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Matthews, Puljujarvi will be big stars of 2016 WJC

by Arpon Basu / NHL.com

MONTREAL -- Much of the focus at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship has been the showdown between the top two prospects for the 2015 NHL Draft, Connor McDavid of Canada and Jack Eichel of the United States.

The two will go head to head on New Year's Eve when Canada and the U.S. complete preliminary-round play in a showdown between the two top teams of Group A at Bell Centre (4 p.m. ET, NHLN-US, NHL.com).

However, flying well below that radar is the arrival on the big stage of two of the top prospects for the 2016 draft.

Forwards Auston Matthews of the United States and Jesse Puljujarvi of Finland have not looked the least bit out of place in a tournament that is generally unkind to players who are so far from their draft year.

A big reason why in both cases is their size; Matthews and Puljujarvi are built like players one or two years older than they are.

Matthews, 17, is listed at 6-foot and 198 pounds, Puljujarvi, 16, at 6-foot-3 and 196 pounds. Each of them has displayed speed, smarts and skills to go with that brawn.

It makes you wonder how each of them might look a year from now when they will be under the glare of the NHL draft spotlight, with the WJC being held in Puljujarvi's native Finland. They will be that much bigger, probably more skilled and definitely more dominant among their peers.

"It's kids like Matthews and Puljujarvi that maintain my faith in hockey," one NHL general manager said at the WJC this week.

While the 2014 tournament has been all about McDavid and Eichel, it is entirely possible it will be the same thing for Matthews and Puljujarvi a year from now.

Matthews, a native of Scottsdale, Ariz., has one goal, one assist and 11 shots on goal through three games for the U.S. But what has been most impressive has been Matthews' ability to play a 200-foot game. He's looked just as capable in his own end as he does in the offensive zone, where he can be a load to contain down low.

If there's one thing that jumps out about Matthews, it's that he doesn't necessarily jump out at you, at least not for the wrong reasons. There are no glaring errors, no poor positioning, none of the things you would expect from a player so young playing on such a large stage.

"It's a big adjustment, but you just have to go out there and not think about how young you are," Matthews said. "You just have to think everyone's a hockey player out there and just play your game."

Matthews has done that and improved throughout the tournament after a rough start in his first game against Finland, where he inadvertently re-directed Finland's only goal into the U.S. net and took a pair of bad penalties in the third period of a game tied 1-1, one the United States would go on to win 2-1 in a shootout.

As the tournament has progressed, Matthews has become one of U.S. coach Mark Osiecki's most important forwards.

"I think he's mature where he understands his game," Osiecki said. "He understands shift by shift if he's had a good shift, a poor shift. He's able to channel it in the right direction and not get frustrated. For a young kid to have the ability to not get too frustrated with himself and be able to understand the objective of his next shift, he really has a good handle on where he's at as a player."

Matthews, who got hooked on hockey at a young age while attending Arizona Coyotes games, already has been identified as one of the top prospects for the 2016 draft; he's getting a crash course in what that will be like at the WJC. Not only is Matthews witnessing the scrutiny surrounding Eichel, he has a front-row seat to what it might be like for him a year from now.

"I've been rooming with Jack, so he's definitely been a good guy to talk to, just seeing what he goes through every day with the media and stuff like that," Matthews said. "It's just how he keeps his head on straight and focuses on what needs to be done on the ice. I know the rest will take care of itself."

While Matthews has been remarkable in the way he has seamlessly fit in, Puljujarvi has been impossible to ignore on a Finland team that has struggled to score. He has been a magnet for the puck and appears to produce a scoring chance on nearly every shift thanks to his blazing speed through the neutral zone.

In Finland's 2-1 loss to Slovakia, Puljujarvi had a team-high six shots on goal and at least as many grade-A scoring chances. Every time he touched the puck, something exciting appears to happen.

Through three games, Puljujarvi has no points but has leads Finland with 18 shots on goal and has shown a knack for being at the right place at the right time on a remarkably consistent basis.

"This is the best possible opportunity to show what I can do," Puljujarvi said through an interpreter this week on his appearance at the WJC. "But I can't be satisfied if the team doesn't win and I don't score."

Puljujarvi is from Tornio in northern Finland, approximately 450 miles north of Helsinki, at the northern tip of the Gulf of Bothnia. He made his debut in Liiga, Finland's top professional league, this season with Karpat; he has three goals and one assist in 12 games.

"His laugh is amazing. He's typical northern Finland people; they're always happy," said Finland captain Artturi Lehkonen (Montreal Canadiens). "He's a big guy and he has a tremendous shot. I knew he would fit right in because it's a small rink and he's a big player, he can compete. He's been playing well but I know that he's frustrated also because he hasn't scored."

Puljujarvi is the sixth player to make the Finland U-20 national team as a 16-year-old, following retired NHL players Reijo Ruotsalainen and Janne Niinimaa, and Mikael Granlund of the Minnesota Wild, Olli Maatta of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Aleksander Barkov of the Florida Panthers.

That's a pretty distinguished list, and Puljujarvi has shown there's no reason he shouldn't be on it.

"He's going to be a star," the same NHL GM said after watching Puljujarvi play against Canada on Monday. "This was my first viewing of him, and usually I tell my scouts not to tell me anything on the underage kids, I just want to watch them. After his second shift I turned to my scout and said, 'Who is that?' He was incredible."

Someone else who got his first taste of Puljujarvi this week was United States defenseman Noah Hanifin, who is slotted right behind McDavid and Eichel on most 2015 draft projections.

"I didn't really know him when we were playing him, but I saw him play against Slovakia and he played very well," Hanifin said. "He's a good kid too.

"Auston's obviously got some competition."

While that competition remains in the shadows of McDavid and Eichel, it may not be the case a year from now when a similar show at the WJC will have Matthews and Puljujarvi as its star players.

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