April 30th, 2016 was a special day for Leafs fans. The main goal, at least for the fans, was to cheer the team to a position in the standings as low as possible to jack up their chances of winning the draft lottery. They ended up finishing 30th in the league, therefore recieving highest odds to win the lottery, and their dreams became a reality on lottery day, when NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly revealed that the Leafs would retain the first overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft.
From that point forward, everyone knew that the Maple Leafs would use that pick to select Arizona born Auston Matthews, who had the play style and potential to be a future franchise centre, something the Leafs had lacked since Mats Sundin left the team. Of course, the media tried to make a debate similar to the Taylor vs Tyler battle in 2010 and the McDavid vs Eichel from last year by questioning whether the Leafs should go with Matthews #1 overall or take late blooming Finnish sniper Patrik Laine. Some fans saw highlights of Laine and instantly fell in love with his Alex Ovechkin type of game, but the consensus was that the Leafs would go with Matthews at #1 and that was that. Finally, on June 24th, Director of Player Personnel Mark Hunter took to the stage and finally ended the debate, announcing Matthews' name. Matthews walked to the stage, met the management team, put the jersey on, and that was the start of a new chapter for Leafs nation.
Anyways, let's talk a little bit about Matthews. Normally you wouldn't expect players born in Arizona to recieve this much attention, but the Scottsdale native has wowed scouts, coaches, and GMs ever since he was in his early teens. In 2014-15, he actually outscored Jack Eichel while playing in the USNTDP, putting up 48 points in 24 games with the USNTDP Juniors of the USHL and then followed up with 116 points in 60 games for the US National U18 team. He appeared in seven games at the U18 World Championships as a 17 year old, recording eight goals and 15 points in seven games. Needless to say, this kid could score.
Now, Matthews had options heading into his draft year. He was two days off of the cutoff date for the 2015 NHL Draft, and if he was two days older scouts stated that he likely would have gone third overall behind Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. For this season, he could have either played for the Everett Silvetips, who had his WHL rights, or he could have committed to play in the NCAA. But Matthews wanted a bigger challenge, and he ended up playing in Switzerland for the ZSC Lions of the National League A. This proved to be an outstanding decision, where he put up 46 points in 36 games along with 11 points in seven games for Team USA at the World Juniors. After his season, it became evident that the Leafs had no problem taking him first overall.
So, let's talk a little bit about Matthews' game. He's an outstanding skater, he has an NHL ready shot and has good NHL size, measuring up to 6'2 and 216lbs at the Scouting Combine. His head coach in Zurich, Marc Crawford, described him as the type of player you build a franchise around. He's acheiving outstanding feats for his age and will be an effective NHL player immediately. He's a natural goal scorer and a great passer, and he has the attitude of a leader and a true teammate. He lets his play do the talking rather than his voice and makes everyone around him better. Needless to say, the Leafs have their cornerstone piece for the future.
NHL ETA: 2016-17
There is absolutely no way Matthews doesn't suit up in the NHL this year unless he suffers a massive injury that keeps him out of the lineup. He's got the skillset, size, and mindset of an NHL player and head coach Mike Babcock has already announced that he'll start the season on the third line behind Nazem Kadri and Tyler Bozak. That being said, he very likely won't stay down there for too long. Leafs fans are going to see a lot of Auston Matthews this year.
PLAYER COMPARABLES: Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Toews
Think a big number one centre who has elite defensive skills and puts up high end offensive totals. Kopitar and Toews are two players that come to mind. These two players are also the captains of their respective teams, but it's much too early to deem Matthews the future captain of the Leafs. Like he said, his play will do the talking and determine his future in a Leafs uniform.