BOSTON – Auston Matthews, who will be the first player picked when Buffalo hosts the NHL Draft in June, saw firsthand what kind of chaos Jack Eichel endured on his way to the stage. The two roomed together during last year’s world junior tournament, when the spotlight on Eichel and Connor McDavid really started to brighten.
Matthews picked up tips on dealing with it from the Sabres center.
“Obviously, he had a lot of pressure on him,” Matthews said Wednesday. “I watched Jack closely, just the way he handled it. He blocked it out and played his game and was focused on himself and the team.”
Matthews will attempt to put his focus on USA Hockey this month when he stars as the face of the world junior team in Finland. Like Eichel, Matthews will be watched by scouts, general managers, fans and opponents. Unlike Eichel, most eyes will turn elsewhere when the tournament ends.
Matthews is taking a unique route to the NHL. The 18-year-old opted against college or junior hockey and instead signed with a professional team in Switzerland. He’s spending his draft year overseas playing for the Zurich Lions and longtime NHL coach Marc Crawford.
Competing against former NHLers, Matthews has recorded 14 goals and 25 points in 22 games. He’s second on the team behind former New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers forward Robert Nilsson, who has 30 points in 30 games.
“It’s been great,” Matthews said after practice with the U.S. junior team at Boston University. “It’s been a big challenge. It’s a great league. It’s highly skilled, and it’s forced me to elevate my game.”
The skills of the 6-foot, 199-pound center compare favorably to his professional mates, but they really shine against peers in his age group. Though Wednesday’s intrasquad scrimmage in Agganis Arena resembled pond hockey, Matthews was clearly the big fish. His one-touch drop passes and no-look feeds created scoring chances. His best shift came against a U.S. line that featured three players selected in the first two rounds of the last NHL Draft.
“He’s another guy that has really separated himself from his age group,” said USA Hockey executive Jim Johansson, who is serving as GM of the junior team. “It’s his all-around game. People don’t rave about just one part of his game. I think with Jack everyone was like, ‘Wow, the size and the skating.’ The first two strides really jumped out.
“I think in Auston they just see such a complete game, a guy that can change a game with his offensive abilities but also a guy that constantly has the puck and is the center of attention in the hockey game.”
Honing his skills against pros overseas has helped Matthews become more comfortable in all situations.
“He’s a bigger, better version of what he was before,” said U.S. assistant coach Danton Cole, who was the head man when Eichel and Matthews played together on the national under-18 team in 2013-14. “The subtle things he does on the ice with his size and the way he breaks he down defenders is real fun to watch. He and Jack are different players, but their similarities are the intangibles, the drive and what they want to be and what they’re willing to do to get there. That’s special in both of them.
“Playing with men and playing for Coach Crawford is a great spot for him. The games, the training and all that for his age is outstanding. I think where he’s at in terms of maturity of a hockey player and understanding the game and his size and strength, he was kind of in that in-between phase for where to go. I think it might be the exception rather than the norm, but for him it seems to have been the right thing. He looks great and he’s developing, and that’s the most important thing.”
Matthews, an Arizona native who grew up playing in desert rinks, is eager to get back to Europe with the junior team. As the youngest player on last year’s squad, he had just one goal and four points in five games as the United States failed to medal. He’s determined to change that.
“Obviously, this is a big tournament,” Matthews said. “It’s huge. We want to come out of here with a gold medal. There’s no other option for us.”
Sabres defensive prospect Will Borgen made a positive impression at Buffalo’s summer development camp, earning a spot on the blue line alongside NHLer Jake McCabe. The 18-year-old hopes his next spot is on the international stage.
Borgen, drafted in the fourth round in June, is making a surprise appearance at the U.S. training camp. The defenseman wasn’t invited to the national evaluation camp in August, but his rapid development has put him among the final 28 players hoping to go to the world juniors.
“If I make the team that’d be the ultimate goal, and then bring home some hardware,” Borgen said. “It’s been a lot of fun.”
Borgen put himself on USA Hockey’s radar with a solid start to his collegiate career at St. Cloud State. The 6-foot-2, 195-pounder has nine assists and a plus-8 rating through 18 games for the NCAA’s fifth-ranked team.
“He’s obviously a guy that we didn’t have as big a book on coming into this,” Johansson said. “He plays within himself and he plays the position well. He’s a guy that moves the puck first instead of trying to beat guys, which coaches enjoy.
“The thing I like about him is he’s not out here playing hockey to make the team. He’s just playing his hockey. That’s hard for an 18- or 19-year-old to do with a bunch of guys sitting in the stands watching.”
Borgen doesn’t do a lot of fancy things but does most things well, which fits into the mold of Buffalo defenseman Mark Pysyk.
“I think I’m a puck-moving defenseman,” said Borgen, who turns 19 on Saturday. “I don’t favor offense or defense. I play a little bit of both. I just move the puck to the forwards and play D.”