Successful people tend to measure themselves against their peers. Auston Matthews is no different.
Before the heavily scrutinized launch of his NHL career, the prized Toronto Maple Leafs prospect finds himself in a dressing room with four other members of the first-overall-draft-pick club.
That level of proximity to the very elite is rare but, as it turns out, not unique.
"Um, we have a few in Edmonton," smiled Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (class of 2011), one of four former No. 1 NHL draft picks who played for the Oilers last season.
What's different for Matthews is he'll have the chance to skate with and against the world's best players in his inaugural big-league training camp – as a member of Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey – before he even takes his first shift in the NHL.
To listen to Florida Panthers defenceman Aaron Ekblad (first overall in 2014), it could amount to a sizable advantage.
"He's got a month of high-end hockey to get ready for the National Hockey League season. We didn't. Connor, myself, and everybody else in this room – we didn't have that luxury to get this high-speed hockey, NHL-style hockey, right away. I think it's going to bode well for him during the season," Ekblad said after TNA's first workout on the Bell Centre ice. "I don't know a whole lot about him; he's obviously solidified himself as a first-overall pick, he's going to be working to prove himself just like we all are, we're all young guys."
Some of those guys include North American teammates Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel – who along with Detroit Red Wings prospect Dylan Larkin have been a font of information for the Arizona-born phenom.
The tournament spotlight is likely to focus more intensely on McDavid and Eichel – who the NHL could be forgiven for hyping as its next great head-to-head rivals – but that's not to say Matthews won't have a role to play.
TNA's hopes are pinned on youth, vigour, speed, and skill. As Ekblad said, "It's actually crazy how good we are."
TNA head coach Todd McLellan concurs, saying earlier this week, "If you're a pure hockey fan, it doesn't matter what country you're from. You want to watch this team."
If McDavid is the obvious focal point and principal storyline, Matthews – the most highly touted prospect in a generation to be drafted by the Leafs, one of the league's marquee teams – is the most intriguing subplot.
Well, that and the fact Canadian and American players who have been battling tooth and nail against one another since they were peewees must play together.
"There's a couple of guys in here, if they weren't on my team, I'd probably want to kill them. That's the game of hockey – you come together when you're on the same team, and everything else gets set aside," Ekblad said.
Matthews, who turns 19 on Sept. 17, is mindful of the circumstances and the fact there are others in the room who can relate to his experience. But he is not the type of player who seems to get overawed.
He admitted that the idea of facing top-level competition – TNA's first game is against medal-favourite Sweden on Sept. 21 – was daunting. "It's a little nerve-racking, in the sense that you've never played at the NHL level … the top of the top," the 18-year-old said. "I just want to learn as much as possible, continue to progress over this tournament and just have fun with it."
Matthews has impressed both his teammates and the coaches with his poise – McLellan noted his comfort level and obvious on-ice intelligence. There's no question he's up to the job physically and, his new teammates say, temperamentally.
"He's a bigger guy, and he's a mature guy for his age. I don't think we'll be seeing a lull from him," said Nugent-Hopkins.
Only one person per year can understand what it feels like to be drafted first overall, and what it means to carry the accompanying expectations. Colorado Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon, the first pick in 2013, offered a prediction on what Matthews, his linemate in practice, can expect.
"A lot of hype, a lot of expectations, a lot of noise. He's a hot topic going first to Toronto … I've been through it," he said. "It's a lot of pressure for sure. Getting to know him, he seems like a very mature kid, he'll handle it well. Not everyone can handle that kind of pressure, they drafted him for the reason he can. I think he's going to flourish here for sure."
McLellan spoke earlier this week about his approach with McDavid, who, like Matthews, displays a maturity that belies his youth. The Oilers tried to limit their budding superstar's exposure to outside demands and did their best to surround him with the appropriate personalities on the ice.
It can take some time, McLellan said, for young players "to give themselves permission … to excel."
Anyone with a rooting interest in the Leafs will hope the franchise's next great hope will find what it takes in this World Cup to do just that.