Matthews grew up in Scottsdale, Ariz., but during the USA Hockey National Junior Evaluation Camp this week, the 16-year-old forward is proving to be just as good, if not better, than players who grew up in more traditional hockey climates. He's also staking his claim to a roster spot for the United States at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship.
"We're seeing a wonderful hockey player," said Jim Johansson, assistant executive director of hockey operations for USA Hockey and the general manager of the United States for the 2015 World Junior Championship. "Sturdiness, skating ability, compete level all have been excellent. I think the interesting part for us is it's a lot of hockey in a short time and yet to me it looks like he's, if not getting stronger, he's right on par with what the start of this camp was. Guys get worn down in this camp and that's part of it. I think what you're seeing is a very talented hockey player."
Matthews, a 6-foot, 197-pound center who is eligible for the 2016 NHL Draft, has dazzled through the first four days, scoring two goals in three games and surviving the first round of roster cuts. The coaching staff showed so much faith in Matthews that he was sent out to take an offensive-zone faceoff with 15 seconds left and the U.S. down by a goal against Finland on Monday.
J.T. Compher, at 19 one of the veterans on the team, is a natural center and also was on the ice for that late faceoff Monday. But he had no problem deferring to Matthews.
"When I was on his wing he said do you want to take draws, and I said you're the center, you're the one who has to take the draws, you're the one who has to step up and he did a great job the last couple days," Compher said. "He's been great. As the week has gone on he's gotten a lot more confident. It's tough when you're the young guy and you come in, you don't want to step on anyone's toes. But you have to go out there, you have to play the way you play, that's why they invited you. He's a really good kid, and you can see it on the ice that he's a heck of a player already."
His experience this week has been just another step in the rapid ascent Matthews has made in the hockey community. And it all started thanks to the Arizona Coyotes.
"My uncle had season tickets to the Coyotes games when I was 2 and 3, and he'd take me and my dad all the time," Matthews said.
It didn't take him long to go from being a spectator to being a participant.
"I remember the first time I skated, I fell in love with it," Matthews said. "I was about 4, I think, the first time I skated, and the next couple weeks my parents signed me up [for hockey]."
Matthews excelled with the local house leagues and caught the attention of the United States National Team Development Program. He was invited to attend a tryout camp for the under-17 team; it was a big jump going from the Arizona Bobcats bantam team to going against the best of the best in the United States in his age group, but he excelled and made it.
"It was different," Matthews said. "A lot of players I didn't know. I think I knew a couple guys because I played with them before, but a lot of East Coast guys that I didn't know. I didn't know what to expect but it was a great experience."
Moving from the desert to the colder climates of Ann Arbor, Mich., was a bit of an adjustment, and not just because Matthews had to wear a winter coat for the first time. He was living away from home for the first time, and then in his second game a knee-on-knee hit left him with a broken femur in his left leg. He was sidelined for three months, but more than made up for the lost time when he got healthy.
In 24 games with the USNTDP under-17 team he had 12 goals and 33 points. That earned him time with the under-18 team, and he continued to excel with 12 goals and 18 points in 20 games.
The 2014 IIHF World Under-18 Championship was his real coming-out party. He tied Jack Eichel for the team lead with five goals and was third on the team with seven points in seven games to help the United States win the gold medal in Finland.
"I was just hoping to play well and hope we could just keep winning," Matthews said. "That [his success] was kind of a little icing on the cake. That was a great experience. The team played unbelievable."
After his strong turn here, Matthews will return to Ann Arbor for full season with the USNTDP U-18 team, and then a future that could include college hockey or the Western Hockey League, with the Everett Silvertips owning his rights. Matthews said he's started looking at colleges and has spoken with Everett general manager Gary Davidson, but said he's not ready to make any decisions beyond this season.
"I'm just taking my time right now," he said. "Just focus on the season and what comes after that I don't really know yet. I'm just taking my time."
What's in the present is having a strong start to a full season with the USNTDP U-18 team and hopefully earning a spot on the team that goes to Montreal and Toronto for the World Juniors.
"It definitely would be surreal," Matthews said. "Canada takes the tournament so seriously, there's so many people, such high expectations. It would be a blast. It would be a huge honor. The top 22 guys are going over there."
And there won't be much surprise if the kid from Arizona is one of 22.
"After seeing what happened last year, this is a guy that had a bad injury at the start of last year and steadily grew," Johansson said. "The skating, the explosiveness, the compete level, it's everything he built on last year. We thought he'd bring it here and he has."
Author: Adam Kimelman | NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor