Just when 17-year-old Auston Matthews thought his season couldn't get any better, he scored a goal for the United States Men's National Team in an exhibition game in late April at the 2015 IIHF Men's World Championship in Vienna, Austria.
It was a fitting way for Matthews to cap off an incredible 2014-15 season in which he established two records with the U.S. Under-18 National Team Development Program (USNTDP), earned a fifth-place finish for the U.S. at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship, and won a gold medal as an alternate captain for his country at the 2015 IIHF U-18 World Championship.
Matthews close to deciding on future
Auston Matthews, who many project to be the top pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, told NHL.com this week that a decision on where he will continue his hockey career might be made in the next couple of weeks.
The 17-year-old left-handed shot said he intends to finish high school with the National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., before returning home to Scottsdale, Arizona. Matthews (6-foot-1, 194 pounds) said he will sit with his family and advisor before announcing a final decision.
If Matthews opts for college, his destination could be one of six schools: Boston University, Boston College, the University of Michigan, the University of Denver, the University of North Dakota, or the University of Wisconsin. His Canadian Hockey League rights are owned by the Everett Silvertips in the Western Hockey League. The Silvertips selected Matthews in the third round (No. 57) of the 2012 WHL bantam draft.
Matthews said Boston University freshman center Jack Eichel has already told him of the benefits of playing college hockey and the enjoyment he had this season with the Terriers on the way to winning the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey's top player. Eichel is No. 2 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of the top North American skaters eligible for the 2015 NHL Draft.
"We've had that conversation and Jack gave me his spiel but in the end said it's what will make me happy and where I want to play, where I believe I fit in and can develop most as a player," Matthews said. "I'll sit down with my family and figure it out."
Whenever Matthews does finally reach the NHL, he would become the third player from Arizona to do so. Jim Brown, who played in three games for the Los Angeles Kings in 1982-1983, and current Philadelphia Flyers center Sean Couturier, are the other two.
-- Mike G. Morreale
"Initially I was in awe; I was excited to play at that stage," Matthews said. "When I got there it was everything I could have imagined playing with NHL players like Trevor Lewis and Matt Hendricks and guys like that who are really established in the NHL. It was really cool and an honor to be around those guys. They were all super nice and very welcoming."
Matthews, born Sept. 17, 1997, missed the cutoff for the 2015 NHL Draft by two days. If he were eligible, most scouts, including Dan Marr, NHL Director of Central Scouting, believe he would be among the top three selections along with Erie Otters captain Connor McDavid and Boston University freshman Jack Eichel in the first round on June 26.
"If he was in this year's draft he'd be right up there and talked about in the same breath with [McDavid and Eichel]," Marr said. "The thing about Auston is, game in and game out for two years now, it's been the same thing. He only knows one speed and that's full speed, and he does it at practice and game situations."
As it is, he's projected to go among the top two picks at the 2016 NHL Draft in Buffalo.
USA Hockey gave Matthews the opportunity to play for coach Todd Richards in the pre-tournament World Championship game on April 28 at the Eissportzentrum Kagran. The game was the only exhibition for the United States prior to the start of the tournament that runs through May 17 in Ostrava, Czech Republic.
"[Todd Richards] basically told me to go out there, have fun, and enjoy the experience," Matthews said. "Not everyone gets to play on that type of stage so he told me to go out there and just play my game."
Matthews, who skated on a line with University of Michigan center Dylan Larkin (Detroit Red Wings, 2014, No. 15) and Minnesota native Dan Sexton, gave the United States a 3-1 lead when he scored off a rebound 11:30 into the third period. Following the 4-1 win against Austria, Matthews traveled back home to Scottsdale, Arizona.
"Lewis came down and it was kind of a 3-on-2 and I was that dot-line guy and he fed me a beautiful pass," Matthews said. "I tried to fake out the goalie and go around him but the puck ended up hitting the side of the net on my shot. The goalie was down and I think he thought he had it but I picked it up and put it in."
Two days earlier, the 6-foot-1, 194-pound left-handed shot received the Directorate Award as the most valuable player at the U-18 World Championship after scoring eight goals and 15 points in seven games. Matthews had one assist and nine shots on goal in a 2-1 overtime victory against Finland in the gold medal game on April 26.
"I think I took on a big leadership role this year," Matthews said. "It was a little different than last year when we had leaders like Dylan Larkin and Sonny Milano since they were the go-to guys for that [gold medal-winning] team."
Did he surpass expectations at the event?
"That's almost a funny question; the answer is no," U.S. U-18 World coach Don Granato said. "He has a personal standard like all great players do and he gets very upset when he doesn't get to the level he feels he should be. I knew I was getting a player ready to go because he wasn't satisfied with his performance at the World Junior Championship [in January].
"I've coached over 1,000 games and I don't know if I've ever felt that confident about a player but having watched him at the WJC and seeing and knowing him, there was no doubt we had a real possessed player heading into Switzerland [for the U-18 World Championship]."
Matthews set a record at the USNTDP for goals (55) and points (117) in a season, passing Patrick Kane (52 goals, 102 points in 2005-06). He said the disappointing finish at the WJC didn't sit well with him and he wanted to make amends at the U-18 World Championship.
"I'm a really competitive guy so I think when you go out the way we did at the World Juniors it definitely leaves a sour taste in your mouth," Matthews said. "I looked at the U-18's as an opportunity to kind of redeem myself and the program here at USA Hockey. I wanted to go out and make sure we got the job done and we did. It was definitely a good bounce back."
Granato, who also coached Matthews on the USNTDP this season, said he is just as impressed by the self-motivation and focus he exhibits each day.
"I don't worry about him because of his internal drive," Granato said. "He is not externally motivated, and by that I mean he doesn't seek awards. He just wants to play and he plays no different than if there were 10,000 people in the building or none during a practice. He can't stand not playing at a peak level."