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PPP Round Table: Shooting for the giant, Auston Matthews

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Our round table ponders the beauty of Auston Matthews in the Leafs lineup.

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Auston Matthews. Recently there have been articles speculating that maybe one of Jesse Puljujarvi or Patrik Laine might be selected at #1, but after watching this highlight reel or this highlight reel, and reading up on scouting reports, it's hard to imagine that Matthews won't be holding up a single finger in the draft photos.

Born in San Francisco to a Mexican mother and American father, Matthews soon moved to the excellent Southwest hockey market of Scottsdale, Arizona, and began attending (then-Phoenix) Coyotes games with his uncle. He developed a passion for the game from watching such players as Danny Briere and Shane Doan, and took advantage of the opportunities offered by the Arizona Coyotes development system to learn the game.

Even as a youngster, he immediately garnered the nickname "Papi" -- which, according to Urban Dictionary, means "gang leader" -- for his superior leadership on the ice.

Matthews was drafted by the WHL Bantam team Everett Silvertips, but decided to play for the USNTDP instead. In his second season, he finished first in the league in scoring with 116 points, breaking Patrick Kane's 2006 record. Then, because his birthday was two days before the McEichel draft cutoff (imagine a McEichThews draft?) the guy surprised everyone and signed in Europe with the ZSC Lions -- a very smart move, freeing him to play in the NHL immediately after the draft with no sticky ties of college to muddy the waters.

Future Considerations has everything good and nothing bad to say about him:

Matthews ended the regular season tied for fourth in the league in goals with 24 and points per game at 1.28, and second in even-strength goals with 19 in 36 games. He had three assists, a plus-1 rating and 13 shots on goal in four playoff games against Bern. He was awarded the NLA’s Rising Star award and finished second in voting for most valuable player, including six-first place votes. The award went to Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who finished with eight first-place votes. He was a man among men from the very first shift. His shot, pass and vision are above average compared to other players in the Swiss National League, which is considered a very decent EU league.

So why's this kid so good? Should he really be chosen first overall? Who would he play with on the Leafs anyway?

PPP takes up these difficult questions and more in this edition of the PPP Round Table.

[1] People have mentioned Matthews size and two-way play, and suggested that his comparable players are Toews and Kopitar. What makes him such a good prospect and hands-down first overall pick?

Acha: Instead of comparing him to Kopitar and Toews, what I notice most about Auston Matthews is his amazing hockey sense married to his amazing skating ability, like the best purely offensive forwards. Seriously -- there are highlight reels where he has the puck behind the net in the offensive zone, a forechecker skates up to him, and he reads the play immediately. Instead of pausing, suddenly he's literally hopped around to face in the opposite direction, and he's making an entirely different kind of play. There's no time for the forechecker to react, Auston's already skating away. This kind of ridiculous ability to read the play and change his mind about his actions means that he has all the time and space on the ice that he wants. I see this elite ability with the puck in people like Pavel Datsyuk -- the ability to do what he wants with the opposition because his skating is as good as his read of the play.

Katya: Two-way player to me means with and without the puck, not two zones of the ice. He's better with the puck, all guys his age are usually. But he's got the game going in his head, he controls the action. He dominates offensively and he's better without the puck than a lot of guys in the NHL right now.

Scott: I think beyond his two way play, his ability to dictate the game with his skill as a puck carrier is what separates him from the rest of the crop in 2016. He’s an extremely heady player, and finds open ice for himself or his teammates better than most 17 or 18 year olds. As a shooter, his ability to pick his spots and score from distance is also unmatched in this class except maybe by only Alex Nylander. You don’t often see players who can score from just inside the blueline with a wrist shot, but he is certainly one of them.

[2] People say that his size and skill also mean he'd slot into an NHL lineup immediately, like Eichel did in Buffalo. Where would he fit in next year's Leafs lineup? Who would his best wingers be?

Acha: There's no question that with the youthfulness of the Leafs lineup that is projected for next season, Matthews could use his ability to slot into a second line center role right away. His best wingers would potentially be mature guys who help him ease into a role, someone like Leo Komarov (if he returns) would help him learn a bit of snarl and edge. If it's a purely "kid" line, I think he'd be excellent with faster wingers who can learn a good Babcock system and be exactly where Matthews needs them for making his plays.

Katya: For the Leafs, he is the 2C behind Kadri to start. Like Eichel, he would perhaps need to play some third line sometimes. That's about matchups more than his spot on the totem pole. Wingers are tough to guess at. He loves the puck more than Nylander even. He needs wingers that can support that. So shifting Nylander over to his wing might be a disaster. Weridly, I want to say P.-A. Parenteau, who won't be there. Hyman, for the tough forecheck. Soshnikov for the net front presence. Both for enough speed to keep up with him. Uncle Leo if he needs a grownup, but I'm not sure Papi does.

Scott: If the Leafs have all of Nylander, Bozak, Kadri and Matthews down the middle next year, I would argue that Matthews deserves to start at the 2C slot behind Kadri and ultimately transition into the No. 1 centre as the season progresses. He’s capable of being a 50-point rookie, so I don’t think it would take long before you see him alongside van Riemsdyk. I think Matthews would actually mesh well with Connor Brown though, frankly. Brown does an excellent job of retrieving pucks finishing off plays around the net and I think he could (down the line) turn into a solid linemate for Matthews.

Acha: Oooh, you bring up Connor Brown, nobody else has yet. Good call, Scott.

Scott: Yeah, Komarov is going to regress, I think. Not sure he’ll be playing top six once the Leafs are good.

[3] What potential downside might Matthews have for the Leafs? Is his skill mature enough for the NHL game, given that he's mostly played in Europe and with the USNTDP?

Katya: A nice problem to have--too much depth at C. For fans it means an end to Stamkos fantasies. What am I saying, fans will never stop with those, not even after he signs somewhere else.

Charlottes Webster: I see very little downside in Matthews. The media will probably crap on him if he has a slow start, but in terms of the on-ice portion, he's probably going to be great.

El Seldo: I think his maturity isn't an issue. He looked at all his options and had the kind to look away from the obvious and find a solution that worked best for him. He saw the CHL and didn't want to give away his talents and not play in the NHL/AHL post draft. He saw the NCAA and didn't want to make a commitment he knew he wouldn't keep. He found an option that would allow him to play in the NHL or AHL at worst right away, he got paid for his talent, and didn't end up letting down people who put their faith in him. He wants to control his destiny. That's maturity right there. (Though it worries me he may bolt as UFA first chance he gets, also most likely to pull a Lindros based on his desire to control his future.)

Charlottes Webster: I don't think there's any chance he pulls a Lindros, tbh. Like, the draft has become so ingrained in the NHL culture that it's the norm. "You go to the team that drafts you and that's that." I think all players want to do what's best for them. Matthews was in a unique spot where he was actually given that choice. For Canadian players, 'THE PATH' is through CHL (and occassionally you get a guy who goes to NCAA like Toews). That's basically the cultural expectation. They have a choice, but they don't really have a choice.

El Seldo: But his choice was amazing.

Scott: I really don’t think there’s much downside to the Leafs drafting Matthews. They’ve sought a top centre for some time and it just moves Kadri into a spot where he can thrive against weaker competition in the future. It might mean shifting William Nylander to the wing (which isn’t ideal, because he’s better at centre) but that’s not a bad problem to have. It certainly requires the Leafs be patient with the rebuild, because Matthews probably won’t be at his best until his second or third season.

[4] Would you consider one of the Finns as first overall selection instead, and why?

Acha: It's hard to see how a player at the draft could be better than Matthews. Maybe due to his sneaky birthday, he's got power and a mature ability to read plays that I don't think is matched by the Finnish prospects.

El Seldo: I wouldn't, because while BPA is overall the best draft strategy, when you have #1, and one of the top choices is a C is near universally a agreed upon as #1, TAKE THE UNICORN.

Katya: Nope, nope, nope. As a totally dominating C in a men's league, Matthews just is worth more than those two really excellent players. Also, for the Leafs in particular, being freer to move Bozak and not have to worry about playing Nylander as 2C all the time right away is a bonus.

Scott: Matthews is the best player in the class and a centre. He is exactly what the Leafs need, they already have depth on the wing.

Bonus: Mitch Marner? JvR? Nylander? Kadri? Matthews? Too many options!

Katya: For the winger question, I want to talk about why not JVR. JVR is the best player on the Leafs right now. Unquestionably in my mind. But he's an very, very high shot rate player. I'm not sure that fits with Nylander, much less Matthews. So, I think JVR with Kadri is how it might have to go. That was broken up only because Bozak must have a shooter on his line. I look at Eichel though, and Bylsma tried that, tried to play him with this or that veteran, and he kept coming back to Sam Reinhart. I think Soshnikov might be perfect for him on the third line at first.

Acha: Bozak might be a good choice on his wing, instead of JvR, then.

Katya: I mean, we're not even mentioning Marner here at all!

Acha: I always shipped Marner with Nylander on the 1st / 2nd / 3rd line.

Katya: Yeah, even without Matthews, I think Marner is destined for wingerdom.

El Seldo: Yeah, that's where Marner was played most of this year, I'd think there was some request from Toronto on that.

Katya: I agree with Leafs Hub guy, a Nylander-Marner line needs a big tough LW who still plays at a very high level. So if the Leafs draft Matthews, that's a domino that falls, they need to find one of those.

Charlottes Webster: Can't Soshnikov be that LW? or maybe Komarov? And yeah, Marner is a winger through and through at this point.

El Seldo: haha I can't imagine how people would lose their minds of Leo was with Marner/Willie. Maybe not "lose their minds" but grumbling, oh yes.

Katya: I don't think so. They could maybe be like Kunitz to Crosby, but no, I think real hard man, owns the board battles, not little and scrappy is what's needed. Hornqvist, not Kunitz.

Charlottes Webster: Like a Nathan Horton (if he wasn't perma-hurt)?

Katya: Like Wayne Simmonds, Evander Kane or Gabriel Landeskog. Patrik Laine is ready to be picked, and I won't cry any tears if the Leafs get him. No one in the Liiga looks super tough. But he's got the body for it. He sure has drive. Can he be made into that? I don't know. I don't think he'd be Simmonds level glorious asshole, but he might get to Kane levels of toughness.

Charlottes Webster: I do agree that Nylander and Matthews might not be the best combination. I think a lot of people's instincts if we get Matthews would be to shift Willy to wing, and play him there. I'm not a fan of that. I think Nylander is better as a C than a W going forward. I feel the comp of Nylander to Backstrom is a decent one. If he turns out as good, I'm thrilled

Acha: I agree, I'm not sure why we'd displace Nylander and all his ability to the wing. They'd be 1C, 2C, 3C -- imagine the depth at that position, god.

Katya: God, this is a very current Tampa Bay lineup isn't it? All this interchangeable top nine talent?

Acha: Yeah, it's a whole box of chocolates!

~

More articles about Auston Matthews are neatly listed here in last week's From the Branches.