The Winnipeg Jets at the Draft: Auston Matthews

Auston Matthews is going to be the first overall pick in this year’s draft. You know it, I know it, everybody who keeps any sort of ear to the ground on the hockey world knows it. The only way the Winnipeg Jets are getting him is if they win the draft lottery.

Yes, we’ve moved out of the realm of the likely and into the realm of the wildly optimistic, but what else is the pre-draft lottery time for but moments of wild optimism? The Jets, to be clear, have only a 7.5 percent chance of landing that coveted first overall pick and Matthews with it, but any chance is reason enough for optimism when your team is sitting on the couch watching the playoffs instead of participating in them.

I’ve examined the tantalizing but unlikely possibility of Matthews playing with the Jets before now, but with the draft lottery set for April 30 and now barely over a week away, it’s worth re-examining. Of course if the lottery goes as its supposed to, it will quickly render this article moot, but that’s a risk I’m willing to take.

Matthews is a superlative player, as in, I’ve run out of superlatives to describe this player. Last year Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel were so highly touted because they were simply on another talent level. They were better skaters, puck handlers, and shooters than anyone else in the draft. They simply seemed to be operating on a different scale of talent than everyone else in what was, by all accounts, an extremely talented draft.

While 2016 doesn’t promise the same eye-popping talent as 2015, it does have one player, Matthews, who could be described the same way I just described Eichel and McDavid. There’s no one skill that sets him apart because all his skills are elite. This is a franchise player, beyond any doubt.

Destined to go No. 1

Matthews has been touted as the best player in this draft class since about 2014 or so, and it’s pretty easy to see why. At the end of 2014 (and into early 2015) he was playing on Team USA at the WJC as a double-underage player. He was on pace to shatter Patrick Kane’s NTDP scoring records (which he later did) and he was looking deadly against players three years older than him. It was obvious to everyone watching the WJC that year that they were seeing something special, even if the tournament didn’t go the way the Americans wanted.

One look at the discrepancy in points between Matthews and Kane, the only NHLer to break 100 points this season, tells you a lot. It’s true that junior numbers don’t always translate to pro success, but these numbers are a major feather in Matthews’ cap, and it gives you an idea of his tremendous skill.

What gives Matthews an added edge over most prospects is that he’s already physically a man. At 6 feet 2 inches and 194 pounds, he, like Eichel before him, is already big enough to handle the rigours of the pro game. So much so that he played against grown men in Switzerland this year and was statistically dominant with 24 goals in just 36 games. If a player had scored at that kind of clip in the OHL or college he’d be a top prospect, but to do so against men is doubly impressive, and means the learning curve for Matthews in the NHL will be just a little shorter.

The name Jack Eichel has come up a lot in this article, and that’s in part because he and Matthews are very similar players right down to their size and style. Matthews may have more of an edge to his game, but if he has an impact anything like what Eichel had this year, he’s going to make some team very happy and very quickly.

Matthews is a franchise player, and the Jets don’t really have one of those right now. Right now the Jets are built on a model with lots of strong players but no real superstar. Mark Scheifele’s future is bright, Blake Wheeler is a workhorse, Nikolaj Ehlers projects as a future star and Kyle Connor’s skill could make him a big-time goal scorer, but none of those players bring the pure franchise saving ability of a player like Matthews.

So there it is, more praise heaped on a guy who has received and deserved a ton of it this season. It would take a miracle for the Jets to land him, but hey, we can dream, can’t we?

Well, at least until April 30.