2016 Edmonton Oilers prospects
#16 Matthew Cairns
How often have we seen a picture just like that shown above? A fresh faced young
graduand draft pick wearing his brand new colours, posing in whatever manner the photogs have chosen this year, smiling like it’s the best day of his young life because maybe it is. Doesn’t much matter the logo on the sweater in question, it’s that little NHL crest that doesn’t quite cover the careful knot in the tie for which the player has been striving. Not there yet, obviously, but an exceedingly important step along the way.
We’ve posted a few such pics in our Cult of Hockey prospects series over the years, our choice of photo often limited by the sheer paucity of options. Such limitations often extends to actual information about the player. So it is with the beaming young man above, recent Edmonton Oilers draft pick Matthew Cairns.
After spending their top two picks on wingers, Peter Chiarelli, Bob Green & Co. turned their attention to the blueline. They had three third round picks, their own plus two acquired in the late-season trades of Teddy Purcell and Justin Schultz. While those veterans were both acquired by playoff teams to provide short-term depth down the stretch, the Oilers addressed a depth issue of their own, albeit of a longer-term nature, when they used all three picks on rearguards.,
The middle of those picks was Cairns, taken #84 overall, effectively the return for 20 games of Purcell. Whether Cairns ever plays as many as 20 games in the show is a question for the far future, as at this moment he projects as a player who may not even turn pro until 2021. First comes a year in the USHL with Muskegon Lumberjacks, then as many as four more with Cornell Big Red in the Ivy League.
A keen student, Cairns chose the Junior A (f.k.a. Tier Two) route to keep his options open. Eschewing a chance to play with Peterborough Petes, the Mississauga native spent the season with the OJHL’s Georgetown Raiders, his second in the league after playing for the Toronto Patriots the year previous. He made massive strides in his production rates, surging from his 2014-15 output of just 4-10-14 in 75 league and playoff games to 12-40-52 in 68 games in Year 2. That included 19 points in 22 playoff games as Cairns’ club made a deep playoff run for the second straight year. In the process he was named the OJHL’s Top Prospect.
In a late season report, The Hockey News had plenty of positive commentary with a couple of reservations:
The Patriots had an older defense corps, so Cairns is counted on much more in Georgetown. That can get him in trouble and scouts think he tries to do too much sometimes, but Cairns is aware of that.
“I get kinda carried away on the rush sometimes,” he said. “I have to learn to stay in my role.”
Cairns would also like to work on his D-zone coverage, but the offensive skills are impossible to ignore, which is why scouts are excited to see what he’ll do next season.
One thing he has already is what the scouts call a “projectable frame”, listed at 190 pounds on some sites, 203 on others, but 6’2 everywhere. He’s noted for his skating, having taken heed of the coaching of Paul Coffey along the way. As he told the Cornell Daily Sun: “I knew I had the work ethic and everything to be there, but I have to give so much credit to my coach [Coffey] … he always said to me and other guys, ‘If you can’t skate, you can’t play,’ and he developed my skating and hockey sense better.”
Although there are some whispers that that hockey sense still needs plenty of work, he made enough positive impressions along the way to earn an invite to the World Junior A challenge. Central Scouting identified Cairns as one of three “players to watch” on Canada East, providing the following bullet-point scouting report:
size and strength defenceman … very good mobility … makes a good first pass … makes responsible decisions under pressure … very good one-on-one … strong and accurate point shot
Bob Green saw some of those same attributes. His comments to the media about Cairns were succinct: “Big kid, good puck mover, good hockey sense. A little bit raw, maybe, but a big guy that can skate and move the puck.”
He’s going to have time to work on that “a little bit raw” issue. While the temptation might be to compare him to fellow 2016 third-rounders Markus Niemelainen and Filip Berglund, perhaps the better comps are two recent Oiler selections who went to the USHL after being drafted. Both 2014 4th rounder William Lagesson (#20 in our prospects rankings) and 2015 6th rounder John Marino (#24) followed that path, with both proceeding on to the NCAA in their Draft +2 season just as Cairns intends. That we have the most recent selection ranked a tiny bit higher is likely some combination of slightly greater draft pedigree, being new and shiny, and wild-ass guess. This just in, ranking rarely- or never-seen players isn’t an exact science. Suffice to call them all prospects worth following and let’s see what happens.
In Cairns’ case he will move stateside this upcoming winter to play one season for the Muskegon Lumberjacks before making the jump to Cornell, an Ivy League school much better known for its academics than its hockey team. For sure the term “student-athlete” is much more than lip service. Cairns seems more than prepared to take on that challenge, stating “I have always been a good student and take pride in my studies. It gave me the chance to go to a great school like Cornell and have a chance to play in the NHL, which is my dream one day.” Sounds like a kid with both eyes on the prize.
Expectations for 2016-17: Cairns will step up a weight class with his move to the ever-improving USHL, though as a top-100 NHL draft choice he should be expected to make that transition fairly quickly. How much of that offence accompanies him to the new loop is an open question. It’s role-dependent of course, but I see 0.5 points per game as a reasonable line in the sand, with a good possibility he might do substantially better than that.
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