This year, two players in Canada applied for “Exceptional Player Status” in order to be able to play in the CHL a year early. Shane Wright of the Don Mills Flyers was granted that status. Matthew Savoie was not.
The controversial decision to grant Shane Wright “Exceptional Player Status” and not allow Matthew Savoie to play early has brought an interesting scenario. The 5’9″, 175lbs forward is now planning on playing his draft year in the NCAA with the University of Denver Pioneers. He also plans to play at Denver a year early thanks to not only playing a year ahead in hockey, but also being a year ahead academically. He would be a rare player who plays in the NCAA in his draft year. While this isn’t entirely uncommon, players such as Shane Gostisbehere and Alec Martinez have been drafted recently out of the US college system, but a player hasn’t been drafted as high as Savoie is expected since Phil Kessel was selected 5th overall in the 2006 NHL draft.
The decision to not grant Savoie “Exceptional Player Status” is mostly questionable because the age deadline is the last day of the year, December 31st. Savoie was born on January 1st, essentially making him applying to play in the age group that is a day difference in age. Cam Robinson, managing editor at Dobber Prospects, had this to say about the decision,
“The decision to deny him that request – despite being a single day away from being able to do so without exception, was curious. The result has led to Savoie announcing his commitment to the University of Denver – the same school his older brother, Carter is committed too.”
Savoie felt that should he not gain exceptional status, committing to play against older players in NCAA can help his development. It has been long rumoured that Savoie was always strongly considering the NCAA route. Education is important to him and his family and he would welcome the opportunity to play with his brother at the University of Denver.
Possible Destinations this Upcoming Season
Matthew Savoie has multiple options this up coming season since he isn’t going to the University of Denver until the 2021-22 season. He could still make the decision to be drafted into the WHL and play in the CSSHL (Canadian Sport School Hockey League) this season like he has this season while making up to 5 appearances (15 year olds can only play 5 games unless their midget season has ended) for the WHL team bold enough to take a player who is committed elsewhere. This would take a WHL general manager feeling like he could convince Savoie to forgo his school plans and play in the WHL. If Savoie plays one WHL game, he will not be eligible for the NCAA.
Another option could be to make the jump to Junior A and play in the Alberta Junior Hockey League. This is an option that keeps the St. Albert, Alberta native close to home for a couple more years before deciding to join the college ranks. Numerous NHL players have spent time in the AJHL including Tampa Bay‘s Brayden Point and 2018 Stanley Cup Champion net-minder Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals. This option would have Savoie likely playing at a lower level of hockey than he should be playing at due to his high-end skill set. Although the AJHL is a realistic option, it remains a secondary option.
The most realistic option, should the NCAA be the destination of choice, is to go to the States and join the USHL. This is the most likely option due to the fact that Savoie will get the opportunity to play with players close to his skill level. The USHL has been consistently producing talent at high rates and when you look at most scoring predictive models, the USHL and the WHL actually grade out about the same in terms of future predictability. This would be the most lateral move for Savoie. Allowing him to move to the United States, get acclimated to the country and the USHL and United States hockey programs, as well as remaining eligible to play in the NCAA after finishing high school a year early.
The NCAA is a legitimate option
The 5’9″, 175lbs forward will grow over the next two years. This will allow him to take full advantage of the USHL and the outstanding training facilities that the league has to offer. The USHL has had numerous improvements over the last decade, off ice training and the sport science are two main areas of improvement for the USHL. With those benefits, Savoie should go into the NCAA with a mans body, somewhere around 5’11” and 190lbs is about where his growth is headed. If this is the case in two years when he begins to play for the Pioneers in 2021-22, he can use the year against players that will be at least a year older, often times up to 4 years older. This will allow Savoie the ability to play against the closest thing to a “Man’s league” that North America has to offer.
Players who come out of the NCAA often come into the NHL as high hockey IQ players, often being relied on as a good two-way player because the coaching and systems in the NCAA are generally very structured and 200 foot focused. This will play into Savoie’s game as he is one of the most developed 2-way players to come out of midget hockey in a decade or more. He is one of the best 200 foot player in his age group and he has a natural defensive instinct and awareness that players his age often don’t possess.
Honing his 200 foot game in, allowing him to continue to play above his age group and getting started on his education are all factors in Savoie’s possible decision to go the NCAA route.
Savoie is a Special Player
What makes Matthew Savoie special is that he plays a style of game similar to Sidney Crosby. They are not the same player, Crosby is in an upper echelon lost players nobody dream of reaching. Crosby has been described as an “Elite Grinder” as he has never been shy about going into corners, mucking it up in front of the net or battling along the boards. Savoie also fits that mold.
With tools that exceed most players at his level along with an elite hockey IQ, Savoie is able to not only beat players out for pucks in the corners or along the boards but he is able to escape those situations with the puck and transition from retrieval mode to offensive mode seamlessly. He has a lot of strength for a player his age and has developed the ability to hold defenders off while carrying the puck. A strong body and solid base to go along with his excellent skating ability will only increase the somewhat hyperbolic Sidney Crosby comparisons.
“The sky’s the limit with him. He’s got tremendous speed and shoots wrist shots like he’s a cannon. Very smart, doesn’t look for simple plays, goes for the effective ones. Small kid but wins a ton of battles along the boards. Lots of confidence to takes risks and has the speed to backcheck when he makes a mistake. Makes everyone around him better.”
The skill set that Savoie possesses is easily far above the players he’s played with this year. As a 15-year-old, he’s currently 5th is CSSHL scoring with 71 points in 31 games. The only players ahead of him are three 17 years olds who all play on the same line and a 16-year-old skilled playmaker. Last year’s top pick in the WHL Bantam Draft, Dylan Guenther, is playing in the same league and has 58 points in 28 games. Savoie currently has 2.29 PPG compared to Guenther’s 2.07 PPG even though he is about 8 months older, which is a large gap at this stage in development.
The WHL is still a realistic option
Another point touched on with Steven Ellis is the fact that many believe that Savoie’s commitment to the University of Denver is more of a tactic than a reality. Possibly using the threat of going to the NCAA as a way to help avoid being drafted by certain WHL teams in the upcoming WHL Bantam Draft. Steven Ellis had this to say,
“I am also extremely confident that him committing to the NCAA is just him and his family saying he’ll only consider going to a handful of WHL teams and will use that as leverage as to who drafts him. I don’t think he ever plays a college game in his life.”
This is a bold move on Savoie’s part and a move that isn’t completely unheard of. Many prospects across the CHL have committed to NCAA programs. One recent example was Will Cuylle who was drafted 3rd overall in the OHL Priority Selection Draft by the Peterborough Petes. Prior to the draft, Cuylle decided to commit to Penn State University and told the Petes that he would not report to camp if they drafted him. When Peterborough elected to draft Cuylle anyways, he held true to his word and did not report to camp. When this occurred, Petes GM Mike Oke decided to call other OHL teams to see if there would be a fit elsewhere. He ended up being traded to the Windsor Spitfires for a massive package. Players often feel that one organization can aid their development more than another so they force the teams hand.
To say that this is a guarantee would be foolhardy but this is probably the most likely option. Based on where he is from and the teams development record, two teams that Savoie may want to play for are the Edmonton Oil Kings or the Lethbridge Hurricanes but nothing of that nature is confirmed. Playing in the WHL, or any CHL league for that matter, is the peak of development for junior hockey aged players. The league provides a “pro style” life with travel, long bus rides and some of the best competition in the world for the age group. It has been the natural stepping stone for many North American players in the NHL. Cam Robinson, the Managing Editor at Dobber Prospects agreed with this sentiment and was also curious about that scenario,
“It will be interesting to see if a WHL team drafts him early despite this commitment with the intent to change his mind. If not, this will be a massive loss for the CHL and a massive gain for the USHL/NCAA.”
Where Matthew Savoie chooses to play next year and up until his draft year is far less important than the fact that he will be playing at a high level regardless of which route he chooses. He will likely be one of the best players in whichever league he chooses and he will continue to be atop most draft rankings for the 2022 draft. More than likely, he has two realistic options. The WHL or the USHL. If he does decide the USHL is his route, he will likely play at the University of Denver for one season and one season only. The teams atop the WHL draft will be put in the position of deciding if they can either convince Savoie to join the team, trade him for more assets or pass on him all together. Not an easy decision by any means and it will likely be a story that isn’t finished until he fully commits to a path.