An Early Look at the Race for Auston Matthews

(John Crouch/Icon Sportswire)

Remember how fun last year was, with Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel at the top of everyone’s draft board before the season even began? Two generational talents that were so good they gave the bad teams hope for a better future? Players with so much upside that Buffalo fans were actually booing their own team at home if they had the audacity to play well and risk lowering their percentage to grab half of the dynamic duo in the lottery? Good times.

Well, we’re not doing that again — for a couple reasons. First and foremost, the lottery is set up differently now, so it’s not like finishing last guarantees a top-two pick. And there aren’t two great players at the top of the scouting reports this time around anyway.

There is one though and, by all accounts, Auston Matthews could be a game-changer for whomever nabs him. The native of Scottsdale, Arizona is playing over in Switzerland and, even though he’s currently injured, seems like a lock to go No. 1 overall.

With that in mind, let’s take a quick look at the front-runners in the Matthews Sweepstakes. We’re not trying to make predictions here, we’re simply taking a closer look at the five teams who currently sport the worst records in the NHL — both to see if they plan on sticking around near the bottom of the standings, and to get a better feel for what exactly the big, gifted center could do for them…

Columbus Blue Jackets (8 points through 16 games)
Right off the bat, it seems kind of weird to see Columbus here. Then again, winning four of 15 will do that for you. It’s hard to envision the Jackets finishing this low when all is said and done, but they’ve dug themselves quite a hole. A playoff spot doesn’t seem all that realistic at the moment either.

Nobody underachieved more in the first few weeks of the season than Columbus, who ultimately let Todd Richards go and broke the emergency glass to bring in John Tortorella. So far, the Blue Jackets are 4-5 under Torts, and there’s reason to believe they should improve — at least for this year. Will it be enough to get them back near the playoff spot most onlookers thought they’d claim though? Or will they move up just enough to not get Matthews?

Considering they already have Brandon Saad, Nick Foligno and Ryan Johansen, they probably don’t need Matthews as much as some of these other clubs. But they’d certainly take him. And it would probably be entertaining to see the look on his face when he’s told on national television that he’ll be playing for Tortorella. In fact, that should be its own reality show.

Toronto Maple Leafs (10 through 15)
Perhaps more than anyone else, the Leafs could certainly use a franchise center to build around. And the cupboard is pretty bare up front in Toronto right now, outside of Mitch Marner. Mike Babcock is in town and while no one is anticipating all that much from his team in 2015-16, expectations are going to rise in the not-too-distant future. Matthews would help the organization speed up the rebuild process — but his arrival would also amplify the demand for results from a fan base that’s going to grow impatient again here at some point.

Of the five teams currently mired at the bottom of the standings, the Maple Leafs are probably the most likely to hang around in this spot for the longest. It is early — but that sentiment really applies more to the other clubs. This is the start of a full-blown rebuild. Where they land in the draft could go a long way to determining just how long that rebuild takes.

Colorado Avalanche (11 through 15)
On one hand, the Avs are too talented to be down here. On the other hand, they’re the most flawed team in the Central — a division where no one else has many flaws at all.

Once upon a time, there was a year when the Edmonton Oilers didn’t have the first pick in the draft. That magical year was 2013, when Colorado used the top selection to scoop up Nathan MacKinnon and promptly shoot all the way up the standings.

Are the Avalanche too talented to be in the conversation for adding a gifted prospect like Matthews with such a high pick? Yeah, probably. But they also play the majority of their games against the Blackhawks, Blues, Stars, Predators, Wild and Jets. It’s entirely possible they’re looking up at a lot of teams when the regular season wraps up.

Edmonton Oilers (12 through 16)
No. We’re not doing this again. Just… no.

Calgary Flames (11 through 16)
Barring injury, the Flames seem too good to stay down here all year — on paper, at least. They got off to a horrendous start, but they’ve quietly won three of five, T.J. Brodie’s back and they may have even settled on a No. 1 goalie now.

It’s hard to picture the club with the reigning Jack Adams Award winner — not to mention the Lady Byng and a Calder finalist — completely melting down like this. Maybe they don’t have a repeat of last season’s impressive run in them, but they appear far more likely to pass a few of the teams that are right in front of them (Buffalo and Carolina, for example) than they are to bottom out.

That’s not to say a top-six featuring Matthews, Sam Bennett, Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan wouldn’t be fun though. It might not even matter who their goalie was at that point.

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