BUFFALO, N.Y. – He coolly answered questions from inquisitive reporters for almost 15 minutes ranging from the infamous Wingate test to hockey in his home state of Arizona.
It was mostly a low-key affair on a Saturday morning. Yet, there was one query in the middle of the exchange at the NHL draft combine that allowed him to present his true colours.
“I’m extremely competitive. I compete hard. I elevate guys around me. I have an inner drive that really separates me from the rest,” was the response said.
Auston Matthews was asked why he should be at the front of the line of his cohort for the upcoming NHL draft. Essentially, why should Matthews – the player thought by everyone to be the presumptive No.1 pick on June 24 – actually be the No.1 pick and become a Toronto Maple Leaf?
None of the key principles have confirmed publicly that it will in fact happen. Winger Patrik Laine is posting a serious challenge after being named playoff MVP in the Finnish league while also shining for his country at the World Junior Championship and last month’s World Championship.
But behind the scenes, Matthews is preparing for the next big move in his hockey career – which he expects to be Toronto.
Born near San Francisco, Matthews grew up in Scottsdale, Ariz., and fell in love with the then-Phoenix Coyotes when an uncle, who had season tickets, started taking him to games when he was three.
It wasn’t too long before Matthews was travelling for games in California and Las Vegas, then further to Edmonton and Chicago. His career has taken him to Ann Arbor, Mich., where he broke Patrick Kane’s United States National Team Development Program record for points in a season with 117.
Then it was off to Zurich. Matthews made the unconventional choice to play overseas and play for the Swiss league’s Lions in his draft year, opting against joining an NCAA or CHL team. In his case, the WHL’s Everett Silvertips owned his rights.
“Not only being able to play hockey in numerous amounts of countries and cities, but being able to visit these countries and get a sense of their culture, it’s pretty fun,” Matthews said of his travels.
The 6-foot-2, 216-pound centre was the youngest member of the American team at the World Championship. He netted six goals and nine points in a fourth-place showing.
While in Russia, Matthews made sure to speak to Canadian rival and prospective Leaf teammate Morgan Rielly about working for coach Mike Babcock and GM Lou Lamoriello in one of hockey’s hotbeds. He’s pretty sure he’d be just fine.
“It hasn’t happened yet. If that were to happen it would definitely be something that I could handle,” Matthews said. “I’m a hockey player. I want to play hockey, wherever that may be.”
Matthews said he interviewed with seven teams throughout the course of the week, meetings he categorized as “business-like.”
That low number was more of an indication of status as a top prospect than anyone’s lack of interest in him.
“No need,” said a scout from an NHL playoff team when asked if he interviewed Matthews. “We’re not going to waste his time or our time.”
Matthews’s main strengths are his high skill and hockey sense, the scout said, while his strong two-way game is the “cherry on top of the sundae.”
It’s clear Matthews has evaluators smitten by his talents. He was named to the North American roster for this fall’s World Cup of Hockey ahead of players like Robby Fabbri of the St. Louis Blues, who had 15 playoff points.
Matthews will be 19 by the time the NHL regular season starts in October. The scout said he should be able to produce around 50 points while playing top-six minutes and on the power play.
“The expectation can be somewhere around what was achieved by Jack Eichel or Dylan Larkin. To say he’s going to be McDavid, I don’t know if there’s another McDavid that’ll come around for awhile,” he said. “I would think that’s what Toronto’s hoping for from him. That’s what he’s shown.
“It would be a big accomplishment. You’re still moving from a men’s league in Switzerland to the men’s World Championship. Now you’re moving to the National Hockey League. It’s not an easy spot to play.”
But Matthews is committed to making that happen.
Like every prospect, Matthews admitted he needs to get stronger. He managed six 175-pound bench press reps and eight pull-ups during testing at the combine.
His standing long jump and standing vertical jump scores were out of the top 25, but his pro agility scores ranked seventh and 11th. He also finished 12th for anaerobic testing for duration and 10th in the VO2max. Matthews produced peak power of 18.1 watts per kilogram and mean power of 11.9 watts in the gruelling Wingate cycling test, which placed him ninth and 10th in the respective categories.
“There’s a reason why it’s at the end,” he said of the dreaded Wingate. “That one will definitely get to you.”
Matthews and some of the other top prospects are in San Jose to take in Game 4 on Monday. After that, he’ll head home to Scottsdale for some much needed rest and relaxation.
Matthews said he’ll skate a bit and hang around the pool to unwind. He’ll probably play some golf with his sister Breyana, 14, too. However, she’s the golfer of the family, which can lead to some frustration from the big brother.
“It definitely ruins my confidence when I go out and play with her,” Matthews said.
Not to worry, though. If all goes according to plan, he’ll be feeling pretty confident about himself again when the NHL draft comes around in less than three weeks.