Very seldom do we see hockey players make the kind of impact Auston Matthews has the potential to make in the desert. While upcoming stars like Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel hail from just outside hockey-crazed cities like Toronto and Boston respectively, Matthews comes from Arizona – where hockey is still gaining traction amid ongoing relocation rumors regarding the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes. And he has the potential to become the best professional hockey player to come out of the Grand Canyon State.
A native of Scottsdale, Arizona, Matthews grew up a Coyotes fan. His Uncle Billy was integral in getting him into hockey, as he took him to NHL games in Glendale since he was two years old. He played both hockey and baseball growing up, but soon discovered that hockey was his true passion, and he pursued it as such.
I lived about five minutes from the practice rink the Coyotes used, so there were lots of options, a lot of different programs. I just picked one and got into it. You’re definitely starting to see more players coming from that region.
When it became apparent that hockey was a big strength of his, Matthews chose to play midget hockey for the Arizona Bobcats, scoring an impressive 100 points (55G, 45A) for the U16 team in just 48 games in the 2012-2013 season. The following year, the center decided to take his talents to Ann Arbor, Michigan when he made the U.S. National U17 Team in the USDP (United States Development Program).
I thought I was pretty talented growing up, and a lot of people told me I was pretty good. I’d always hear about kids in other parts of the country, Michigan and the northeast. So it wasn’t until I came to Ann Arbor for the 40-man tryout that I did really well, and I began to think I really was pretty good.
No longer playing with and against solely Arizona natives and instead going up against the best talent in the U.S. (the USNTDP plays exhibition games against NCAA Division I college teams), Matthews began to impress scouts from both the U.S. and Canada. He scored 33 points (12G, 21A) in just 24 games with the U.S. National U17 Team that season.
Later that year, Matthews would join fellow American-born star prospect Jack Eichel when he joined the U18 team. A September birthday, Matthews narrowly missed the cut-off for the 2015 NHL Draft; had he been born two days earlier, he’d have qualified for this June’s draft and surely would have made for a three-way race for first overall honors with both McDavid and Eichel. But that extra year of junior experience will be best for the center’s development.
If he was in this year’s draft he’d be right up there and talked about in the same breathe with [McDavid and Eichel]. The thing about Auston is, game in and game out for two years now, it’s been the same thing. He only knows one speed and that’s full speed, and he does it at practice and game situations.
Matthews scored 17 points (12G, 5A) in 20 games with the U18 team in his rookie USDP season, but made history in the 2014-2015 season. This past season, Matthews set impressive single-season records; the forward finished third in USDP history in points with 94 (behind only Patrick Kane and Phil Kessel), fifth in goals with 44 and tied for third (with Andy Hilbert and Patrick Kane) in assists with 50. His final year in the USDP was actually more impressive than Eichel’s, cranking the hype machine for Matthews even more a year away from the 2016 NHL Draft.
Auston plays a different game than Eichel. He’s a strong, powerful player. Eichel does is with power and grace with that long stride; Auston does it with pure strength and quickness. It’s a different kind of quickness. His compete level is off the charts and he thinks the game so well.
Matthews is expected by many to be the first overall pick at the 2016 NHL Draft. Though the perfect storyline would be for the rebuilding Coyotes to select a hometown hero like Matthews, they are in prime position to select Eichel at the 2015 draft (barring any draft lottery changes) – therefore it is unlikely that they will be picking first overall at next year’s draft.
But not all is lost for Matthews playing making an impact at the NHL level in the desert. Expansion to Las Vegas, Nevada has been in the rumor mill for a while now, and with the recent report that prospective franchise owner Bill Foley expects a formal announcement soon regarding expansion, it is believed that Las Vegas may have a team playing by the start of the 2016-2017.
That means that the first draft Las Vegas would be involved with would be the 2016 NHL Draft, and there’s a good possibility they would be selecting high enough to grab Matthews with their first-ever draft pick. Amid all the talk that hockey may not work in Las Vegas, a regional native like Matthews would surely be a huge draw to get a fan base behind the new team in Nevada.
ICYMI, there is a report that Auston Matthews has interest in Wisconsin. I didn't expect to type those words today. http://t.co/CGr7fyy5df
— Andy Johnson (@AndyJohnsonB5Q) March 11, 2015
As for the more immediate future of his hockey career, though, Matthews has yet to determine where he will be playing next season. It has been reported that his top college choices are Boston University, Boston College, North Dakota, Michigan, Denver and possibly Wisconsin, but there is a chance he passes up NCAA hockey to play in the WHL. The Everett Silvertips own his WHL rights, but he could do what Seth Jones did in his draft year – demand his rights to be traded otherwise he will go the college route.
I’m just taking my time with everything. Both (the WHL and college) 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.
Whichever route Matthews chooses, he’ll be surely be a one-and-done next season wherever he plays, as it’s likely he will make his jump to the NHL immediately following the 2016 draft.