Much of the buildup heading into the 2014-15 season has been centered on American-born prospects Jack Eichel of Boston University, Noah Hanifin of Boston College and Zach Werenski of Michigan. And with good reason, as all three are projected to be first-round picks next June when the NHL holds its annual draft.
So, who’s next?
That honor goes to Auston Matthews from the U.S. National Team Development Program. A 17-year-old center from Scottsdale, Ariz., Matthews is projected by some talent evaluators to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 draft.
When asked to describe his star player, NTDP U18 head coach Don Granato needed only one word: elite.
“He’s an elite player,” Granato said. “From speed, to hand-eye coordination, to hockey sense, size, strength, work ethic, commitment — all of those are 10s. We’re talking about an impressive player.”
Unlike many high-end prospects that make college decisions years in advance of arriving on campus, Matthews has yet to make a decision on where he’ll play hockey next season.
Matthews is strongly considering his NCAA options, but he hasn’t ruled out the WHL — where the Everett Silvertips hold his rights.
“I’m just taking my time with everything,” Matthews said. “Both routes are not bad routes at all. I think if I’m going to commit to play somewhere — I’m a man of my word, I’m going to go play there.
“So, right now, I’m just going to sit back and weigh my options and make sure I find what the best fit is for me.”
Matthews said he has narrowed down his college options to five schools: Boston University, Boston College, North Dakota, Michigan and Denver. He hasn’t taken any visits, but will do so as the season goes along.
As a September birth date, Matthews wasn’t scheduled to graduate high school until 2016. He’s accelerating that timeline by taking additional classes now, and will graduate in time to play college hockey next fall — if that’s the route he chooses.
At this point it’s unclear when he’ll make a final decision, but for now Matthews is in no hurry.
“Definitely after the New Year I’ll be narrowing what I want to do,” Matthews said. “Right now it’s kind of up in the air.”
While the NHL has had mixed results with franchises in warm climates, Matthews is another example of why it’s so important to cultivate these markets for the future of American hockey. The Arizona native was introduced to the game after the Coyotes moved from Winnipeg in 1996. Matthews was born in 1997, and a few years later he started going to games with his family.
“My uncle had season tickets to Coyotes games when I was 2 or 3,” Matthews said. “He used to take my dad and me with along with him.”
Matthews’ interest in the game was sparked, and not long after he was lacing up the skates himself.
And Matthews is just one success story. The USA U18 roster this season features players from 11 different states plus the District of Columbia.
“Being in this job, where you get to see the player pool of American-born players — it’s impressive, the depth of our markets,” Granato said.
“We’re producing players all over the country. It’s not like back in the day when you had Bill Guerin and Keith Tkachuk, and guys from just three regions — Minnesota, Michigan and New England.”
USA Hockey found Matthews playing for the Arizona Bobcats AAA program and invited him to join the NTDP. So far it’s been the best decision Matthews has made.
“It’s been awesome,” Matthews said of his time so far in Ann Arbor, Mich. “The program is second to none. Just everything about it — it’s been great. The training, everything else — it’s definitely helped. I’m progressing and getting better every day.”
Matthews experienced his first major setback in hockey last year, missing the first half of the season due to a broken femur.
“It was obviously really hard,” Matthews said of going through a major injury. “But the trainers here like Jason Hodges, they really helped me get back during the rehab. I came back earlier than expected — I give them a lot of credit.”
Matthews recovered from his broken leg and played well enough to earn a call-up to the U18 team for the World Championships last spring in Finland.
The youngest player on the team, Matthews not only held his own but excelled, finishing with five goals and seven points as Team USA brought home the gold medal. His five goals were good enough to tie for the team lead along with Eichel, which has in turn has fueled comparisons between the two young American forwards.
The two prospects squared off on Oct. 18 when the U.S. U18 team played against Boston University in an exhibition contest. The Terriers escaped with a 6-4 victory, but the real story was the show that Eichel and Matthews put on at Agganis Arena. Both players finished the game with two goals and an assist.
Is the comparison deserved?
“Absolutely,” Granato said. “They went head to head the other day. You saw the competitiveness from the drop of the puck from both players. It was an awesome hockey game.
“I had the pleasure to coach [Eichel] at the U18 World Championships a couple years ago, and he’s a potential superstar in the making. And I’d say Auston has a good role model there. I loved the way he competed against Jack the other day and I thought they pushed each other to another level.”
Eichel and Matthews may become teammates again in a few months, when the World Junior Championship takes place in Toronto and Montreal.
While he once again would be the youngest player on the U.S. roster, Matthews has proven time and time again he has the ability to play at that level. That includes a dominant performance this summer at the national junior evaluation camp, which is a tool used by USA Hockey to evaluate players for the upcoming World Junior roster.
“It’s such a big tournament and so highly watched across the world,” Matthews said. “To play in it would be a huge honor — it would be a great experience.”
While the hockey world waits for Matthews to make a decision on his future, for now he just wants to be a hockey player. Granato said the focus of his young center is on becoming the best player he can be right now, and the rest will work itself out down the road.
“He just wants to play hockey,” Granato said. “He’s not looking to be recruited. He’s 100 percent hockey. He’s like, ‘Look, I just want to play hockey, and things will work out. And when I get the feeling or urge to think about where I want to spend the next four years or two years or whatever it may be, I’ll think about it.’ I have a lot of respect for that. In this particular case, it’s obviously the right thing to do.
“He came into the [NTDP] program with that approach, and it’s worked for him. And he doesn’t feel that there’s an urgency to now all of a sudden, ‘OK, let’s figure out where I want to go or what I might want to do. I’ve got 34 games left and I want to perform at the highest level and focus on that.’”