Matthews still No. 1 pick in many peo­ple’s book

‘Com­plete pack­age’ has speed, play­mak­ing skill

Winnipeg Free Press - SundayXtra - - NHLCOMBINEREPORTNHLREPORT - By John Wawrow

BUF­FALO, N.Y. — His Euro­pean hockey ap­pren­tice­ship over, Aus­ton Matthews is back on North Amer­i­can soil and turn­ing his at­ten­tion on be­gin­ning his NHL ca­reer.

From Matthews’ home in Scotts­dale, Ariz., to play­ing pro in Switzer­land and last month’s world cham­pi­onships in Rus­sia, the 18-year- old for­ward ar­rived in Buf­falo this week to par­tic­i­pate in the league’s an­nual pre-draft com­bine. It’s the fi­nal step for Matthews, who in three weeks will be back for the NHL draft in Buf­falo, where he is pro­jected to be se­lected first over­all by the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“A lot of ad­ven­tures, but it’s nice to be back home,” Matthews said Fri­day, stand­ing in front of a large crowd of re­porters — many of them from Toronto.

“What­ever hap­pens, hap­pens. It’s out of your con­trol now. Our sea­son’s over,” Matthews said about whether he’ll be­come the first Amer­i­can-born player drafted first over­all since 2007, when Chicago se­lected Buf­falo-born for­ward Pa­trick Kane. “We have the test­ing (Satur­day) and that’s re­ally the last time be­sides meet­ings that you can re­ally make an im­pres­sion on teams.”

Matthews has made his mark de­spite mak­ing the un­usual move of play­ing for Zurich last sea­son.

Fin­ish­ing sec­ond in the league’s MVP vot­ing, he led the Lions and fin­ished 10th in the league with 24 goals, while ad­ding 22 as­sists in 36 games. De­spite a two-month lay­off af­ter Zurich was elim­i­nated in the first round of the play­offs in March, Matthews led the United States with six goals, while ad­ding three as­sists at the world cham­pi­onships.

“He lived up to ex­pec­ta­tions,” NHL cen­tral scout­ing direc­tor Dan Marr said about the 6-2, 194-pound Matthews. “No one was go­ing to say it would hap­pen, that he would be one of the best play­ers in the (Swiss) league, one of the top scor­ers in the league. That cer­tainly wasn’t ex­pected. It wouldn’t be of any 18 year old. But he went over there and had suc­cess.”

Cen­tral scout­ing ranks Fin­nish-born for­wards Pa­trik Laine and Jesse Pulju­jarvi sec­ond and third.

What sep­a­rates Matthews is his play­mak­ing abil­ity and speed, lead­ing Marr to de­scribe him as “the com­plete pack­age.”

Matthews’ per­for­mance at the world cham­pi­onship con­vinced Team North Amer­ica gen­eral man­ager Peter Chiarelli to make him one of the fi­nal seven play­ers cho­sen to the squad’s 23-player World Cup of Hockey ros­ter last week.

“We couldn’t ig­nore it,” Chiarelli said. “For me, he was one of the top two or three for­wards, if not the best on that U.S. team.”

Matthews’ de­ci­sion to play over­seas was prompted be­cause he was too old to play for the U.S. De­vel­op­men­tal team and too young — by two days — to be el­i­gi­ble for last year’s draft be­cause of his Sept. 17 birth­day.

Rather than spend a sea­son play­ing in col­lege or at the Cana­dian ju­nior level, Matthews and his agent Pat Bris­son, de­cided it would be best to de­velop his game in Zurich. An­other ben­e­fit was the Lions were headed by Marc Craw­ford, who coached the Stan­ley Cup-win­ning Colorado Avalanche in 1996.

“We flew him and his par­ents over to ex­plore and he was sold on it im­me­di­ately,” Bris­son said. “We wanted him in the right en­vi­ron­ment and felt the Swiss league was bet­ter than col­lege or the CHL.”

Matthews has no re­grets of just miss­ing out on be­ing part of last year’s draft, where Marr said he would have drawn com­par­isons to the top two play­ers se­lected, Ed­mon­ton’s Con­nor McDavid and Buf­falo’s Jack Eichel.

“When I was born, you can’t change that,” Matthews said. “I think it’s nice to get that ex­tra year to grow into your body some more and de­velop a lit­tle bit more.”

Grow­ing up an Ari­zona Coy­otes fan, Matthews has no dif­fi­culty ac­cept­ing the pres­sure that would come play­ing in a hockey mecca such as Toronto. It’s where coach Mike Bab­cock and gen­eral man­ager Lou Lamor­iello are in the midst of re­build­ing a once-proud fran­chise that has made the play­offs just once in the past 11 years.

The Leafs met with Matthews this week, but have yet to tip their hand re­gard­ing who they’ll draft first.

“If that were to hap­pen, I def­i­nitely think I can han­dle that. I think I’m phys­i­cally and men­tally strong,” Matthews said of play­ing in Toronto. “I want to be an im­pact player in the NHL. For what­ever team, I can see my­self be­ing that player.”


Aus­ton Matthews of the U.S. was one of the bet­ter play­ers at the re­cent world cham­pi­onship held in Rus­sia.


Ed­mon­ton Oil­ers gen­eral man­ager Peter Chiarelli is a big fan of Aus­ton Matthews.

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