Auston Matthews is taking an unconventional path to the NHL, and has earned a few accolades already while playing in Switzerland. Two electric playmakers go head-to-head in a battle of assist machines in the QMJHL, and a pair of potential Canadian teammates will likely see a lot of each other in a weekend contest. The Tampa Bay Lightning’s newest signee lines up against a powerhouse forward in what could be a preview of what to expect in the future from both Floridian franchises. NCAA hockey is back, and two Top-20 teams are set to clash in a non-conference game to close out this week’s edition of Prospect Faceoff.
Auston Matthews (ZSC) vs. Jason Fuchs (HC Ambri-Piotta) – NLA
It’s a tradition years in the making, but Auston Matthews’ golden helmet represents one of the youngest talents to ever adorn the PostFinance Top Scorer helmet. It’s an honor given to the leading scorer, something Matthews has already become after just nine games with the ZSC Lions. It’s an attention getting effort that keeps fans focused on the best players, and scouts have taken notice, too. Ranked first in NHL Central Scouting’s top list of European skaters, Matthews, a Scottsdale, Arizona native, is playing in the Swiss National League A in an attempt to become a trailblazer for other young players who feel they need an alternate, more challenging path to the NHL.
He may not have the pedigree or skill of Auston Matthews, but Jason Fuchs is a player with plenty of World Junior Championship experience who is trying to get his season under way. Held without a point so far, Fuchs is trying to rekindle his scoring touch after being well over a point-per-game player at the junior level. Fuchs, who scored an electrifying goal for Switzerland over the Czech Republic in the 2014 WJC, is now in his second season with Ambri-Piotta. The diminutive forward has shown flashes of skating mobility and has the hands to keep up with his feet, but is struggling to adjust to life in professional hockey. He will face a big test going head-to-head against Matthews and a powerful Zurich Lions squad.
Evgeny Svechnikov (Cape Breton) vs. Conor Garland (Moncton) – QMJHL
Heralded as one of the best European players currently in the CHL, Evgeny Svechnikov returns to Cape Breton for a second season. The 19th overall pick of the Detroit Red Wings in the 2015 NHL Draft has already tallied three times and added three helpers in six games. The production is slightly down from last year, but the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles have struggled to move the puck adequately, a big reason why the team is hovering in the middle of the standings. Their ascent to the top will most certainly be led by Svechnikov, who already has an entry-level contract in hand from the Red Wings.
If there was any question whether or not Conor Garland’s 2014-15 QMJHL scoring title was an outlier, you can put those thoughts to rest. The Arizona Coyotes may have a late-round gem with their fifth round selection of Garland, who finished last year with 129 points in 67 games. So far, Garland already has five goals and 14 assists in just seven games, ridiculous production and a good reason why the Moncton Wildcats are sitting on top of the Maritimes Division.
Joe Hicketts (Victoria) vs. Mathew Barzal (Seattle) – WHL
It’s possible that these two could be teammates at the upcoming WJC tournament, but Joe Hicketts is going to be an important part of Victoria’s defense as they attempt to slow down Mathew Barzal and the Seattle Thunderbirds. Hicketts, perhaps a surprising addition to Canada’s WJC team last year, didn’t look out of place and appears to be an ever-competitive top pairing defenseman for the Victoria Royals. Hicketts is in his fourth season in the WHL, and second as Victoria’s captain. The undersized defenseman has contributed to the offense, which he has done to the tune of nine assists in 8 games so far, one reason why the Royals have started 7-1-1.
Seattle is off to a hot start this season with just one loss in regulation, and that is without Mathew Barzal for a few games, who earned a long look at the New York Islanders training camp. The 16th overall pick has good reason to be motivated this season after falling out of the top 10 picks at the 2015 NHL Draft, where some draft pundits figured he would go. Barzal is a shifty playmaker that has the ability to create a play from nothing, and is the obvious and key cog in the Thunderbirds attack. After back-to-back 50+ point seasons, the Thunderbirds need more from their thoroughbred if they hope to take home the WHL’s U.S. Division title.
Dominik Masin (Peterborough) vs. Juho Lammikko (Kingston) – OHL
The Tampa Bay Lightning rewarded Dominik Masin with a three-year, entry-level contract just two weeks into the OHL season after Masin had a fantastic training camp with the big club. It’s a strong message sent to a fantastic, two-way defender who has been an underrated part of the Peterborough Petes defensive corps. Masin, the 35th overall pick in 2014, isn’t scoring at the same pace as last year with just one assist in seven games. But despite the lack of offense, Masin has been a big part of why the Petes are off to a hot start in 2015-16.
With Masin potentially heading to Tampa Bay down the road, Juho Lammikko figures to be an equally big piece of the puzzle for their rivals in South Florida, the Florida Panthers. With Lawson Crouse serving one more game on his suspension left over from last season, Lammikko has stepped up to help lead the offense as he re-acclimates to life in the OHL after beginning the season in Finland. There was a complicated contractual issue that had to be overcome, but now that Lammikko is back, Kingston’s offense is rolling. The talented Finn has three goals and three assists in seven games under the defensive-minded coaching of Paul McFarland.
Jake Guentzel (Nebraska-Omaha) vs. Liam Coughlin (Vermont) – NCAA
In an early-season matchup of two nationally ranked teams, Jake Guentzel leads the University of Nebraska-Omaha (3) up to Vermont to face the 20th-ranked Catamounts.
Leadership is a quality often heralded in hockey circles, and Jake Guentzel is going to step into a leadership role as one of the top returning scorers for the Mavericks. Expectations are certainly high for the team, and they will need Guentzel to continue right where he left off last season following a 14-goal, 25-assist sophomore season. As a junior, Guentzel’s speed and tenacious forechecking ability should help him continue his upward development trend as a 2013 third round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Liam Coughlin is the only NHL-drafted player for the University of Vermont, and is entering his freshman season after a highly successful career with the Vernon Vipers in the BCHL. The Edmonton Oilers made Coughlin their fifth round pick in 2014, with his rights being dealt to the Chicago Blackhawks in an offseason trade. He is no newcomer to hockey in the Northeast, having grown up through the Boston Bruins U18 midget program. He added an assist in his first collegiate game and will be looking to add his first goal in this week’s contest.
Vince Dunn (Niagara) vs. Dylan Strome (Erie) – OHL
Dylan Strome returned to the OHL and made quite an opening statement. He assisted on an Alex DeBrincat goal towards the end of the first period to open up the scoring, and went on to finish with five assists in the Erie Otters 7-2 win over the Niagara IceDogs. Things were not so happy on the other side of the equation, as Vince Dunn finished without a point and was -3 on the night. In fact, Dunn was on the ice for three of the goals that Strome assisted on, as the two truly went head-to-head. With four additional matchups on the docket this year, this rivalry will be an interesting one to follow.
Gabriel Gagne (Victoriaville) vs. Timo Meier (Halifax) – QMJHL
Gabriel Gagne missed this weekend’s tilt against Halifax with a mysterious lower-body injury, and his return in the near future is now questionable. Despite not having him in the lineup, Victoriaville flexed their offensive muscles in a 6-1 victory over Halifax. Carl Marois paced the Tigres by scoring a hat trick, while Olivier Tremblay picked up the win in goal by stopping 31 of 32 shots. Swiss import Timo Meier scored the only goal for the Mooseheads, who drop to 2-7-1-1.
Jaedon Descheneau (Kootenay) vs. Ivan Provorov (Brandon) – WHL
Anyone who has coached the game of hockey knows that sometimes a game just gets away from you, and the best thing to do is forget it, brush yourself off, and move on. That’s exactly what happened in Brandon as the home team defended their home ice capably in a 13-1 blowout win. The Wheat Kings looked like Memorial Cup contenders thanks to Reid Duke’s five-point game and a pair of four-point efforts from Jayce Hawrlyuk and Macoy Erkamps. Ivan Provorov picked up three assists and finished with a +5 rating. Jaedon Descheneau was injured in a fight earlier in the week and did not dress for the game.
Erich Fear (Springfield) vs. Jack LaFontaine (Janesville) – NAHL
Two of the stingiest defensive teams matched up in NAHL weekend action, and 2016 NHL Draft-eligible defenseman Erich Fear was on the right side of Springfield’s 2-1 victory over Janesville. Fear was on the ice for the only goal against, finishing without a point and a -1 rating. For Janesville, Jack LaFontaine was the goalie of record, stopping 21 of 23 shots to take only his second loss of the season.
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