I’m going to open this profile with a fun and relevant fact that I only just learned while preparing to write it. Denton Mateychuk is cousins with Owen Pickering, the defenseman out of Swift Current in the WHL I profiled yesterday. I didn’t even know that when I chose each to profile as potential first round picks for the Leafs.
What makes that funnier is that each of them are very different in their profiles and their recent background history. Where Pickering was a lower pick in the WHL (9th round), Mateychuk was taken 11th overall. Where Pickering had a more offensive profile, he had modest point totals until this season when he had his first real breakout. Mateychuk, on the other hand, scored at an almost 2.0 point per game pace in his WHL draft season. Where Pickering’s potential as a future NHLer hinges on his ability to harness the physical tools he’s been gifted after a huge growth spurt turned him into a 6’5” beanpole, Mateychuk is a more normal 5’11” guy, and he seems much more advanced and polished in his physical development.
The best part is that when they were drafted to the WHL in 2019, they were each listed as 5’7”, and now Pickering is half a foot taller. Imagine being his cousin and getting more and more annoyed each time you saw him again at family gatherings as he’s grown another inch. That mental image amuses me,
And yet, there is an argument to be made that Mateychuk is the better overall prospect. Maybe not in the long run, but certainly right now. Where Pickering has the size, skating and projectable tools to think he will very likely turn into some kind of NHL defenseman once he refines his mechanics and fills out his lanky frame, Mateychuk already has an argument to being one of the top defensemen in the entire WHL.
THE BASICS: STATS AND CONTEXT
Weight: 187 lbs
Birth date: July 12th, 2004
Here are his draft rankings, as of writing this:
- Bob McKenzie: 29th
- Will Scouch: 29th
- Scott Wheeler: 17th
- Elite Prospects: 8th
- Dobber Prospects: 18th
- Smaht Scouting: 16th
Mateychuk was drafted by Moose Jaw 11th overall in the 2019 WHL draft. He was coming off a season where he put up 23 goals and 61 points in 36 games... as a defenseman. That was good for 5th in the entire league for the level. The following season, he played as a 15 year old in an U18 league where he had 13 goals and 30 points in 30 games one of only three players in the entire league to be above a point per game, with that many games played.
Last season, which was extremely shortened by the pandemic, Mateychuk got into 16 games for his rookie debut in the WHL, and had 9 points. It was the first time he played at any level at under a point per game since 2017/18, but he made up for it this season, which was his big WHL breakout as a 17 year old. How much of a breakout?
His 64 points in 65 games was good for 46th in the entire WHL. For defensemen, it was 5th. For U18 defensemen it was 2nd, only one point behind Kevin Korchinski. By points per game, he was actually narrowly ahead of Korchinski since he played in two fewer games. By even strength primary points, Mateychuk had the most (30) out of ALL defensemen in the league, so he wasn’t padding his stats just with powerplay points.
THE GOOD: RELENTLESS ACTIVATION & SMART OFFENSE
As far as CHL defense prospects in this draft, there is a legitimate argument that Mateychuk is one of the most dynamic, skilled, and high-octane offensive defensemen available. What should be noteworthy for the Leafs is how he plays as an offensive force, because it feels very reminiscent to the sort-of “total hockey” style that they like to play. He is simply all over the ice, with and without the puck. Here’s a good video clip to illustrate just how true that is:
Denton Mateychuk (#5 in white) clips from October 2nd. The first clip sums his game well: Puck to the inside, join the rush, set up a teammate, kill a play in the NZ, repeat. Lots of details: Body positioning, in-motion passes, deception. #2022NHLDraft pic.twitter.com/B3QQjjJpp2— Mitchell Brown (@MitchLBrown) October 16, 2021
Offensively, he is constantly involving himself in the play in some fashion. With the puck, he is looking to push the play, and drive the puck towards more dangerous areas on the ice. He’ll carry the puck deeper into the offensive zone, trying to find a passing lane into the slot or just carry it there himself. Without the puck he’ll move all over the ice, frequently off the blueline, to present a passing option in a more dangerous position.
Mitch Brown at Elite Prospects touches on just how involved in every play Mateychuk is:
There isn’t a 2022 draft-eligible prospect more involved in any game than Mateychuk. He’s an extreme — the most activation-focused defenceman to come through the draft in recent memory that isn’t named Owen Power. His game is built around activation. He moves through every pass reception and sprints through every pass; he’s the ultimate play supporter.
He’s become quite the creator throughout the season. In a sample of 204 CHL and USHL defencemen, he’s top-10 in passes for scoring chances, passes into the slot and has the highest slot pass completion rate of any high-volume passer (95 percent). Additionally, he leads the sample in successfully moving pucks from the boards to the inside lane.
You can see that idea of activation anytime you watch him. This is an example of a kind of play I loved watching when seeing his games. Mateychuk is #5 in white, and he starts the play below with the puck on the near side boards. He crosses the blueline with the puck, and it’s a wall of bodies — the other team has three defenders greeting him and his two teammates for six bodies right along the blueline. But Mateychuk doesn’t panic, he waits and holds it just long enough for his teammate to get open in behind that initial wall of bodies. What I love love love about this play is that after passing it he immediately cuts into the center and books it straight to the net, giving his teammate the best passing option for a dangerous chance, while the other teammate wasn’t that open.
Here’s another example. Mateychuk gets the pass at the point with a defender in front of him. He makes a pass down the boards to a teammate that got open for him, and immediately booked it towards the net just like he did above. Even with the defender seemingly aware of the trick, Mateychuk is quick enough to create a gap and get a good scoring chance from it. When he doesn’t score, he picks the puck back up in the corner and makes a quick circle into the slot — the other team gives him the space, he takes it aggressively, and walks in to snipe the overtime goal. That goal doesn’t happen without him aggressively activating from the point.
That goal also doesn’t happen without a strong set of skills, starting with his skating. He is quick, elusive and pretty fast. From there, he is able to activate so much and so effectively by using a combination of offensive skills (passing, puck handling) as well as just being smart and knowing how to open up a better opportunity. When he passes, it is often with a give and go in mind. Even if he doesn’t get the puck back, him beelining it to a dangerous area on the ice causes chaos as defenders scramble to close on him or keep up. That in turn can create an open teammate elsewhere. Scott Wheeler at The Athletic touches on this:
He’s already a plus-level skater, which helps him escape pressure with his feet, push up ice in control or trialing in transition, walk the line, and steer opposing players into tough spots despite not being the biggest guy. He’s the definition — or close — of the modern defenceman. Mateychuk pushes when he can and everything he does is done with poise and command. He plays a reliable and calculating game built around his mobility and sound decision-making.
So he has a lot of offensive skill, and he is frequently involved in the play all over the ice. That includes on defense, where he has a very consistent effort to be just as involved.
When defending transitions, he is aggressive attacking puck carriers and jumping into passing lanes to try and force turnovers, or at least dump ins. He kills plays in the neutral zone at a very strong rate for his age and size. While 5’11” isn’t the biggest player, he is 194 lbs already, so he’s pretty physically mature by now. He isn’t a lightweight that can get knocked around easily, and he is strong on his feet. That helps him defensively at the WHL level, where he can use his good timing, skating and anticipation to break up plays and even knock an opponent off balance.
In the defensive zone he isn’t quite as successful, where in tighter quarters and a more static cycle game he doesn’t have as easy a time defending. But in the WHL, he is still a very good defender in his own end. In fact, in just about any measure he appears to be one of the very best defensemen in every possible area.
This chart, of course, should be looked at with some caution. I do believe after having watched Mateychuk a fair amount that he is a very, very good defensemen in the WHL already. The fact that he’s a July birthday and still relatively young is also a good sign, but all that doesn’t give you the full story about his value as a prospect.
THE FLAWS: DEFENSE & SKATING PROJECTION
So, remember when I mentioned that Mateychuk seemed like the complete opposite as his cousin, Owen Pickering? It also holds true as to how each of them have value as prospects. Where Pickering’s value lies in how you project him in the future, Mateychuk seems already fairly refined and developed. It’s not easy to see how much better he can still develop his game in a way that will help him at higher levels, not like you can with Pickering.
At 194 lbs, he’s already filled out and possibly as strong as he may ever be. Some of that may be some fat he can turn into muscle, and he can learn how to get stronger in areas that matter more for hockey players — mainly their legs and core. It’s also hard to see how much more skill he can add, or how much better his skating can be.
That said, he can stand to improve two areas of his skating: explosiveness and top speed. His activation and his give-and-go’s will be helped by him being able to accelerate faster than his opponents to create more of a gap, and his top speed will help him all the more on both sides of the puck.
The other worry is that, despite him being pretty physically mature now, it’s hard to tell how his defense will project to the NHL. A 5’11” defenseman is not unheard of in the NHL anymore, but typically to make it they have to be brilliant skaters because they won’t be able to rely on a long reach or physically overpowering opponents like bigger defensemen can. They need to make up for that with skating, positioning, and anticipation.
For what it’s worth, Mateychuk seems to have the latter two elements already. The skating is also very good overall, but him getting better in the future will only help his chances of being an impact NHL defender. So if he doesn’t work out defensively in the NHL, it likely won’t be because of a lack of effort or doing the right thing. He may just not be able to execute defensively because of physical limitations. At the NHL, he’ll be having to defend physical freaks who are taller, bigger, stronger, and maybe even faster as well. That’s the risk with smaller defensemen like him.
While it’s easier to see how many NHL teams would salivate over Pickering’s potential, to the point that his rankings by the public or by Bob McKenzie likely won’t matter much. There’s a very good chance he is someone who gets taken higher than his rankings. Mateychuk is in the opposite kind of camp. He has far better offensive production than his cousin. He also has better defensive metrics, and better microstats in every possible way than Pickering.
And yet, him being a 5’11” defender may make that irrelevant. He plays a bit of an unusual style for a defenseman, when it comes to NHL comparables. There aren’t many that have made the NHL and been an impact top 4 defenseman that plays like him. Some teams will probably not really know what to do with him, where Pickering’s value seems more obvious and common.
I can see Mateychuk not being taken nearly as high as his final rankings indicate. Maybe a team who wants to build their team to play his style of frequent activation, total-hockey involvement and has multiple picks in the first round will swing on him with their second or third pick, but I can also see him easily dropping to Toronto;s draft pick spot.
Bob McKenzie had Mateychuk ranked 29th in his mid-season ranking. I’m once again really curious to see where he winds up in the final rankings, considering all of the more traditionally valued defensemen who were ranked behind him had strong finishes to their season. Even if he does wind up ranked a bit higher, I can see him still being taken outside of the first round, which makes him a potential target if the Leafs trade down to pick a bit lower, but he may also be worth taking 25th overall outright.
While his projection is a bit questionable compared to others, he is already playing at such a high level I don’t think it will matter much. He can turn into a second pairing defenseman who pushes play, drives transitions, racks up points at even strength and quarterbacks a powerplay.
In terms of his play style (frequent activation), profile of skills, and questions of his NHL projection, Mateychuk actually reminds me a lot of Topi Niemelä, but arguably already a bit better. and we know the Leafs like that style of play and that style of defenseman.
Would you draft Denton Mateychuk with the Leafs’ 25th overall pick?
A sub-6’ offensively skilled player? Gotta draft em all!
I’d rather trade down or pick someone else who is available at the same spot
Oh right, we don’t have enough of this kind of prospect.