West Coast Bias: How good is Auston Matthews?

Auston Matthews was taking in the sights and sounds of the Arizona Coyotes on Saturday, and spoke about how it was the Coyotes that made him a hockey fan.

So the Auston Matthews sweepstakes comes down to this: If Toronto doesn’t get a point in New Jersey on Saturday, they’ll finish 30th and get the best chance at drafting first. If Toronto gets a point, then we wait on Edmonton at Vancouver later that night. Edmonton “wins” any tie with the Leafs, with more non-shootout wins.

Even though the lottery odds don’t guarantee anything, we’ll be pulling for New Jersey. It’s time for another city to experience a No. 1 overall draft pick. Oilers fans have had their fun.

Marc Crawford, the former Canucks coach who was behind the bench in Colorado for the Avs’ Cup win in 1996, was Matthews’ head coach in Zurich this season. We bumped into Crawford as he was rolling across Canada on a bit of a job search, so we asked him: How good is Matthews?

“There’s no question he would have played in the league this year,” if not for having a Sept. 17th birthday – two days late for the 2015 draft. “They would have been talking him like they do (Jack) Eichel. Connor (McDavid) is a bit ahead, with his speed and the dimensions he has. Auston is efficient, talented, and has all the great human characteristics.”

No doubt the kind of first-line centre the Leafs (or Canucks) so badly require, Crawford couldn’t believe the impact Matthews had at age 18 playing against men in the Swiss League.

“We thought he would be a top-six forward, then work his way into being one of our top players by the end of the year. Well, he was good right away,” Crawford said. “The things he can do as a stickhandler is amazing. I am totally amazed by young kids these days … and he’s off the charts with his stickhandling abilities. Inside out, outside in… He’s almost like a basketball player (dribbling a ball).”

Crawford had some fantastic centremen in his day: Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Mark Messier, Henrik Sedin, to name a few. Who might Matthews compare to?

“Auston reminds me a lot of Anze Kopitar, because of the way he is as a person, and he reminds me a little bit of Joe (Sakic) in that he’s a shooter who can shoot the puck with different, tricky releases. He’s got a big-time NHL shot,” Crawford said. “He doesn’t need great players to play with. He makes players around him better. He was just a treat to coach.”

Matthews’ dad was a college baseball player. Sometimes fathers of high-end prospects can be a challenge for a coach, but with Matthews his father’s experience has made him a low-maintenance player.

“I once asked (dear departed agent) Don Baizley what was the most important factor in a player being good. Because Donnie had Joe (Sakic), and Peter (Forsberg), (Paul) Kariya, and Teemu (Selanne). He thought about it for a while, and his answer always stayed with me: ‘It’s a boy’s relationship with his father.’

“He has a great relationship with his dad, and his dad is a really good person. It’s just another thing that solidifies for me that he’s going to be a really good player.”

The next two draftees – Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi – are going head to head in the Finnish League playoffs. Laine’s Tappara Tampere is taking on Puljujarvi’s Karpat, with the series tied 2-2.

Here’s a look at a couple of goals scored by Laine. Listen carefully to the Finnish commentator and you’ll recognize one word: “Ovechkin!”

A right-hand shot who prefers the left wing, you’ve got to believe Edmonton would be all over this kid to be Connor McDavid’s triggerman. Remember how well it worked a quarter-century ago, when a right-hand shot from Finland named Jari Kurri was installed on Wayne Gretzky’s wing.

Terry Frei, an excellent journalist who covers the Colorado Avalanche for the Denver Post, asked Patrick Roy the obvious question the other day. The Avs were playing out the string in their second straight non-playoff year, and after a horrendous stretch run they will have declined in Years 2 and 3 under Roy.

Roy was recovering from food poisoning, and ever since his rant last week when he ripped Matt Duchene for celebrating a goal in a 4-0 game – a needless overreaction by the coach, in my opinion – Roy appears highly stressed.

Frei asked Roy, “Do you still want to do this?”

“Yeah, I do,” Roy said. “Has this year been a tougher year that I expected? Yes. I thought that we were going to make the playoffs. But to answer your question: I do.”

The Avs are yet another unique rebuild. As we’ve learned, each one is different, and in Colorado they’re wondering about their core group the same way they have been in Edmonton. In Roy’s rookie season (2013-14) the Avs won the Central with 112 points.

“Last year, 90 points. This year, less points,” Roy calculated. “Obviously, it’s not something we’re proud of, not something we’re happy about. I am very frustrated about it, but at the same time I think we need to find ways to make this franchise better and it’s not just for one year. It’s for a longer term, and that’s what we want.”

When the NHL changed its playoff system away from the old “one versus eight” system, history told us that teams from weak divisions would benefit, while teams in the toughest divisions would face an early exit.

Remember the ‘80s, when Edmonton, Calgary and to a lesser degree Winnipeg were all powerhouses in the Smythe Division, and whoever emerged beat up on the Norris champ annually? The Norris Division wasn’t represented in a Stanley Cup final between the Minnesota North Stars’ two appearances in 1981 and 1991.

Today, it’s the Central that’s the toughest division in the game. As such, the Chicago Blackhawks are going to get St. Louis or Dallas in Round 1, almost certainly the only first-round matchup where the two combatants will have combined for 210 points this season.

Two springs ago Chicago beat St. Louis in six games, a series that featured four overtime games. The Blues have finished ahead of Chicago in four of the past five regular seasons, but we all know who does the winning in April, May and June. St. Louis has won just one playoff series since the 2002 playoffs.

St. Louis and Dallas enter their final regular season games on Saturday night with identical 49-23-9 records, with Dallas holding the tie-breaker due to wins in regulation or overtime. St. Louis hosts Washington while Dallas gets Nashville. The winner in the Central gets Minnesota, while the loser gets Chicago.

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