Fans and some 100 NHL scouts had an opportunity to witness two of the most high-profile prospects eligible for the draft during the United States National Junior Evaluation Camp here at Lake Placid Olympic Center's 1980 Herb Brooks Arena this week.
Center Auston Matthews (6-foot-1, 210 pounds), the projected No. 1 pick, is starring for the U.S. national junior team. Right wing Jesse Puljujarvi (6-3, 203), widely considered to be the top European prospect, has been equally impressive for Finland.
Each player represented his country at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship and will likely participate in the 2016 WJC in Helsinki, Finland, to be held Dec. 26, 2015 through Jan. 5, 2016.
There are some who believe Matthews and Puljujarvi play a similar power game and offer uncanny ability. While that may be the case, Matthews, who will play the 2015-16 season for the Zurich Lions in the Swiss National League, would appear to have an edge with his all-around game at this stage.
"There are some similarities, but I think Matthews is more used to playing on the small rink and maybe he's better playing in the small area, in the corners and in front of the net," Finland coach Jukka Jalonen said. "Puljujarvi is a good skater but he has to improve his superstar play a little bit; the stuff he'll need in the NHL. I think Matthews at the moment is a little closer to that level, but Puljujarvi is coming to that level quickly."
Matthews set records with USA Hockey's National Team Development Program last season for goals (55) and points (117), surpassing the 52 goals and 102 points in 2005-06 by Patrick Kane. He could become the first American-born player to go No. 1 in the draft since Kane was selected by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2007.
"They are each smart hockey players," New Jersey Devils director of scouting Paul Castron said. "Matthews is maybe quicker with his agility, and Puljujarvi has that long reach. He can reach and strip the puck away from someone from a far distance.
"Their work ethic is phenomenal, so even when they lose the puck, they try so hard to get it back and win battles that way. They each make plays that make a difference in a game and make those they play with even better."
Puljujarvi was asked if he believes he plays a similar style to Matthews.
"I think we are pretty similar, but of course we have our own strengths," he said via an interpreter. "Auston is good with the puck and he has a good shot. We use our strength a little differently, but we are both big and strong on the puck."
Matthews feels that while he and Puljujarvi offer size and strength, it's tough to compare. Perhaps the only way to make a fair comparison is witnessing the two standouts head-to-head, something that could happen in the medal round of the 2016 WJC.
"I think there's some similarities between us," Matthews said. "He's obviously a pretty big guy and has a big shot. I think Puljujarvi and [Patrik] Laine are both very good [2016 prospects] for Finland. But there are some differences. Puljujarvi plays the wing and I play center. He has an exceptional shot and he really tries to use it a lot, and while I'm a shoot-first kind of guy, I really try and look for my teammates as well."
Matthews played a huge role in leading the United States to a gold medal at the 2015 IIHF World Under-18 Championship in Switzerland, scoring a tournament-high 15 points and tying for the lead with eight goals in seven games. He was named tournament MVP and the championship's best forward.
"I think my hands and vision are pretty good, but honestly, I try to be an all-around player," Matthews said. "I try and do everything; all the little things and everything I can to be a two-way player."
Puljujarvi, born in Sweden, had four goals and 11 points in 21 games for Karpat last season and was the youngest player at the 2015 WJC. He'll turn 18 on May 7, 2016. Matthews, who missed the cutoff for the 2015 draft by two days, turns 18 on Sept. 17.
"Matthews is a very unpredictable player because he has the confidence to do things people aren't expecting, so he's hard to defend," Detroit Red Wings assistant general manager Ryan Martin said. "Just having watched the Finns here at camp, [Laine and Puljujarvi] are both big strong power forwards. They can shoot the puck and want the puck on their stick. They're both really good players in their own right.
"I don't know that any one of them has locked down that top spot [at the 2016 draft] yet."
Puljujarvi was the sixth player to make the Finland under-20 national team as a 16-year-old, following retired NHL players Reijo Ruotsalainen and Janne Niinimaa, and current players Mikael Granlund of the Minnesota Wild, Olli Maatta of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Aleksander Barkov of the Florida Panthers.
"I think he has potential to become a good NHL player; he's a big guy and his attitude is very good," Jalonen said of Puljujarvi. "He skates very well and is in good physical condition and has a great attitude, works hard. He's a young guy and his overall play needs to improve, especially on the defensive side of the puck. He needs to learn how to play when the opponent has the puck, but that's normal things for a young guy. I believe he has a very bright future ahead of him."
Therein might lie the difference between Matthews and Puljujarvi at this stage: The former might be more the complete package.
"I had a chance to play with Auston the past two years [at the NTDP] and actually played on his line last year and that kid is a slam dunk No. 1," London Knights left wing Matthew Tkachuk said. "I've never seen a kid as driven as him, as skilled as him. His speed is unbelievable and it's a part of his game that's a little bit underrated. I saw Jack Eichel (drafted No. 2 by the Buffalo Sabres in June) play before and I think Auston is just as good."
Tkachuk, the son of U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member Keith Tkachuk, is a projected top-five pick in the 2016 NHL Draft. He also impressed at evaluation camp this week.
Finland left wing Mikko Rantanen, chosen No. 10 by the Colorado Avalanche in 2015, feels Puljujarvi has much potential and a lot going for him.
"He's funny in the locker room, a jokester," Rantanen said. "But he's so young. He's big and strong and has a great shot. I think he sees the ice well, and he moves well."
Flint Firebirds left wing Sonny Milano, selected No. 16 by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2014 draft, believes Matthews is a fantastic all-around athlete.
"He's big and fast, has great hands and is smart," Milano said. "He's the real deal and probably one of the best prospects, if not the best prospect, for 2016 in my eyes."
Author: Mike G. Morreale | NHL.com Staff Writer