It isn't every day you see an 18-year-old prodigy take his talents overseas and dominate against many NHL-caliber players the way Auston Matthews did this season for Zurich in National League A, Switzerland's top professional league.
Matthews, a native of Scottsdale, Ariz., now looks to become the first American-born player selected No. 1 in the NHL Draft since Patrick Kane was chosen by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2007.
The 6-foot-1, 210-pound left-handed center is No. 1 on NHL Central Scouting's midterm list of international skaters eligible for the 2016 draft on June 24-25 in Buffalo, N.Y. Goran Stubb, the NHL Director of European Scouting, is in the process of finalizing the last international ranking to be released next month on NHL.com.
Many think that if Matthews was born 48 hours earlier, making him eligible for the 2015 draft, he might have given Massachusetts native Jack Eichel a run for his money as the top American-born player selected.
Eichel went No. 2 to the Buffalo Sabres after Connor McDavid was chosen No. 1 by the Edmonton Oilers.
While Matthews performed well against men this season, finishing second in voting for National League A most valuable player, Eichel has also proven to be no slouch in his rookie season in the NHL.
That raises an interesting question: Are Matthews and Eichel more similar or different in their approach and style to the game?
"We're both pretty big guys and we like to have the puck on our stick; we're both power forwards," Matthews told NHL.com. "I think the style of our game might be a little bit different. Jack is obviously an unbelievable skater. I've never seen somebody skate like him. He has a great shot and is really powerful. I kind of am a little bit quicker in the corners and stuff with my hands. I try to use my hands and vision a lot."
David Gregory, who has evaluated prospects for Central Scouting the past 15 years, saw plenty of Matthews last season with USA Hockey's National Team Development Program and followed the path of Eichel during his Hobey Baker Award-winning season at Boston University.
"I guess it's a little like asking me to compare Rembrandt and Picasso," Gregory said. "They both make your art gallery better."
Eichel and Matthews teamed up for the United States at the 2015 World Junior Championship. Eichel, who was captain, had one goal and four points in five games. Matthews, the youngest player on the U.S. roster, had one goal and three points in five games.
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"Where Jack and Auston are similar is that they are both great on their edges," NCAA hockey analyst Dave Starman said. "They are both great with the puck wide of their body; they glide fast. Even when they're not moving their feet, they're so strong and so good on their edges they generate a lot of speed even without their feet moving."
Left wing Matthew Tkachuk, No. 1 on NHL Central Scouting's midterm ranking of North American skaters eligible for the draft, has skated alongside each player.
"They are both really competitive and have the puck on their stick the whole game," Tkachuk said. "They are fast, hard to play against, and along the boards they're going to come out with the puck. Auston seems to have the puck glued to his stick and Eichel has straight-away speed. He's probably the fastest I've ever seen from blue line to blue line."
Eichel had 38 goals and 87 points in 53 games for USA Hockey's Under-18 NTDP in 2013-14. Matthews had 55 goals and 116 points in 60 games for the U-18 NTDP in 2014-15.
Danton Cole coached each player at the USA Hockey program in Plymouth, Mich.
"From a physical standpoint they're both very similar, but it's a different-type game," Cole said. "People have seen Jack play now and aren't surprised anymore with the power he plays with. With Auston, I don't want to say he's more finesse, but maybe more of a cutter, whereas Jack is more power.
"But they're big centers who play at a real hard pace and what's very similar is that they each have a competitive burn to succeed at all costs."
Some see Eichel as a two-way power forward who produces points and Matthews as a two-way skilled forward who produces points. Others believe Eichel is more dominant in open ice, but Matthews is more of a force in tight quarters. Either way, a team can't go wrong.
"Matthews to me looks bigger and uses his shoulders really well to cut into traffic and make plays," Starman said. "Eichel has this ability to sell you on a long stick and then bring it in. Matthews doesn't sell as much, but he seems to know what he wants to do and you know what he wants to do and he's able to do it because of his skill level and those hands."
Mark Kelley, Blackhawks senior director of amateur scouting, said he feels Eichel and Matthews are two distinctively different players but impactful in their own right.
"Auston probably plays a little more of a power game in terms of going through areas whereas Jack has that power game that's a little more surgical." Kelley said.
Eichel and Matthews could be teammates for Team North America in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey from Sept. 17 to Oct. 1 in Toronto. Only players 23 years old or younger as of Oct. 1, 2016 are allowed to play for the team. Jim Johannson, who is serving hockey operations for Team USA at the World Cup, knows any team with Eichel and Matthews will be tough to contain.
"It's fun to compare those two because they're two big, talented centermen," Johannson said. "Jack has those explosive first two strides and it's deceptive because guys don't realize how fast he's going because he really glides along the ice.
"Auston is a player with a solid low game, using size and creativity."
Dan Marr, NHL Director of Central Scouting, said each player has NHL-caliber talent and hockey sense but the one thing that puts them over the top is their drive to succeed.
"What's key to stepping in and playing in the NHL is the physical development and maturity of a player, and Eichel and Matthews each possess that," Marr said. "Auston played in a pro league this season and Eichel has stepped right into the NHL."
Eichel ranks second among NHL rookies with 23 goals and 50 points, and first with eight power-play goals. He is also tops in average ice time (19:06) among rookie forwards in 74 games. He considers Matthews a dynamic force and predicts good things for his friend in the future.
Matthews learned a lot from watching Eichel last season, particularly how to deal with the media on a regular basis.
"The way Jack handled himself [in his draft year] with all the media hype with Connor McDavid was something I watched very closely," Matthews said. "He kept his world small. He didn't focus too much on what people were saying around him. He just worked hard and let the results follow."