Among the current top 20 scorers, whom would you choose to build a team around?
Greg Wyshynski: There's obviously only one answer: Connor McDavid of the Edmonton -- wait, what? He's 58th in points? What a nutty season.
With McDavid out, I imagine many would select Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who is technically tied for No. 20 in scoring with 10 points in nine games. I imagine most would select Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who along with McDavid is demonstrably a player who can change the trajectory of a franchise through his skill and will, and he is 10 years younger than Crosby.
You'll get no quarrel from me on selecting Matthews. He does just about everything you'd want from a franchise player -- except be an outsize personality that not only draws eyes via his performance on the ice, but also through his brashness off the ice. Which is why Jack Eichel of the Buffalo Sabres, the Salieri of American hockey to Matthews's Mozart, would be my selection.
Eichel is No. 12 in points with 11 in nine games for a team that has just 25 goals on the season. In his past 70 games, Eichel is nearly a point per game player (0.97) on an abjectly terrible team. He's got the talent to be one of those centers -- like Matthews and McDavid -- who can be a lethal goal scorer and an inventive playmaker. And there's a sizable personality bubbling under the surface of a young player who has openly lamented the way conservative hockey culture deadens the individuality of players. I think there's an Alex Ovechkin-esque level of swagger and a refreshing level of candor in Eichel waiting to burst forth. Which, if you're building a new team, can only help at the gate.
With due respect to Matthews, I like Eich for my franchise player. So long as that franchise has absolutely nothing to do with the Buffalo Sabres, who are now in their third year of squandering this generational talent.
Emily Kaplan: As Greg noted, if we flash forward a few weeks, McDavid will inevitably rise from 58th in scoring and I'd certainly choose McDavid. In my Now & Later rankings, of 53 league insiders -- coaches, scouts, execs and players -- 41 believed McDavid would be the best player in the league four years from now. But McDavid is unavailable here, so I'll play by the rules. I'll gladly take Matthews to build my team around. "It's going to be fascinating to watch these guys go head to head over the next few years," a scout told me in a discussion for the rankings. "We all know what McDavid is, but I think the ceiling for Matthews is unrealized."
In my ESPN The Magazine story on Matthews -- apologies for the second shameless plug -- I explained how the NHL's grander marketing strategy has long pitted two superstars against each other as the face of the league. Gretzky-Lemieux made way for Crosby-Ovechkin. Now Matthews has been cast as the perfect foil to McDavid. There's a reason Matthews is a lock for this role: After the most prolific rookie season in the 100-year history of the Maple Leafs, he's showing no sign of a sophomore slump. With 81 points (and 47 goals!) in 91 games, that's someone I'd gladly build around. And have you seen the deception on his shot? Matthews-McDavid will be a great rivalry, and if McDavid is Gretzky, settling for a Lemieux isn't a bad consolation prize at all.
Chris Peters: Without hesitation, I'd pick Matthews. It is rare for a player to enter the league and immediately have the kind of impact Matthews has. Through 91 NHL games, Matthews has 47 goals and 81 points. Going back to 1987-88, only six players had more goals over the first 91 games of their career, according to hockey-reference.com. Four of them are in the Hall of Fame (Teemu Selanne, Eric Lindros, Pavel Bure and Joe Nieuwendyk) and one will be (Ovechkin). The crazy thing is that Matthews looks like his scoring skills are even better this season.
McDavid will have the more productive career, all things being equal. But Matthews won't be terribly far behind. In the ways that we've never seen a player like McDavid, I don't think we've seen one quite like Matthews either. The way this kid shoots the puck is giving goaltenders nightmares already and he's showing no signs of slowing.
However, there has to be more than skill for a player to build a team around. The way Matthews carries himself suggests he does not feel the weight of a franchise on his shoulders. He's playing in the most unforgiving market in the league and meets it with little more than a shrug. Given all that we know about him in an admittedly small NHL sample, I'd feel supremely confident making him my No. 1 pick among the 20 players available.
Ben Arledge: I would quite simply take the player whom the Maple Leafs did choose to build their team around. Matthews is the complete package. After a rookie season that included 40 goals and a trip to the playoffs before many expected possible, the 20-year-old has begun his sophomore campaign still in sixth gear, scoring seven more and adding five assists through nine games. If I were starting a franchise tomorrow and had the pick of the litter, only McDavid would come off the board before Matthews.
Like McDavid, Matthews has the ability to make those around him better. Last season, William Nylander was the only Maple Leaf to skate more than 500 minutes both with and without Matthews, making him a good example here. According to naturalstattrick.com, his shots attempted percentage at even strength was 56.2 percent when he was with Matthews, but it was just 48.6 without him. Similar trends are already showing this season. Usual linemates Nylander and Zach Hyman have posted SAT percentages of 57.9 and 55.4 with Matthews, respectively. Those drop to 34.4 and 40.5 without the star American.
The only other player I would consider from that list is Tampa Bay Lightning winger Nikita Kucherov. In his three full seasons, he has tallied at least 29 goals and 36 assists each year, including highs of 40 and 45 last season without Steven Stamkos in the lineup. He's got a few years on Matthews, but he is also young at just 24. Still, I'll take the generational center with the ability to dictate play, light up the score sheet and improve his supporting cast every day of the week.
Tim Kavanagh: A down season in 2016-17 might've led some people to forget how good Anze Kopitar is, but he's been a critical component of the Los Angeles Kings' hot start, as they sit atop the Pacific Division. To be fair, the 30.0 percent shooting percentage will certainly tail off, but even when Kopitar is not scoring, he's taking on opposing team's No. 1 centers, starting a higher percentage of his shifts in the defensive zone, and playing big minutes on both special teams. Despite all that, he's sitting at a 54.5 Corsi for percentage this season.
And oh yeah, he has his name on the Stanley Cup twice and led Slovenia in the Olympics and Team Europe in the World Cup of Hockey to considerably better results than were expected out of either team. Nevertheless, he remains criminally underrated, with just one Selke and one Lady Byng Trophy on the mantle. Strength at the 1C position is critical to a long playoff run, and they don't get much better than Kopitar.