Sorry for the Cliffhanger but…
The evidence is impressive. It comes in all forms—both qualitatively (through the eyes of amateur and professional scouts) as well as quantitatively (for those who do analytics and crunch numbers). As the—what is quickly becoming insurmountable—evidence continues to pile up and trend in favour of Auston Matthews, the message is loud and clear: Sorry Buffalo Sabres, your hated geographical rival—none other than the Toronto Maple Leafs—got the better of the two nineteen-year-old American “generational players” currently playing in the NHL—at least at this young stage of their careers anyway! The natural reaction, of course, is: why are we jumping to such a conclusion when neither one of them has yet to have a hundred NHL games under their belt; Eichel and Matthews have only appeared in ninety-seven and thirty-seven NHL contests respectively. Well, here is the proof…
Before I get to the good stuff, let me put in a disclaimer: I am pulling the equivalent a Back to the Future Part II here by doing a cliffhanger, although this is original intension. Simply put, I have too much to cover with my word limits so love me or hate me, what I will do is focus on all the Pre-NHL reasons to prove my “generational player/talent” formula of Matthews > Eichel = Matthews is the better/superior “generational player/talent” of the two phenoms.
The “Generational” Label in Scouting Reports:
Curtis Joe of Elite Hockey Prospects describes Auston Matthews as “a generational talent who has the potential to develop into a top flight franchise center.” Yet, the word “generational” is nowhere to be found in Jack Eichel’s scouting report, which happens to be also written by Joe. In fact, the only other player who is described as “a generational talent” on Elite Hockey Prospects is none other than Connor McDavid, the captain of the Edmonton Oilers! Yes, you heard it… even Sidney Crosby did not get the “generational” label as he is classified as a “franchise center” who is a “brilliant playmaker.” Ditto for Evgeni Malkin, who is dubbed as “a center with very good offensive abilities but who also takes responsibility defensively” and Alexander Ovechkin, who is referred to as “one of the best players in the world.” To this end, it seems that there is clear separation between Matthews and Eichel as the former is much closer to McDavid than the latter.
Number One Status:
If we were to take on a more macro view by surveying all of the major scouting services on a holistic basis, Matthews again would have a leg up on Eichel as the better “generational player.” With the exception of McKeen’s Hockey, which ranked Matthews as second best prospect in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft behind Winnipeg Jet rookie sniper Patrick Liane, all five of the other major scouting services had Matthews as the undisputed number one prospect in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft! On the flip side, all six of the aforementioned major scouting services had Eichel placed as the second best prospect behind McDavid in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. Say what you will about the McDavid factor, but we cannot deny analytics as Matthews was recognized as the top prospect in his draft year by 5/6 = 83.33% of the major scouting services whereas Eichel was acknowledged as the best prospect in his draft cohort by none of the major scouting services.
The Level of Competition Factor:
Let’s face it. Even though Matthews was out of sight for much of the 2015 to 2016 season because he played in Europe, he more than held his own with his trailblazer decision. In fact, him playing in Europe made him a pioneer in that regard as nearly all hot prospects would opt to play in the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) or go the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I route. If anything, he actually raised his stocks because he dominated competition playing professionally for the Zürcher Schlittschuh Club (ZSC) Lions in the National League A (NLA), where he recorded an impressive twenty-four goals and twenty-two assists for forty-six points in thirty-six games despite competing against grown men as a teenager. Indeed, the accolades back up his outstanding play as Matthews ended up being the second highest scorer on the ZSC Lions for the regular season and among the top-ten scorer in the entire NLA. Statistically, Matthews’ 1.28 points-per-game average was also the second-best on the whole. As icing on the cake, Matthews also bestowed with the NLA Rising Star Award and came in second in voting for the Most Valuable Player (MVP) award.
To be fair, Eichel had a solid year too in the 2015 to 2016 season as he had twenty-six goals and forty-five assists for seventy-one points in forty games for the Boston University Terriers men’s ice hockey program in the Hockey East Association of NCAA Division I hockey. As a matter of fact, Eichel actually became only the second freshman ever to win the Hobey Baker Award not to mention that he was the Hockey East scoring champion, Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year, First Team Hockey East, an All-Rookie Team member, and the MVP of the conference tournament.
Here, we cannot really draw a direct comparison because Matthews’ accomplishments took place in a European professional hockey league comprised of men whereas Eichel’s did what he did for a top amateur hockey program among teenagers. Still, subjectively speaking, we ought to give a nod to Matthews just because playing against opponents who are on average a decade older while still racking all those records is inherently a lot tougher than doing it against fellow players still completing undergrad.
Rising to the Top in the World Cup of Hockey Tournament:
In spite of being the first overall selection of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, most hockey analysts were widely sceptical of Matthews’ chance of making the final cut for a spot on the Team North America (NA) roster in the World Cup of Hockey (WCH) Tournament. This scepticism is because of the competition and the depth of talent available not to mention that Matthews had no NHL experience at all at that juncture. Eventually, pundits were proven wrong because not only did Matthews joined the team, but because his status on the team rose in dramatic fashion. Initially, Matthews was the thirteenth forward—essentially a spare player who would step in only if one of the NA forwards were injured. Yet, Matthews impressed NA head coach Todd McLellan so much that when pre-tournament games began, Matthews was given top-nine forward responsibilities as he was penciled in to play left wing on the third line alongside Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nathan MacKinnon. By the time the tournament began officially, McLellan had Matthews inserted into the top line centred by McDavid with the intention of creating a 1-1 punch dynamic duo that is unstoppable with the two back-to-back first overall picks (from the 2015 and 2016 NHL Entry Drafts). Meanwhile, Eichel was relegated to second line duty throughout the tournament as he was slotted in to play with Johnny Gaudreau and Dylan Larkin. For the record, Matthews outperformed Eichel as the former recorded two goals and an assist for three points whereas the latter only had one goal and one assist for two points in three games.
After watching McDavid and Matthews’ chemistry and magic in the WCH, Wayne Gretzky, the NHL’s all-time leading scorer with 894 goals, 1,963 assists for a total of 2,857 points, was incredibly impressed. In particular, he made the following heartfelt comments: “the other night I was thinking ‘gosh, I could maybe play with that Matthews and Connor McDavid. They’re pretty good. I’d know where to go—put it that way.’” This is some high praise for Matthews coming from someone who has his jersey number retired across the league! The Great One’s compliments of Matthews then extend to outside of the rink as he remarked, “these kids, I’m most proud of the fact that they carry themselves with a great deal of class and dignity. Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Crosby—they’re just really nice people. And that gets passed down from guys like Gordie Howe and (Jean) Beliveau and Bobby Orr, and it’s a great tradition in our sport.” Basically, Gretzky is mentioning Matthews’s name in the same breath as some of the NHL’s all time greats before the Scottsdale, Arizona have even appeared in a single NHL game as WCH was played before the start of the 2016 to 2017 NHL season. Conversely, The Great One did not comment on Eichel at all.
Now that I have proven my “generational player/talent” formula of Matthews > Eichel = Matthews is the better/superior “generational player/talent” of the two phenoms with my Pre-NHL reasons, make sure you return for my NHL reasons in Why Auston Matthews Is a Better Player Than Jack Eichel At This Stage of Their Respective NHL Career: Part III!