Note: This is SB Nation NHL’s top 25 players under age 25 series! We’ll be covering each player from No. 25 to No. 1 over the next few weeks leading up to training camp time. See the complete list and information on how the rankings were compiled.
April 30, 2016 is a day that’ll go down in Toronto Maple Leafs history. It’s the day that the team won the draft lottery, and as a result, the opportunity to draft young center Auston Matthews. The franchise cornerstone Toronto had sought for years, he comes in at No. 2 on our Top 25 Under 25 rankings.
Matthews entered the 2016 NHL draft with as much hype as any player this side of Connor McDavid, and he’s lived up to it so far. After jockeying with Patrik Laine for the right to be the No. 1 pick, the two young stars went head-to-head in the Calder Trophy race for rookie of the year.
With 40 goals in 82 games, Matthews won the award in a landslide. He received 164 of 167 first-place votes to easily outpace Laine, Zach Werenski, Matt Murray, and teammate Mitch Marner (who all appeared previously on the Top 25 Under 25 rankings).
But more than the big numbers in the box score, Matthews fueled an immediate turnaround of the Maple Leafs into a playoff team. They finished fifth in the league in goals per game, and pushed the top-seeded Capitals to six games in the first round of the postseason.
Now the Maple Leafs are on the cusp of a bright future led by Matthews, Marner, and William Nylander, who form arguably the most exciting young core in hockey. And Matthews is the centerpiece — a top-line center who generates shots like crazy and will give you 35-plus goals each year.
Matthews became the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NHL draft after a dominant amateur career bookended by a season in Switzerland. He put up numbers everywhere he went, even once he went overseas to play against older competition.
As a member of the ZSC Lions of the top Swiss league in 2015-16, an 18-year-old Matthews finished second in the league in points per game and second in league MVP voting. The player who finished ahead of Matthews in both categories was Pierre-Marc Bouchard, a 33-year-old journeyman with 593 games of NHL experience from 2002-13.
Moving to the NHL last season, Matthews continued his success with four goals in his first game. It was a stunning performance that served as a welcome notice to the rest of the league: Auston Matthews has arrived, and he’s about to score a buttload of goals against you.
There was a lot of debate during the season between Matthews and Laine for the Calder, but there was little doubt about who would win once the Leafs clinched a playoff spot. Laine could keep up with Matthews’ individual numbers, but not impact on team success.
Only 11 players in NHL history have scored 40-plus goals in a season at age 19 or younger. Eight of them played in the high-flying 1980s. The other three are Owen Nolan (1991-92), Rick Nash (2003-04), and Steven Stamkos (2009-10).
So Matthews is part of some select company, just one season into what should be a special NHL career.
Matthews is set to be the Leafs’ No. 1 center next season, and for the foreseeable future. He only has two years left on his entry-level contract before he gets a monster long-term extension, but it’s fair to assume Toronto will get that deal done one way or another.
The biggest question for Matthews going forward is whether he can become more than a great scorer. Leafs coach Mike Babcock eased him in last season with some fairly easy assignments, which worked well because Nazem Kadri stepped up to play some fantastic hockey in a tougher role.
At this point, we know that Matthews is going to rack up points at 5-on-5 and be an absolute beast on the power play. What’s less clear is whether he can become an effective possession-driving force, faceoff guy, or penalty killer, considering he was none of those things last season.
But Matthews also hasn’t turned 20 years old yet, and he’s already got a set of skills that few players in the NHL can match. There’s reason to believe he can continue evolving to become a more complete center. And hey, even if he can’t, he’ll still be pretty great given his offensive talent.
Is this ranking too high or too low?
It’s definitely not too low for Matthews given the player slotted at No. 1 is a lock. This is essentially as high as you could conceivably put him unless you somehow prefer Matthews to a certain player from Edmonton. If anything, there’s an argument to be made that Matthews is too high given his lack of all-around game and the competition from peers like Jack Eichel and Nikita Kucherov.
But Matthews’ upside is immense, and he’ll be competing for Hart Trophies every year if he reaches it. Even if you prefer a couple other young stars over him, he’s firmly in the upper echelon.
Highest rank: No. 2
Lowest rank: No. 6