots over the glass. He is very well aware of his opponents in his own zone and can often be spotted behind the goal digging out pucks in board battles. He uses his defensive abilities and puckhandling skills in the neutral zone to carry out the puck and starting a counter attack. As of late I have witnessed him get a better feeling for being in shot lanes and he blocked a lot of pucks in his last few games, something I haven’t seen him doing in the first half of the season.
His defensive game often gets forgotten or overshadowed by his offensive upside but it completes his player profile even more and expect him to get even more effective in his own zone. Although I have to add that I was really impressed by Laine’s defensive game, backchecking and never quitting on plays at the WJC, too.
Matthews is a very strong puck carrier and has great hands. I am really impressed by his matured puckhandling and calm puck carrying. He is so confident with the puck and makes strong decisions, is always aware of his linemates and can really dish out the puck. His vision is great and he understands the game mentally really well. Coach Crawford had to say the following on Matthews’ abilities with the puck: “I’ve had some really good players at a young age. Whether it was Peter Forsberg, Jamie Benn, the Sedins, Anze Kopitar, this guy has better stick skills, and better puck protection skills than any of those guys had at the same age. He really, really, has a great ability to carry his speed through the neutral zone and he’s difficult to defend against.”
What Speaks Against Matthews?
This article shouldn’t be a pure chorus of praise for Matthews. Every player, of course, has room for improvement, so does Matthews. There are some valid concerns why Matthews shouldn’t go first overall like, for example, his age. People often tend to forget that Matthews is significantly older than the rest of some highly-praised kids from the 2016-class. Of course, that doesn’t mean the younger prospects get a lot better than Matthews when being at the same age but it could make NHL-scouts think about and could be one aspect to take into consideration when drafting.
Auston Matthews has been supplanted as the number one prospect in @mckeenshockey rankings. Not only is someone close…someone is ahead.
— Grant McCagg (@grantmccagg) January 16, 2016
Another thing I have discovered is Matthews’ possible disability to pick up his game when it really matters. Think about the WJC where he didn’t have much of an impact in the playoff games. Similar to the U18 World Championship earlier in the year where he didn’t have too much of an impact in the medal games.
While this does not need to automatically mean that Matthews can’t come up big in big games/moments, it is certainly something to keep an eye on, especially for a player like him who is considered to be potential captain material. It’s going to be interesting to see how Auston Matthews will do in the playoffs with the ZSC Lions, a team with an ambitious environment and a target to make it to the finals.
Independent Scout covering European Hockey and Prospects for TheHockeyWriters. Located in Switzerland and blogging on www.scouting-factory.blogspot.com. Opinions on blog are my own