Just how good is Auston Matthews?
After opting out of a stay in the Western Hockey League (his rights are owned by the Everett Silvertips), Matthews instead spent his 18-year-old season skating for the ZSC Lions of the Swiss league. A late birthday, Matthews missed the cutoff for the 2015 draft by just two days, making him ineligible to play professionally in North America. But had Matthews been eligible this year, would he have been good enough to play professionally – perhaps in the NHL?
With ZSC, Matthews was nothing short of phenomenal in 2015-16, scoring 24 goals and 46 points in 36 games, while boasting a +16 rating. His 24 goals were six more than any other player on the Lions, and he finished second on the team in overall scoring behind Robert Nilsson (52) — who played 12 more games than Matthews on the season. Matthews also thrived for the United States at the World Junior Championship tournament, burying seven goals and 11 points in only seven games.
At 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds, Matthews proved more than capable of handling the rigors of professional hockey overseas. But even forgetting his size and physical presence, Matthews showed a willingness to compete in all three zones, playing as well on the defensive side of the puck as he did on the offensive side. Typically, size/physical readiness and two-way presence are the first two things that are considered when deciding whether or not a player is ready to compete at the highest level. In the case of Matthews, it’s easy to presume that he would have been “ready” by most standards in both departments.
Had Matthews been eligible for the NHL draft last year, it’s very likely that he would have been selected in the top-three of the draft. A big center with a strong two-way presence that boasts the kind of high end skill that Matthews has is a rare find. With excellent hands, vision, a great shot and a knack for scoring at the most opportune times, Matthews is a difference maker in every aspect of the game, one that makes his line-mates better and is dangerous nearly every time he’s on the ice.
So Matthews, a player who already boasts a season of professional hockey under his belt – in which he was, at times, dominant – it will be very easy to pencil him into an NHL lineup next season. In fact, for the sake of debate, had Matthews been born just two days sooner, let’s say he was drafted third overall by his hometown Arizona Coyotes last summer. I think it’s more than plausible that Matthews could have stepped in as the number one center for the Coyotes this season, a testament to his NHL readiness.
With this rare combination of size, skill, and maturity, Matthews almost undoubtedly projects as a high end, number one center in the NHL. He doesn’t have the kind of game breaking skill that a player like Connor McDavid comes with; but he is good enough to be on the same tier as a player like Jack Eichel. A face of the franchise type center that can dictate the pace of play when he is on the ice, while leading his team into battle with a vigorous compete level. All in all, Auston Matthews is a clear front-runner in this June’s entry draft, who will make an immediate impact in the NHL next season.