One of the most exciting things leading up to the annual NHL Entry Draft is often the back-and-forth debate about which player is going to be selected 1st overall.
Sometimes it can be a head-to-head debate, as we saw in 2010 with “Taylor vs. Tyler” and then to a lesser extent in 2015 with Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, and other times there can be three or more players that are in the mix, as we saw clearly in 2011 and then a bit again in 2013.
The buildup to the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, however, hasn’t had the same sort of discussion. Auston Matthews, the electrifying American forward that is currently plying his trade with Zurich in the top hockey league in Switzerland, the National League A, has been projected to go 1st overall for well over a year now, with little to no disagreement. The International Scouting Services, TSN, McKeen’s Hockey, Future Considerations, and pretty much everyone else has, justifiably, long considered Matthews, a potential franchise player, to unanimously be the top player available.
That could all be changing now, however.
Jesse Puljujarvi, a Finnish forward playing for Karpat in the Liiga, has been bouncing around draft rankings between 2nd place and 5th place up until recently, but should have put his name into the 1st overall conversation thanks to a tremendous showing at the 2016 World Junior Hockey Championships.
Puljujarvi, despite being just 17 years of age, had a world juniors for the ages. He led the entire tournament in scoring with a whopping 17 points in just seven games and led his Finnish team to a surprising but very well-deserved gold medal victory. He was also named MVP of the event for his amazing efforts.
— IIHF WJC 2016 (@WJC2016Helsinki) January 5, 2016
Matthews played in the tournament as well and also put forth some very impressive numbers of behalf of the United States, scoring 11 points in 7 games. His American team took home the bronze medal.
Here’s where things get a little more interesting, though.
Puljujarvi is 17 years old right now, being born on May 7th in 1998. Matthews, in comparison, is already 18, being born in 1997. His September 17th birthday caused him to miss the September 15th cutoff for the 2015 NHL Entry Draft by just two days.
What that means is that Matthews has the advantage of an extra year of development over Puljujarvi, despite the two both being draft-eligible for the first time in 2016.
Why does this matter? Simply put, late-birthday players often get a boost in their draft stock because they’re more polished than their younger counterparts thanks to an extra year of hockey development. This inflation of value has burned seemingly unaware NHL teams in the past.
When comparing Matthews head-to-head against Puljujarvi for world juniors performance, it makes the most sense to compare how well Matthews did last year to how well Puljujarvi did this year. Matthews had a respectable performance at the 2015 world juniors as a 17 year-old, scoring three points in five games, but was nowhere near as successful or polished as Puljujarvi was this year.
Draft position, of course, should never be determined based off of the world juniors alone, due to it being such a small sample size of games, but it’s a renowned international hockey competition for good reason and exists as one of the best draft-evaluation tools available. In at least this category, it’s clear that Puljujarvi outperformed Matthews.
Applying that same late-birthday system of comparison to performance outside of the world juniors, Matthews led the USNDTP Juniors team in scoring with 48 points in 24 USHL games last season. Puljujarvi this year in the Liiga? 12 points in 31 games. While production is very hard to compare from such different leagues, Puljujarvi’s numbers on their own in one of the top hockey leagues in the world are still good enough to put him into the 1st overall conversation. Head-to-head advantage here? Probably still Matthews, given how dominant he was last season, but it’s close.
Now, none of this is meant to try to set anything in stone. There’s still a lot of hockey that’s left to be played between now and when the 2016 draft happens in June, and both Matthews and Puljujarvi are exceptionally talented hockey players. But if the race towards the top pick hasn’t been very close over the past few months it certainly should be now.