WHL Monthly Report: Denton Mateychuk Under The Microscope

Sebastian High

2022-05-31

Every draft class has a few players that seem to divide the public scouting and hockey fan communities alike. Last year there were Fabian Lysell, Aatu Raty, and Sasha Pastujov, for instance. These case studies are some of my favourites to dig into because they really demonstrate what particular things different scouts value and believe to be projectable. Pastujov, for instance, had great production and goal scoring with the USNTDP, but his extremely slow pace of play and lack of defensive effort and awareness left many — myself included — skeptical of his true NHL upside. Fabian Lysell was feared to have “character issues” because he forced a switch in teams in the SHL in order to get more playing time, which I never thought was a problem, and due to the value I put into dynamism, intelligence, and pace, he landed at #4 on my year-end board, far higher than I knew he’d go.

Raty, however, was the most interesting case study. He had been the projected #1 pick of the 2021 class for quite some time heading into his draft year, but he continuously fell down boards due to his lack of production and visible frustration on the ice. Those who liked him — like me — argued that this fall represented an overcorrection to his previously high draft stock and that he had the offensive instincts, release, skill in transition, and defensive intelligence to become a really solid middle-six NHLer, and that he was on the brink of breaking out offensively in the Liiga. This is exactly what happened, which has made the New York Islanders look really good less than a year after snapping Raty up at 52nd overall. This year, the curious case studies that divide scouts include Brad Lambert, Isaac Howard, Lane Hutson, Conor Geekie, and Denton Mateychuk.

As I am covering the WHL with feature stories, only two of these 2022 case studies made sense to cover. I am, however, far more confident in my optimistic read on Mateychuk than I am in my lukewarm read on Geekie. Pair this with the enjoyment I experience every time I get to watch Mateychuk play hockey, and I’ve been looking forward to taking a deep dive into Mateychuk’s game tape for quite some time.

For the sake of full transparency, I am very high on Mateychuk’s upside and I am a big believer in his ability to translate the skills that make him dominant at the WHL level to being a highly entertaining and highly-effective offensive defenseman in the NHL. This is also why I currently have him ranked seventh on my board and as my second top defensemen of the class, behind David Jiricek — I have Nemec at eight, and he could still very easily rank higher than Mateychuk on my board by draft day.

So what makes Mateychuk so divisive as a prospect, and why is he my favourite 2022 draft-eligible playing in the WHL?

Mateychuk is a dynamic left-shot defenseman who is an extremely willing and skilled activator in the offensive zone. He plays like an F1 at times, chasing pucks chipped in by his teammates, and regularly drives the middle lane off puck, pushing back defenders and creating space for his teammates. He also excels as a playmaker from near or below the goal line. In short, he can play like a forward during offensive zone sequences before reverting to his defensive position when his team loses the puck. This style was enabled by the very fluid offensive system that Moose Jaw employed; with every player in constant motion, which not only opened passing lanes to the slot (which Mateychuk regularly exploited) but also permited Mateychuk to do what he does best. Mateychuk’s playmaking ability is among the best in the draft, and not just among defensemen. He consistently attacks the slot, changes pace to create new passing lanes, and can thread the needle through layers of defenders’ skates and sticks.

While he is at his best in the offensive zone, the Winnipeg native is no slouch in transition or in his own zone either. Mateychuk wants to be involved in every single play, he thrives with this responsibility and grows in confidence with every moment the puck is on his stick. This is certainly a valuable trait in the offensive zone, but it is equally important to his crucial role in Moose Jaw’s transition game. He is very involved in transition, and when carrying the puck, knows how to use his teammates to get entries. He also changes lanes to disperse defenders and open up space to exploit. He uses his agility and high-end deceptiveness to manipulate defenders when he’s in motion and he executes his deception with very good hands and intelligent choice of skating routes.

While he is mobile and extremely shifty, he lacks good two-step acceleration and a high-end top gear, which limits his skating. This hamstrings his game in two specific ways. First of all, it impedes him from catching up to opposing forwards on odd-man rushes, which his style of cowboy hockey is conducive to experiencing more than many other defenders. Second, it casts doubt on how effective he can be in creating separation from his opponents at higher levels of hockey when he has the puck, which is extremely often. This is also one of the differentiating factors between him and current high-end offensive defensemen in the NHL such as Quinn Hughes, and even Adam Fox and Cale Makar.

Mateychuk’s defensive game has grown on me with every viewing. In January, I loved his tools but did not see enough defensive awareness and skills to project him as an NHL defenseman, which is why I liked the idea of him switching to playing on the wing — which I still think could be an interesting experiment. Since then, however, I have seen far more defensive intelligence and refined defensive habits, which the analytics tracked by Mitch Brown of Elite Prospects backs up (Mateychuk drives results in the 98th to 100th percentile offensively, defensively, and in transition).

Mateychuk is not as aggressive defensively as he is offensively, but he protects the slot at all costs, just as he attacks the slot at all costs at the opposite end of the ice; he clearly understands where valuable scoring chances are created. When defending transition, he does not typically engage immediately upon entry, but he does direct play to the periphery and aims to suffocate the rush along the boards about halfway into the defensive zone. Mateychuk’s gap control is sound if not the most consistent or refined.

His refined habits defensively are built upon consistent shoulder checks. He plots a map of where all the players are on the ice — which proves equally valuable offensively — and blocks the high-danger passing lanes. It also allows him to choose the right moment to commit with a poke check, and his active stick is one of his defensive strengths. He also employs these shoulder checks on retrievals, which he pairs with his deceptiveness and agility to quickly and easily evade forecheckers. When necessary, he will also engage physically, which typically comes against forecheckers. He is not particularly strong, but he wins quite a few puck battles by lowering his center of gravity and engaging physical contact before his opponent does.

Breakout passes remain a bit of a hit or miss area of Mateychuk’s game. He can hyper-focus on stretch passes, even when better options are available, something he will need to iron out of his game, as this costs his team quite a few unforced icings and turnovers. His breakout game is at its best when he foregoes the Hail Mary pass and opts for the slower and safer choice of skating the puck up himself and/or using his teammates for quick short passes.

Despite Mateychuk’s few areas of weakness — which I believe can be worked on by a good development team — he has been a staple in the top-10 of my personal draft board for the past few months. He has done enough to convince me that the upside far outweighs the risk in selecting him. But many others aren’t convinced, which is why there are quite a few boards that have him between the late 20s and mid-second round, including Bob McKenzie’s most recent consensus board. I think one of the big reasons for this is the lack of a real comparable for him in the NHL. He may resemble Quinn Hughes in some aspects, especially as an aggressive playmaker, but he lacks his elite skating and speed; he does, however, have a more refined defensive game at the same age. He’s a bit of a unicorn, which is what makes him such a fascinating case study and what makes the range of possible outcomes both in his draft slot and his career very wide.

Ryan Merkley may only be four years removed from his draft, but his lacklustre development curve may be regarded as a cautionary tale for defensemen with elite playmaking but who play extremely aggressively in the offensive zone and are not regarded as being great defensively — which Mateychuk isn’t, overall, despite certain tracked analytics. The two big differences between the two players, which make me remain confident in Mateychuk’s projection to the NHL, are character and the aforementioned defense. Merkley was regarded by quite a few scouts as “uncoachable” in his draft year. Mateychuk, for his part, is a consummate professional and is well-liked in the locker room; he wears an “A” in Moose Jaw and even wore one of the two “C”’s in the CHL top prospects game, along with Shane Wright. Mateychuk’s defensive game is also based on a few high-end habits that lead to the excellent results he put up, as was outlined previously.

I believe Denton Mateychuk could be an extremely high-value pick in the late-teens and early-twenties of the draft, but his success at the end of the day depends greatly on one particular detail. If he gets drafted by a team willing to let him play his game and adopt a fluid offensive system to facilitate his excellent playmaking, the sky is the limit. Take Colorado, for instance, their defensemen activate constantly to support the attack, which leads not only to high point totals for the defensive corps but also plays a big role in the tremendous offensive execution the Avalanche demonstrate. Mateychuk would excel in such a system. But if he is drafted by a team determined to confine him to the role they want him to fulfill and doesn’t allow him to play a fluid offensive game, he may never develop into a valuable NHL contributor.

As a result, the fantasy advice for Mateychuk is highly dependent on the philosophy of the team that drafts him. Chances are that if they select Mateychuk, they want him to play his game as it is, and he would be an extremely high-value fantasy pickup with 60-point upside from the backend, but if that does not end up being the case, even I, as a huge proponent of his game, would be hesitant on picking him up with a high pick.

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