BOSTON -- Center Auston Matthews is the youngest player taking part in the United States National Junior Team selection camp this week at Walter Brown Arena on the campus of Boston University.
It also appears he'll be a big part of the U.S. team that plays in the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship, which begins Dec. 26 in Toronto and Montreal.
Auston Matthews may be the youngest player at the U.S. National Junior Camp but he'll likely have a big role on the U.S. team at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship. (Photo: Tom Sorensen)
If top 2015 NHL Draft prospect Jack Eichel doesn't become the first American-born player since 2007 to be the first pick of an NHL draft, than Matthews, 17, could earn that distinction at the 2016 draft. Matthews missed the cut for the 2015 draft by two days.
Don Granato, who coaches Matthews on the United States National Team Development Program under-18 team in Ann Arbor, Mich., said the future is limitless for Matthews, a 6-foot, 199-pound left-handed shot.
"To be honest, I'm frighteningly excited," said Granato, who also is serving as an assistant coach for the U.S. National Junior Team.
Matthews, a native of Scottsdale, Ariz., has dominated at every level he has participated in since a very young age; the next step is a top-six forward role at the highest level of junior competition.
"He's very skilled; all the hype is real about him," said defenseman Brandon Carlo, a top 2015 NHL Draft-eligible prospect who plays for the Tri-City Americans in the Western Hockey League.
Matthews said being the youngest player in a tournament usually dominated by 19-year-olds hasn't been intimidating.
"I feel I can compete here," he said. "You can't be hesitant just because you are the youngest player. I'm a hockey player. I just need to go out and do my thing."
Matthews said he expects perfection from himself in each drill in practice and on each shift in each game. That determination brings out the best in those matched against him, so it's pretty obvious that the USA Hockey managerial group appreciates the fact Matthews commands such respect.
"I played with Auston last year; he's solid on the puck, strong, skilled and competitive," said defenseman Noah Hanifin. "I love going against him in drills, because when he does a drill he's going 100 percent so it makes me better. He's really competitive, physical and hates to lose. In the corner he's very tough to match up against."
Hanifin, a freshman at Boston College this season, is expected to be the first defenseman off the board at the 2015 draft.
"The thing I like best about him is he never gives up on a play," U.S. National Junior Team coach Mark Osiecki said. "He can go into a corner 1-on-4 and come out with the puck. If he doesn't have the puck he finds a way to get it back. He's got some serious talent you cannot teach and you like his compete level when he doesn't have the puck. He wants that thing back so quick."
While Matthews dominates now, he's 15 months removed from a broken femur sustained on a knee-on-knee collision in his second game with the USNTDP U-17 team.
"A lot of things go through your head when something like that happens, but fortunately for me it was just a break so it was about a three-month recovery," Matthews said. "I give a lot of credit to the people at the NTDP for helping me out, like trainer Jason Hodges getting me back into playing shape."
Matthews returned to the lineup Dec. 6, 2013 and hasn't missed a beat since then. He had 12 goals and 33 points in 24 games with the U-17 team and 12 goals and 17 points in 20 games with the U-18 team.
He also was a member of the gold medal-winning team at the 2014 IIHF World Under-18 Championship in Finland in April; he tied for the team lead with five goals in seven games.
When he left the U-18 team this season for WJC camp, he led the team with 24 goals, 49 points, two shorthanded goals and four game-winning goals in 27 games.
"He brings everything you want from the coaching side of things because he's so internally motivated to work," Granato said. "There's so much detail in his game in terms of effort, focus and commitment. I'm convinced he always would have been a talented kid. But the reason he's become an incredible player is that drive and focus."
Matthews isn't sure of his destination for 2015-16. There are five colleges he said he's considering: Boston University, Boston College, the University of Michigan, the University of Denver and the University of North Dakota. His Canadian Hockey League rights belong to the Everett Silvertips of the Western Hockey League.
"I'm taking my time with that process and just focusing on the season, this tournament and making this team," Matthews said. "Right now all options are open, including the CHL and NCAA."
Matthews first got into hockey when he was 2 years old when his uncle invited him and his father to Gila River Arena to watch the Arizona Coyotes. He became a big fan of Shane Doan and Daniel Briere, and started playing hockey three years later.
"Every time I'd score I'd do [Briere's] goal celebration by going on one knee and pumping my fist," Matthews said. "I still look up to him but I remain a Coyotes fan. I also enjoy watching Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Pavel Datsyuk; they do amazing stuff and compete so hard. They do all the little things that make them better than everyone else."
Matthews hasn't let all the talk about going No. 1 at the 2016 draft get to him.
"I think you just have to put it aside and focus on what needs to be done," he said. "It's something you can't really focus on or else it'll really affect you."
Matthews can learn a lot from Eichel, who is getting plenty of media attention as a projected top-two pick in the 2015 draft.
"He's definitely a good guy to talk to in the room," Matthews said. "He tells me to keep my head on straight, just focus on hockey and all the other stuff will take care of itself."
Eichel said he feels Matthews has a very bright future; one that will likely begin much sooner than later.
"He's an unbelievable player," Eichel said. "He's strong on the puck, so skilled, and makes plays at such a high speed. He's a very special player."