Auston Matthews the next big thing for the Toronto Maple Leafs
American centreman, 18, was drafted by Leafs at Friday's 2016 NHL Draft
When you grow up in the Arizona desert, ice can be tough to find — unless it's in a glass.
But as a young boy, Auston Matthews was able to find enough ice to eventually become the No. 1 pick in Friday night's 2016 NHL Draft in Buffalo.
Matthews watched his hockey idols on the Phoenix Coyotes as a youngster. Now, at the age of 18, the product of Scottsdale, Ariz., will be playing in a much colder city where ice is much more plentiful: Toronto.
The Maple Leafs' decision was certainly no surprise, as most hockey scouts say the American centreman is simply too good to pass up.
"Matthews is the best prospect available for the 2016 draft," Dan Marr, director of NHL central scouting, told NHL.com. "Matthews is an extraordinary prospect with NHL size, speed and smarts. He is the ultimate package when you combine all of that with his exceptional work ethic and relentless compete level."
Matthews was born in 1997, a year after the NHL came to Arizona. Of Mexican descent on his mother's side, he grew up playing baseball and hockey, but quickly fell in love with the latter. Watching Daniel Briere and Shane Doan make an impact with the Coyotes, Matthews decided hockey was the sport for him.
At the age of 15, he racked up 100 points in 48 minor hockey games with the Arizona Bobcats. The next year, he joined U.S.A. Hockey's National Team Development Program and began to compete against older athletes.
Matthews shares the same birth year as last year's No. 1 pick, Connor McDavid, but was ineligible for the 2015 draft because his birthday fell two days after the league's cutoff date.
Instead of returning to the development program where he amassed 116 points in 60 games during his final season with the under-18 team in the United States Hockey League, Matthews set his sights on professional hockey.
He took his talents overseas to Zurich to play in Switzerland's top hockey league. He signed with the ZSC Lions and posted 24 goals and 46 points in 36 games during the 2015-16 season.
At the 2016 world junior championships, the forward amassed seven goals and 11 points in seven games for the U.S. team. He also produced nine points in 10 games while playing in the world championships, which included many teams loaded with NHL talent.
Matthews' impressive performance against men — some twice his age — helped him earn a spot with the 23-and-under North America team that will compete in the World Cup of Hockey taking place in Toronto in September.
But it's not all about numbers with Matthews. Scouts contend the left-handed shooter has the hockey sense to be a contributor both offensively and defensively, with a large enough frame to create his own scoring chances along with the speed and agility to potentially become a force right out of the gate.
Standing six-foot-two-inches tall and weighing 216 pounds, Matthews entered Friday's draft in Buffalo as the consensus No. 1 pick, according to a May 1 mock draft published by the NHL. In at least four other mock drafts, the American was slated to go first when Toronto took the podium.
What the experts say
What may be most appealing about Matthews is the position he plays. Elite centres such as Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews and Ryan Getzlaf are difficult to find, and past results have shown teams usually need at least one standout in the middle of the ice to win the Stanley Cup.
"In my eyes, he will be Toronto's No. 1 centre right away," NHL central scouting's Thomas Roost said to Yahoo. "I'm pretty sure that he will have an immediate impact."
Marc Crawford, a Stanley Cup-winning head coach who spent the last year coaching Matthews' team in Zurich, said he has no doubt that the 18-year-old will become a top centre in the NHL.
"If you show Auston something, he gets it the first time," Crawford said to NHL.com. "All you need to know is that he wants to be like Jonathan Toews, and that says everything right there," he added.
"He wants to be the guy counted on in crucial moments. He's a winner. He's no shrinking violet."