It's not exactly hard-hitting analysis to write an article with a thesis along the lines of "Auston Matthews is a good hockey player". But as we head into his first training camp with the Leafs, there’s something in the fan and media narrative around him that I find curious.
The one thing you often hear about Matthews is that he has a very complete game for a teenager. If you wander into an /r/leafs thread about him, you're as likely to hear about his back-checking as his backhand. In some ways, the hype around Matthews has shifted into him developing into and being a stalwart two-way centre. Rather than being compared to previous first overall drafted centres like John Tavares and Steven Stamkos, the popular comps are now guys like Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Toews. And this isn't just fans.
It's scouts. It's his coach in Switzerland. It's Matthews himself. And I think to some extent, these comparisons (aside from the normal issues of player comparisons being spotty at best) underrate him.
Now to be clear, there is no shame in being Anze Kopitar or Jonathan Toews. Absolutely none. Toews is a first ballot HHOFer, and in my opinion, Kopitar is just as good. They're phenomenal, and if Matthews turns into either one of them, we have a real gem on our hands. But in his career thus far, Matthews' offensive resume dwarfs those two, as it does almost anyone not named Connor McDavid.
Part of the reason I think Matthews' offensive game has gotten relative short shrift is because of his unusual path. Most top prospects either play major junior or NCAA hockey. Matthews did neither. However, he did spend his D-1 year with the US National Team Development Program, and we can take a look at how it stacks up all time. Below are the top 10 scoring seasons for the US U18 National Team:
|Player||Season||Birthday||Age as of September 1||GP||G||A||TP||PPG|
|Auston Matthews (C)||2014-2015||1997-09-17||16.97||60||55||61||116||1.93|
|Phil Kessel (RW)||2004-2005||1987-10-02||16.93||41||41||32||73||1.78|
|Clayton Keller (C)||2015-2016||1998-07-29||17.10||62||37||70||107||1.73|
|Jack Eichel (C)||2013-2014||1996-10-28||16.85||53||38||49||87||1.64|
|Patrick Kane (RW)||2005-2006||1988-11-19||16.79||43||35||33||68||1.58|
|Phil Kessel (RW)||2003-2004||1987-10-02||15.93||32||31||18||49||1.53|
|Sonny Milano (LW)||2013-2014||1996-05-12||17.32||58||29||57||86||1.48|
|Matthew Tkachuk (LW)||2014-2015||1997-12-11||16.73||65||38||58||96||1.48|
|Jeremy Bracco (RW/C)||2014-2015||1997-03-17||17.47||65||30||64||94||1.45|
|Clayton Keller (C)||2014-2015||1998-07-29||16.10||16||9||14||23||1.44|
Well, would you look at that.
He leads the pack in terms of PPG, over gifted NHL scorers like Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel, and Jack Eichel. By now, we all know Matthews is old for his draft class, but he's not much older than the other players leading the pack here, if at all. From this alone, his amateur scoring record is more prolific than the two most decorated US-born scorers of the last five years or so.
While the NLA is hard to put into context, Matthews has been polite enough to be so good that he was invited to men's international competitions, with the World Championships in May, and the World Cup of Hockey ongoing. He put up nine points in 10 games at the World Championships, and another three points in three games during the World Cup. Obviously, short tournaments should not be the basis of any long-term conclusions (besides how USA Hockey done goofed), but he excelled offensively playing against NHLers, and in a weird way, it seems like that hasn't been discussed enough. That is, we have a teenager here who obliterated US National Team records, then went to a mid-tier professional league and was among the leading scorers, and THEN went to two different international men's competitions against NHL players, and was basically PPG. He hasn't played a NHL game yet! There’s just no other prospect who has accomplished what he has prior to playing a real NHL game. His offensive resume is nothing short of ridiculous, and it should be treated as such.
Storylines affect outlooks
So why is it that Matthews has drawn comparisons to Kopitar and Toews, and not the offensive dynamo type of centres that his resume seemingly justifies? A few reasons come to mind:
For one, Matthews' offensive game is boring. He's like Thomas Muller of Bayern Munich and Germany. He's in the right place, at the right time, to make the right play. He doesn't have the booming shot of a Steven Stamkos, the silky hands of Patrick Kane, or the blinding speed of Nathan MacKinnon.
Also, prospects are defined by their most notable or remarkable trait. For a teen superstar like Matthews, simply knowing where his own blueline is puts him ahead of the curve. The fact that he's evidently an avid learner of the defensive side of the puck is remarkable in hockey, given the idea that players start out as terrible defensively and slowly improve as they gain experience.
Finally, Patrik Laine took the role of "sharpshooting offensive dynamo" in the discussions that dominated the top of this draft, and Matthews' supposed all-round brilliance was used as a contrasting point between the two great prospects. The common thread around this seems to be that Laine will likely out-score Matthews over the course of their careers, though Matthews may be the better player.
Regardless of the reasons as to why Matthews' defensive game has become lauded and his offensive game less talked about, it shouldn't be the case. His offensive resume is stellar, and second to almost no one. That should be recognized.