One look at Auston Matthews and it is easy to see why he is ranked at the top of the 2016 NHL Draft class. Not only are his stats from the United States National Team Development Program (U.S. NTDP) eye-popping, but at just 17 years of age, he is already 6’2” and 195 pounds. The combination of size and skills make him a can’t-miss prospect. He is regarded as one of the best offensive players to have played for the U.S. NTDP.
Despite growing up in a non-traditional hockey market, Matthews got into hockey at an early age.
“I got into hockey because my uncle had season tickets to Coyotes games when I was 2 or 3,” says Matthews. “Then I started playing when I was five.”
While the Arizona Coyotes have done well to boost the status of hockey in the southwestern state, it still has a ways to go before it can be known as a hockey hot-bed and a consistent producer of high-end talent.
Like many other youth stars, Matthews was the hot topic at local rinks from a very young age and he was consistently playing one or two age groups above his own. As he moved up to the Arizona Bobcats, a Phoenix area minor hockey organization, he eventually landed on their top-tier Midget AAA team. The Bobcats are regulars at some of the most well known youth hockey tournaments in North America.
“I played under a great coach, Ron Filion, who helped me a lot in my development,” says Matthews.
Filion, a former QMJHL player, was also the general manager and head coach of the now non-operational Phoenix Roadrunners of the ECHL. He had previously played professionally for a short period of time in the United States and in Europe after a three-year career in the QMJHL.
Matthews was invited to try out for the U.S. NTDP program in Ann Arbor when he was 16 and it was here that he knew he had a shot at playing professional hockey.
“I started realizing that at the NTDP tryout camp,” said Matthews. “I performed really well and made the team and naturally you make the connection that a lot of players out of the NTDP go on to play pro hockey.”
He made the U17 team for the start of the 2013-14 season but in his second game broke his left femur. That injury would force him to be sidelined for three months but Matthews came back better than expected. After posting 33 points in 24 games for the U17 team, he was invited to play on the U18 team alongside the likes of Jack Eichel, Sonny Milano, and Alex Tuch. He made the most of his opportunity to play with the best playmakers in the program and had 17 points in 20 games, including 12 goals. Matthews also had 20 points in 20 games for the team that competes in the USHL, the top-tier Junior “A” league in the United States.
“It was a lot faster and more physical,” said Matthews of his USHL experience. “You’re no longer playing kids your age; you’re playing 20-year-old men who are more developed not only physically but mentally through playing more games. It was a really fast paced game compared to midgets.”
As for the off-ice adjustments, it has been relatively easy for Matthews.
“Ann Arbor is a little colder than Phoenix, but I think I’ve made the adjustment well. It helps to have great billets and being around your teammates all the time helps, too. They’re going through the same thing as me.”
At the start of 2014, Matthews made his first international appearance for Team USA when the U17 team played in the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge hosted by Hockey Canada in Cape Breton. In that tournament, Matthews scored eight points in six games, which placed him fourth in team scoring and ninth overall in the tournament.
“Overall, our team was playing phenomenal as one unit. It took every guy to chip in and buy into our system and I believe that’s why we were successful,” says Matthews. “I’ve been playing on a line with Matthew Tkachuk most of the year and we’ve developed some great chemistry. It’s fun.”
A few months later, Matthews made another appearance on the international stage, this time for the U18 team in the Under-18 World Championship held in Finland. In that tournament, Matthews had seven points in seven games which tied him for third in team scoring and seventh in the tournament.
With Matthews’ help, Team USA would go on to win both tournaments.
As far as what can be done by Matthews to further his hockey career, accelerating his education and enrolling in college a year early is something he is considering.
“I’ve been looking at BU, BC, Denver, Michigan and North Dakota. The option of accelerating my education is out there and that opens up playing college hockey next season.”
He certainly is skilled enough to keep up with the older players as he has shown in exhibition games against some of the top NCAA Division 1 schools.
“I personally love playing in NCAA games,” said Matthews. “The atmosphere is unbelievable in those buildings and you can see the history everywhere. It’s hard to say what kind of impact I’d have immediately on an NCAA team. I believe in my talent and hard work and know that it takes another level of compete to play college hockey. I guess it depends on the situation.”
It should also be noted, however, that Matthews is also property of the Everett Silvertips of the WHL. The Silvertips made Matthews the 57th pick of the 2012 WHL Bantam Draft. The current state of the Silvertips would allow Matthews to immediately establish himself as one of their best players and earn himself significant ice time.
“I’ve talked to the people in Everett,” said Matthews. “I don’t look into rosters and minutes and instead let my game take me where I want to be. I visited the Silvertip facilities and the city; both are great and the organization is first class.”
For now, Matthews will continue to play in the U.S. NTDP for another year before he makes any decisions about his future. He is already the top player in the program with 45 points in 24 games on the U18 squad and 14 points in eight games for the junior squad that competes in the USHL.
It is very clear that Matthews has widened the gap between himself and other North American players in his age group to the point that he will either need to play NCAA hockey or major juniors to further his development.
For now, he will concentrate on what could be his last season with the U.S. NTDP as well getting ready for the upcoming U20 World Junior Championship. This will be Matthews’ first appearance on the biggest stage for junior hockey and to really test himself not just against his peers, but against players already drafted and professionals as well.
“I’m definitely excited. The idea of representing your country anywhere at any tournament is such a huge honor,” adds Matthews. “I’m really excited for the opportunity to compete and try to make the team. I’ve been trying to work on all aspects of my game, getting faster and stronger, as well, and being a complete player.”
Follow Chau Vo on Twitter via @chowdersoop