By Jonah Fleisher
“His Personality is Unbelievable”: Easy-Going Matthew Savoie Performing Under the Spotlight and Relishing Every Moment.
Last year was a difficult one for prospects playing in the WHL. The league’s outlook was bleak with the COVID-19 situation in Canada, and it was looking like the entire season would have to be cancelled. For Matthew Savoie, a top prospect for the 2022 NHL Entry Draft, this would not suffice. With the draft fast approaching, the young player knew he had to chase open ice, wherever he could find it.
“With the unknown of the WHL’s start because of COVID and that whole situation, I was just trying to find ice wherever I could play,” Savoie told DraftPro. “I started just outside my hometown in Sherwood Park of the AJHL and played a few games there. Unfortunately, that league got shut down as well, so I had to look at other options.”
After getting into 22 games as a rookie for the WHL’s Winnipeg Ice in 2019-2020, Savoie began playing for the Sherwood Park Crusaders of the AJHL to begin the 2020-2021 season. However, after just four games, that league was forced to shut down due to Canada’s strict COVID-19 protocols. Fortunately, Savoie was able to change plans and join his brother Carter with the USHL’s Dubuque Fighting Saints.
“The USHL was an option that we looked at previously when I was considering the NCAA route. Dubuque drafted my brother a couple of years ago, so we had a relationship with the management and coaching staff there. They reached out and, luckily enough, wanted to bring me down and have me join the team. I was really grateful to get that opportunity to go play down there. With the guaranteed number of games I was going to get into, and knowing that the league wasn’t going to get shut down, I was confident that it was a good decision for my development.”
However, while it was unlikely that the USHL would shut down, numerous NCAA conferences cancelled their seasons due to the pandemic, meaning the USHL became ripe with older, stronger players. Nonetheless, Savoie had a strong season in Dubuque, racking up 21 goals and 17 assists in 34 games.
“They’re pretty similar leagues [the WHL and USHL],” Savoie remarked. “With COVID last year, there were a lot of NCAA players playing in the USHL, so last year it was definitely an older league and a bit more physical. I wouldn’t say there’s too many differences between the two leagues. There both highly skilled, top-tier junior leagues, so it was a lot of fun playing in both of them.”
As luck would have it, the WHL wound up playing a shortened season towards the end of the year, in a bubbled setting. While James Patrick, head coach of the Ice, regrets that Savoie couldn’t be there for that bonding experience, the top prospect had as smooth a return to his old club as could be hoped for; it was almost like he never left.
“We had him as a 15-year-old two years ago and last year he went to the USHL when it looked like we were going to have no hockey here,” Patrick said. “We had a really good experience in the bubble [last year] and it was great for bonding. We wished that Matt could have been part of the team for that because of how close the players became, but he fit right in as soon as he was back. One of his best friends is Owen Pederson and they [still] do a lot of things together, but as far as fitting in with the team after being away for a year, it was [a] seamless [transition].”
Patrick could not speak more highly of Savoie’s character, and his adoration for the young player was evident in the tone of his voice. Savoie is revered by teammates, management, and coaching staff alike, and his unrelenting work ethic, coachability, and well-mannered nature plays a large role in that.
“Matt’s very popular and well-liked,” said Patrick. “He’s a very unassuming, modest, soft-spoken kid. Our two young players, [Conor] Geekie and Savoie, have quite different personalities but they’re also very close and get along great. Matt Savoie is a quieter kid. The guys love him. For a coach, his personality is unbelievable. There’s never an issue. He works, he never complains, and he’s respectful and thankful when he’s in meetings or watching video. That’s how I see him as a coach. On the ice with his play when there are corrections that are needed and things you want him to do better, he’s super receptive to that. He’s just so easy to get along with.”
The Ice have two premier 2022 draft prospects in Savoie and Geekie, but their glut of talent doesn’t end there. They also have four NHL-affiliated prospects on their roster: goaltender Gage Alexander, selected by Anaheim in 2021; right winger Connor McClennon, chosen by Philadelphia in 2020; centre Jack Finley, drafted to Tampa Bay in 2020; and defenseman Carson Lambos, who went to Minnesota with the 26th overall pick in 2021. This collection of veteran OHLers has significantly eased the leadership burden on the two 2022 draft eligible players, and that is by design.
“[Savoie] leads by example,” said Patrick. “Both him and [Geekie] are part of the leadership group. We have three 20-year-olds and a lot of 19-year olds — guys who have been leaders. We added Jack Finley this year, who was a captain in Spokane. [We also have] Carson Lambos, Jakin Smallwood, [and] Conor McClennon. We’ve talked to [the older guys] about taking the bull by the horns. I’m encouraging those guys to be more vocal.
“With Matt and Conor, I just want them to go out and play and enjoy the year. Saying that, as far as his leadership and competitiveness goes, Matt’s a guy who leads by example and has a phenomenal work ethic. He comes to work and practices with pace. I think a big strength in his game is the pace he plays at. He is an explosive skater.”
For Savoie, his older teammates have had big impact on him this season, and he’s been able to take advantage of their experiences having already gone through the draft process.
“Having veteran guys like [McClennon, Finley, and Lambos] in our dressing room that have gone through the draft process is really helpful,” Savoie said. “As well, having Conor Geekie going through the process with me this year has been really good for the both of us.”
Hockey has been a been a lifelong dream for Savoie. He fell in love with the game once his brother began playing and, like most kids who lace up the skates, always aspired to make it to the best league in the world.
“I started playing hockey when I was super young,” said the talented youngster. “I think I was three years old. My brother got into it a couple years ahead of me. Being at the rink and watching him just made me really fall in love with the game. Growing up, it was always a dream of mine to make it to the NHL, just like it is for a lot of kids in Canada. I’ve always tried to work my hardest and keep improving to hopefully make that dream a reality one day.
“In my draft year [to the WHL], you start getting into talks with some Western league teams and you get some notice from some NHL teams. At that point, when you’re 14 or 15 years old, just entering that stage of junior hockey, [you realize that you have a shot at making it].”
Savoie is projected among the top tier of skaters in the NHL Draft, a virtual lock for the top-five, but that is nothing new to him. He entered the WHL in a similar fashion, having been selected first overall by the Ice in the 2019 WHL Bantam Draft.
“Going into the draft I was super excited,” said Savoie. “I wasn’t sure what to expect, and when I heard my name called by Winnipeg, I was just really excited. It was a big opportunity that presented itself. With the staff and the players that they had in the organization, the new facility, and the relocation to Winnipeg, I was just really excited to come and be a part of that journey.”
For some, handling the pressure of being a top-ranked prospect may a daunting task. However, Patrick has striven to ensure that both Savoie and Geekie enjoy the experience.
“For the most part, I’m trying to keep [the pressure] to the outside,” said Savoie. “[I’m] just staying focused on the task at hand — playing games and going to the rink every day. Enjoying it and, like [Patrick] said, taking the experience for what it is. You don’t get to go through your draft year twice, so you have to take it all in and have fun with it.”
“Every time I’ve talked to him and Conor [Geekie] it’s about enjoying this time,” Patrick added. “There’s no better time in your life than when you play junior. We all understand that they’re being watched every game and they get so heavily scrutinized now, but I want them to have fun, be themselves, keep trying to get better, and compete. If they do those things, then the draft and where they get picked will take care of itself. Where you’re drafted will not make you a better player. It gives you a real big window of opportunity, but eventually you’ve got to [perform].”
It’s lessons like these which have made Patrick’s years of experience both playing and coaching in the NHL invaluable to the Ice.
“Having a guy like James [Patrick] around is definitely a big advantage,” Savoie remarked. “He’s a true pro. Having the experiences that he had playing in the NHL, and with the guys that he played with, he brings that aspect to our dressing room and passes it on to us players. The message he brings is that he always wants us to get better and keep improving. I’ve really taken that to heart. The dedication away from the rink as well — how much he talks about nutrition, how much sleep you need — just taking care of your body and paying attention to the little things like that has really helped.”
Savoie has had a strong draft year in Winnipeg, scoring 90 points in 65 games and adding another 12 points in 10 playoff games before a shoulder injury knocked him out. The skilled forward ranks third on DraftPro’s final rankings, behind only Shane Wright and Logan Cooley, our scouts cannot rave about him enough.
“Matthew Savoie is an elite-level skater,” remarked Joseph Peters. “Arguably the best skater in his draft class, he has burning speed and is highly dynamic and agile due to his incredible edgework. Savoie is an offensive weapon that every team wants. His blend of speed and skill, followed up with the ability to produce points, scoring incredible goals, is what makes him a candidate to challenge for the top-5 of the 2022 NHL Entry Draft.”
“Savoie’s a player who possesses incredibly strong skating abilities and uses his adjustments to his speed to keep defenders guessing his next move,” added Matt Hnatiuk. Couple that with his puck control, shooting and passing ability and he is a total offensive threat. He has elite (or near-elite) IQ and both thinks and plays the game at a high pace. [He] is a dual threat playmaker or scorer. He could easily develop into a top-six player and is well on his way to being just that.”
According to Murray Caldwell, it’s Savoie’s hockey IQ that stands out most. “This guy can play with anyone,” he said. “Last year in the USHL he had different teammates and was still stellar. He can score no matter who his teammates are.”
In speaking with both the player and his coach himself, both feel that Savoie’s most important attribute is the quick pace at which he plays.
“[His best skills] are his first five steps and his quick hands,” Patrick asserted. “He’s quick out of the gate and has fast-twitch fibres all the way through. For 30-seconds, he can just go. He can play at a high pace, push the defense back with his speed, and get a puck and get a shot off really quickly.”
“I like to think I play at a high speed and with a quick pace,” said Savoie. “I like to possess the puck and I’m a pretty dangerous player in the offensive zone setting up my teammates, being deceptive with the puck, and finding lanes to shoot and get pucks through.”
For Patrick, who most recently was an assistant coach for the Dallas Stars from 2013-2017, Savoie’s skillset reminds him of a certain player who’s no slouch with the puck on his stick, either.
“I coached [Tyler] Seguin in Dallas, and Seguin has a phenomenal shot and super quick hands. They’re different players, but as far as his shot and his quick release, Matt [Savoie] is a little bit similar. He’s still got a long way to go because Seguin’s had a really good NHL career as a star player, but if I’m talking about Matt’s strengths, he comes late on the powerplay on entries and he comes with speed to back the defensemen off, and on the flank he can really shoot the puck.”
However, despite his stellar offensive game, Savoie has lots of room for improvement on the other side of the puck.
“Right now, I’ve been working on the defensive side of my game and my positioning in the defensive zone, [looking at] where I can be to be a better outlet for the defensemen and support the puck better,” said Savoie. “I’ve been going over video and lots of reps in practice, and it’s been really helping.”
“I think a big thing for him to play at the next level is his stamina,” added Patrick. “He’s conditioned and his fitness levels are good, but like I said, he’s fast twitch. I love his shift lengths when they’re 30-40 seconds, but if gets stuck out on the ice, his stamina is something that needs to get better. I’ve talked to him a lot about playing with his head up and not rushing. There are plays to be made and sometimes he forces them when they’re not there. There are games when he’s in on a lot of scoring chances, but I think he can even be better on the offensive side. There are games where he’s close — just almost connecting on a play. I just think that having his head up and making eye-to-eye contact with his teammates and putting his passes on the tape, he can get twice as many points if some of those plays connect. I think those are the two areas that, when they get better, it’ll be very noticeable.”
When he’s not busy working on his own game, Savoie likes to watch highlights of Brayden Point and Mat Barzal and wants to play a game similar to theirs.
“They’re really fun players to watch and they play the game the right way,” said Savoie. “Both of them are highly-skilled players and are hard-working guys who like to make their teammates better.”
Patrick certainly had more difficulty answering that question than his star centreman but offered a few comparable players of his own.
“I find it hard [to come up with a player comparison]. I’ve heard so many names. I’ve heard someone say [Brad Marchand] because Matt has a physical side; he will finish, he’s real thick —they’re about the same size — and he has real big legs and ass. I think that would be someone great to aspire to, but he’s still a ways away. I think at times with [Alex] DeBrincat in Chigago, Cole Caufield in Montreal, I see a bit of those players in him. Sometimes [Mat] Barzal with his skating and entries — gaining the line and making something happen. Those guys are all right-handers like [Savoie] as well — they skate well with a low centre of gravity.
With the draft fast approaching and Savoie becoming ever closer to realizing his childhood dreams, it can be quite a nerve-wracking experience. But armed with Patrick’s lessons, Savoie has played to the best of his abilities this year.
“Playing with confidence and being more comfortable with the puck and the pace of play has been huge for me,” said Savoie. “Just seeing things go your way and building your confidence is one of the biggest things.” Well, what better way to build more confidence than seeing a team call your name in the top-five of the NHL Entry Draft? While Savoie has made the most of his draft year and thoroughly enjoyed the experience, he will soon have another challenge to relish and another league in which to keep filling the nets. Here at DraftPro, we can’t wait to see him rise to the challenge, wherever he ends up.
Photos courtesy of the Winnipeg Ice hockey club.
Looking for more 2022 NHL Draft content? Look no further than the Draft Prospects Hockey 2022 Draft Guide or 2022 Yearbook, both available in digital download (pdf). The 2022 Draft Guide is also available in print edition (Amazon).