There is a reason why NHL teams should aim for the best player available instead of drafting for need in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft.
When the Vancouver Canucks picked Cory Schneider in 2004, the team badly needed a number one goaltender to rescue them from the “goalie graveyard” that had plagued the team for years. They needed a goaltender so badly that then-GM Dave Nonis scuttled a trade down for two second-round picks to take Schneider.
Two years later, Nonis traded for Roberto Luongo and suddenly the Canucks didn’t need a goaltender.
If Nonis hadn’t drafted for need, perhaps he would have taken Mike Green instead or taken that trade down into the second round, where players like Blake Comeau, Brandon Dubinsky, and Alex Goligoski were drafted.
It’s not that Schneider was a bad pick — there was a window where he was one of the best goaltenders in the NHL. It’s more that drafting for need can backfire. By the time Schneider played NHL games, the Canucks’ needs had changed and other players the Canucks could have drafted would have fit those needs better.
Looking at the current Canucks, they have a lot of needs, but one area where the need isn’t quite so apparent is on left defence. That’s where the Canucks already have Quinn Hughes on the top pairing, Oliver Ekman-Larsson locked into a long-term contract, the relatively-young Travis Dermott, and their top prospect, Jack Rathbone.
But needs can change. Who knows who will still be on the Canucks’ blue line in a few years’ time. If the best player available to the Canucks is a left-handed defenceman, that shouldn’t deter the Canucks from taking him.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at one of those left-handed defencemen: Denton Mateychuk.
Denton Mateychuk - Defence
5’11” - 194 lbs - Jul 12, 2004 (17)
Moose Jaw Warriors, WHL (65-13-51-64)
Mateychuk is ranked right around where the Canucks are picking at 15th overall, though there are several rankings that have him higher. The Hockey News has him 12th overall, while Elite Prospects and Dobber Prospects both have him in their top-10 at 8th overall.
Some might wonder if the slick defenceman will even be available at 15th overall but the odds are surprisingly good.
Bob McKenzie’s final draft rankings are typically a good barometer for how the draft will actually go and he has Mateychuk ranked 24th overall, as does his TSN colleague Craig Button. There’s a sense that teams might be nervous about using a precious top-10 pick on Mateychuk and he’s likely to slip down in the first round.
Let’s take a look at why that might be and why it also makes Mateychuk one of the most compelling and exciting players in the draft.
“He’s basically a maniac out there.”
Big, physical defencemen frequently get described as “throwback” players for the way they throw hits and punish players in front of the net. You can consider Mateychuk a throwback too, but throwing way, way back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century when hockey teams played with six skaters: three forwards, two defencemen, and a rover.
Mateychuk is essentially a rover. He can be found everywhere on the ice, using his superb mobility to fly around the rink.
“Denton Mateychuk treats his positional assignment like a suggestion, one he defies with reckless abandon,” reads his scouting report from Elite Prospects. “He's a mercenary every time he takes the ice, unbound by even the most time-honoured conventions of his role.”
Mateychuk is constantly involved in the play, activating on seemingly every rush, jumping into space in the offensive zone, and even leading the forecheck. He’s a nightmare to defend because he’s constantly where you wouldn’t expect a defenceman to be, creating out-manned situations and odd-man rushes every chance he gets.
“He’s basically a maniac out there. A ‘rip-up-the-playbook, jump-into-every-play’ maniac,” says Elite Prospects’ Cam Robinson. “And it’s a beautiful thing.”
“He’s going to be a defenceman who shifts the paradigm of the position.”
Mateychuk’s free-wheeling style makes him electrifying to watch. His position-fluid approach extends to his work on the power play, where he didn’t quarterback from the blue line like a typical defenceman but instead frequently played the bumper in the middle, a role normally filled by a forward.
Just watch Mateychuk — #5 in white — in these clips below, as he is constantly involved in the play, both offensively and defensively. You’d be hard-pressed to be certain of his position, as he immediately transitions from breaking up plays in the defensive or neutral zone to attacking the net in the offensive zone.
There are some who think Mateychuk isn’t just a good prospect but a player who could change the game entirely.
“I think he’s going to be a defenceman who shifts the paradigm of the position,” said an NHL scout to Elite Prospects.
Therein lies the rub. What if an NHL team doesn’t want a defenceman who is going to change any paradigms but instead want a defenceman that will excel within the current paradigm?
Paradigm-shifting requires risk and NHL teams are notoriously risk-averse.
“He needs to settle himself down once he gets to the pros because right now he’s all over the ice and that’s not the way things work,” said an NHL scout to The Hockey News.
“His passing vision and creativity is at an elite level.”
Here’s the thing: even if he doesn’t become a literal game-changer, Mateychuk still has the skillset and hockey sense to be an impact player.
Mateychuk’s offensive skillset is sublime. He has great hands to hold the blue line, evade opponents in tight quarters, and undress goaltenders. He’s a fantastic distributor with superb vision, who times his passes perfectly to find teammates in space for scoring chances.
“His passing vision and creativity is at an elite level,” says Smaht Scouting’s Austin Garrett. “He is able to identify passing lanes at an elite level, and is able to manipulate defenders with his skill to open up passing lanes himself.”
To go with his passing, Mateychuk has a strong slap shot and an even better wrist shot, and he’s adept at getting his shots through traffic to create opportunities for tips and rebounds. He gets a ton of torque on his wrist shot when he has space and changes the angle of his shot as well as any forward.
With 64 points in 65 games, Mateychuk was fifth in scoring among WHL defencemen and one point behind Kevin Korchinski for first among first-time draft-eligible defencemen.
“Mateychuk sometimes seems to think he’s the new Paul Coffey.”
As you might expect from his roving nature and excellent skating, Mateychuk is a transition beast. It starts in the defensive zone, where he’s quick to loose pucks and immediately looks for ways to break the puck up ice.
“Mateychuk is clinical on the breakout,” says Elite prospects. “Scanning for threats and options on the retrieval, stacking deception onto his first touch, dragging the F1 into the defensive zone only to dart past him — it's all too easy for him.”
While Mateychuk is an excellent passer, he definitely prefers to skate the puck out himself. Even when he does make a pass, he doesn’t stop skating, leaving forecheckers in the dust to create an odd-man situation.
When he skates the puck through the neutral zone, opposing defenders end up well on their heels, creating all sorts of opportunities.
“Mateychuk sometimes seems to think he’s the new Paul Coffey,” says Die By The Blade’s T McGee. “He collects the puck and just goes. Weaves through crowds in the NZ, carries the puck into the O-zone, all the way to the net if they let him. Again, with that skating and his push the pace at all costs attitude, he can beat most players up ice even with the puck on his stick.”
“He’s not the biggest but he plays with bite.”
Defensively, Mateychuk is far better than one might expect given his freewheeling style. His mobility allows him to keep a tight gap on opposing forwards and he excels at breaking up plays in the neutral zone.
His in-zone defence is a little unpolished, but he’s got some great qualities. With good reach and a smart stick, he’s able to make up for some of his lack of height and he’s got some heft on his frame at nearly 200 lbs.
“He’s not the biggest but he plays with bite,” said an NHL scout to The Hockey News. “He doesn’t punish forwards but he makes it difficult for them to get involved. He defends well and has a long stick.”
Mateychuk also played big minutes on the penalty kill for the Warriors. While it isn’t the focal point of his game, it’s still an area where he has a positive impact.
Let’s be clear, Mateychuk will make mistakes and will, by the nature of his playing style, give up chances on the occasions when his aggressive approach backfires. But he’s far from a liability defensively and even has some signs of being a legitimate stopper in his game.
It makes sense that a player who wants the puck on his stick at all times would relish the defensive side of the game. Any time the opposition has the puck, Mateychuk wants to win it back so he can immediately get back on the attack.
“He’s the ultimate play supporter, transporter, and facilitator from the blue line,” says Robinson. “He’ll make some mistakes defensively, but more than make up for it with his play creation.”
"Among the smartest players in the class.”
Gluing his entire game together is Mateychuk’s excellent hockey sense. His offensive reads are essentially unparalleled in this draft class and it’s what makes his style work.
“He’s super smart,” said one NHL scout to The Hockey News. “His hockey sense drives his game.”
“Among the smartest players in the class,” concurs Evan Pace for Dobber Prospects. “his vision and playmaking abilities are excellent, showing poise to find the right play.”
Mateychuk knows the right time to jump into space to get open for his teammates and knows when to hang back, which is why he rarely gets caught up ice, even with his aggressive approach.
“There’s never a play that he can’t impact, can’t be involved in, and he’s a real smart player,” said his head coach, Mark O’Leary. “He takes risks on the ice but I think they are calculated. He has a lot of trust in his legs and he knows that if it doesn’t go well with the risk then he can use his legs to get back into position.”
His defensive reads aren’t quite at the same height as his offensive reads but they’re still quite good and more advanced than other offensive defencemen in this draft class.
“He generally does a good job of identifying off-puck threats and acting proactively to take away their time and space,” says Elite Prospects.
Here’s another thing to keep in mind: Mateychuk is still just 17 years old. He won’t turn 18 until after he’s drafted in July. That’s a lot of runway for Mateychuk to develop even further and improve every aspect of his game, including defensive reads, which typically take a little more time.
Is Mateychuk the right pick for the Canucks?
Are the Canucks willing to take a big swing on Mateychuk if he slides down and is available at 15th overall?
There’s the question of need. Do the Canucks really need another offensive defenceman on the left side?
Honestly, they probably do. Ekman-Larsson’s game could easily decline over the next several years, landing him on the third pairing. Dermott may never be a top-four guy. Rathbone is entirely unproven at the NHL level. And, in three year’s time, the landscape of the left side may have changed even more.
The prospect of a Hughes-Mateychuk one-two punch on the left side is compelling, potentially giving the Canucks an elite transition game in the future.
Mateychuk also spent a lot of time on the right side with the Warriors and, with his positional fluidity, maybe he can play the right side in the NHL too. Maybe he’s not the right fit to play with Hughes but maybe he can pair with Ekman-Larsson or another left-side defenceman in the future.
The other big question is Mateychuk’s volatility. His upside is enormous, with a super-high ceiling if he develops the right way. But maybe his free-wheeling style won’t translate to the NHL and, with his game neutered, he never becomes a truly impactful player. That’s the risk that some teams won’t be willing to take.
In my opinion, Mateychuk would be a slam dunk pick if he’s available at 15th overall, but will Patrik Allvin be willing to use his first-ever draft pick on a player with such volatile upside?