According to scouts, Matthews’ all-around headiness and offensive nature at center would have vaulted him into the conversation for the top pick in the 2015 NHL Draft.
“He would have been right at the top of that mix. We would have had a healthy discussion and debate as who they would want as No. 1,” said NHL Central Scouting director Dan Marr. “Just talent wise, Connor has the cleverness, creativeness and finesse to his game where I would say Auston has more the power forward game where he’s really driven on the play but his puck skills are just as good.”
Last season, there was buzz near the bottom of the standings as teams jockeyed for position for the right to pick either Eichel or McDavid. There hasn’t been as much chatter about the draft this year, but scouts see a player every bit as generational as McDavid or Eichel in Matthews.
One compared the 6-foot-2, 188-pound Matthews to Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar. Another brought up Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews. Both players have five Stanley Cups between them. Toews has been a Selke Trophy finalist four times – winning the award once. Kopitar is a two-time Selke finalist.
Said a European amateur scout, “He’s the perfect player ... size, tools, skills, sense, finishing ability, driven personality. It’s tough to find any faults. He wants to be like Toews. Tells a lot and it’s quite accurate.”
Said a North American scout, “He’s your typical franchise centerman who can do everything. He’s a Kopitar type of mold where he’s big and powerful and smooth and can make plays in all different manners and he competes.”
The North American scout added, “He competes at both ends. The impressive part of it is he’s not giving up anything offensively. He drives the bus offensively as much as any of these top guys you talk about.”
Matthews is currently playing with the Zurich Lions of the Swiss League, which has led to some intrigue this year. There’s less noise about him, probably because there are fewer easily viewable highlights in North America.
Still, scouts have been watching Matthews play for a long time. If anything, his advanced age ( he was two days shy of being eligible for the 2015 draft) means they’ve seen more of a body of work out of him leading into the draft.
“Last year he could have been ready to play in the NHL this season. He’s that strong, he’s got power to him, he’s got man-strength to him and he has a maturity about his game the way he competes everywhere,” the North American scout said. “He’ll be ready next year but he could have been ready this year. He’s an impressive package with his skill and his strength.”
In some ways, Matthews’ unconventional path to the NHL, as an American through Europe rather and junior or college, could make him more of a finished product. In the Swiss League he’s playing against men – and has turned into the Lions’ first-line center, producing 25 points in 22 games played.
“Sometimes there’s the high-end Europeans who play in the men’s league but not quite to the highest caliber as the go-to guy. This guy is the go-to-guy on their team,” the North American scout said. “They lean on him and count on him to produce in a men’s league in a pressure situation. It speaks to the type of talent he has and the type of competitor he is and the type of maturity he has to do that right now.”
With the World Junior Championships set to start in Helsinki, Finland on Dec. 26, Matthews will be looked upon to produce further for Team USA on a big international stage. There’s little hesitation from scouts that he’ll perform and do so at a high level.
“He’s one of those players that brings it every shift and every game,” Marr said. “He knows when to step it up. He knows what’s on the line. He knows how to handle the pressure and I fully expect him to be the leader on that US team.”
Even if Matthews doesn’t excel as expected for the United States he still seems like a talent teams near the bottom of the NHL – the Columbus Blue Jackets (29 points in 36 games) and Anaheim Ducks (30 points in 33 games) have the fewest points in the NHL – could use to build around for the next 10-15 years.
“He wants the puck and I say that in the sense that he’ll battle and compete for every loose puck. He’ll battle and compete to gain position on the play and get good position in front of the net and when he’s got the puck he can protect the puck, cycle the puck and get it to the net so he’s got the power forward element to his game but he’s also got the slick hands and moves and the finish,” Marr said. “He’s as complete a package that you’re going to find.”
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