Projected No. 1 pick Auston Matthews draws comparisons to NHL's best from his former coach Marc Crawford


Toronto Maple Leafs management and fans are partying like it's 1985.

After a nerve-wracking NHL Draft Lottery which was held on Saturday evening at the CBC building in downtown Toronto, the last place Leafs won the No. 1 pick which they had the highest odds (20%) of landing.

It was just a little bit more intense then when team president Brendan Shanahan ran the online draft simulator, just once, and got the same result.  He wouldn’t think of running it again.   

Now it’s reality.

Toronto finished ahead of the Winnipeg Jets, who shot up four spots from No. 6, and will pick ahead of the rest of the league for the first time since drafting Wendel Clark 31 years ago.

Assuming that selection is 18-year-old Auston Matthews, the consensus choice to go first this June at the NHL Draft in Buffalo next month, what kind of player and person will they be getting?

Playing for the Zurich Lions in the Swiss National League A, the 18-year-old recorded 24 goals and 22 assists in 36 games which placed him second in team scoring behind Robert Nilsson, a player who is 13 years older and has skated in 252 NHL games.

Marc Crawford, Matthews’ coach with the Lions, couldn’t have given the young star more praise, lauding his hockey sense and comparing him to two current NHL superstars as well as the Hall of Fame centre who he won the 1996 Stanley Cup with in Colorado.

“He will be a No. 1 centre in the NHL and his game will be one where I think he can dominate with his shot and his abiltiy to make short area plays - dekes and shots and quick passes that spring people,” Crawford told Yahoo Canada Sports.  “He’s a little like Anze Kopitar and a little like Jamie Benn.  His speed and the way he drives the net is like Anze.  He shoots like Benn and stays on puck for second chances like him.

 “The player he reminds me most of is Joe Sakic. Joe didn’t need to play with outstandingly great players, he made people better by converting passes that seemingly weren’t very good, he was good at putting pucks in really good areas.  His release and shot is like Sakic’s, Joe was deceptive with shooting angles, Auston has those same abilities.  He is a great scoring centre.”

That's high praise indeed.

When Matthews hits the ice next season, he will be the first No. 1 overall pick to transition to the NHL from playing in Europe since Alex Ovechkin did it in 2005-06.

Although he only played 36 regular season games in 2015-16, there were ten Champions League games as well as six more in the Swiss Cup, he also played in the IIHF World Jr. Championship and will skate at the upcoming IIHF World Championship.

“He’s going to have close to 80 or 90 games,” Crawford said. “There is no question he has played a lot of hockey, it’s dealing with NHL calibre players that will be the next step for him.”

While it would be wrong to compare him to Ovechkin, the “Great 8”, similar to Matthews, only played 37 regular season games in his final year in the Russian Super League before coming over to the NHL.  Jack Eichel, who was chosen second behind Connor McDavid last year also played fewer regular season games than a player who would come out of the CHL.

Neither had an issue in their first NHL season.

“Matthews was dominant in the Swiss League and that is a better league than the CHL,” hockey analyst Craig Button told Yahoo Canada Sports. “Any young player is going to have an adjustment period, the questions about Eichel were no different.”

Matthews is expected to be the first U.S. born No. 1 pick since Patrick Kane in 2007.  Unlike Kane, who was born in Buffalo, NY., Matthews grew up about as far away from a hockey hotbed as you can get.

Born in San Francisco CA., Matthews was raised in Scottsdale, AR., where he began playing minor hockey and cheered for the Phoenix (now Arizona) Coyotes.

Crawford says he spoke extensively with Matthews about what it would be like to play in a Canadian market.

The veteran coach has 1151 NHL games under his belt and is well versed in the pressure that is part and parcel of being involved at hockey's highest level in Canada.

He was under the micrscope as coach of the Canadian national team at the 1998 Winter Olympics.  It was the first time NHL players competed on that stage and there was plenty of scrutiny leading up to the games and especially after they lost a chance to compete for gold by falling to the Czech Republic in a shootout and subsequently were defeated in the bronze medal game by Finland.   

Crawford also spent seven seasons as coach of the Vancouver Canucks and was behind the bench for the final season in Quebec before the Nordiques relocated to Colorado and became the Avalanche.

“We talked a lot about the Canadian markets,” he said.  “He is very comfortable going to Canada.”

So what about Matthews the person?

This past season, Leafs coach Mike Babcock talked about the importance of bringing in not only good players but good people that have a great work ethic.

How does Matthews fit in with the Maple Leafs in this regard?

Very well according to Crawford who cites Matthews’ good pedigree.

His father, Brian, was a college baseball player and his mother Ema, "a hard working lady", grew up on a ranch in a family of nine.

“He is extremely humble and well grounded, his father was a detailed athlete, baseball is a detailed sport in how the players prep in terms of the information they accumulate.  He has that detailed approach,” Crawford said.  “All the great players I’ve had have similar drive to be the best.  He definitely has that along with tremendous vision, all great players have tremendous vision, they slow the game down in their minds.  The vision really shows in their anticipation of where the play is going.  He has all those attributes.  I like his work ethic, he will do whatever it takes to make his game better.” 

Follow Neil Acharya on Twitter: @Neil_Acharya