BUFFALO – At first, Jamie Wood didn’t want his son, Matthew, to play college hockey at such a young age. Having played and coached in the NCAA, he understood the physicality and speed could overwhelm a 17-year-old fresh out of junior.
Besides a chance to attend UConn, Matthew Wood had other intriguing options to consider for the 2022-23 season.
The 6-foot-4, 193-pound forward could return to the Vernon Vipers and defend his British Columbia Hockey League scoring title. Or he could move up to the Regina Pats, who owned his Western Hockey League rights, and play with Connor Bedard, the sport’s top prospect.
Naturally, that opportunity in Saskatchewan was a pretty enticing.
“That was something that we really thought long and hard about,” Jamie said of his son playing for Regina.
The decision ultimately belonged to Matthew, who wanted to play in the NCAA. UConn had a positive history with players like him. In 2015, the Huskies had a 17-year-old freshman forward named Tage Thompson.
“I just kind of trusted that Matty knew what he was doing and the people at Connecticut knew what they were doing,” Jamie, who won two national titles as coach of the women’s team at Elmira College, told the Times Herald. “At some point, you just have to go all in and see if you’re good enough or not.”
Wood, who turned 18 on Feb. 6, enjoyed a terrific freshman campaign. In scoring 11 goals and 34 points in 35 games, he elicited more comparisons to the 6-foot-6 Thompson, who’s coming off a dazzling 47-goal, 94-point season for the Buffalo Sabres.
In addition to the age they entered the same school, Thompson and Wood share other similarities. They’re both big forwards who possess slick and unique skill sets.
“We just started to see a lot of similarities to Tage Thompson here, a bigger guy (who) might take a little longer to get to his true top form, but the package is there and the player’s there,” said Dan Marr, NHL Central Scouting’s director.
Like Thompson, the 26th overall pick by St. Louis Blues in 2016, Wood will almost certainly be a first-round pick at the NHL Draft on June 28 in Nashville. Central Scouting ranks him fourth among North American skaters.
The Sabres own the 13th pick. He could be long gone by then.
Marr said Wood showcased consistent growth throughout the season.
“What you could see was how he adapted to the level that he was playing at, how he adapted his foot speed to keep his feet moving,” he said. “His skating habits changed considerably over the course of the season to where he was maybe watching a little bit and gliding rather than maintaining stride. That changed over the course of the season.”
As it changed, Marr said Wood’s “true game came into focus in the offensive end.”
“He’s a very dangerous player,” he said. “He can set up plays, he sees the ice, and then when he has the puck on his stick, he’s got one of the best releases and best shots and a finishing touch.”
That scouting report, of course, sounds very similar to one you might read about Thompson.
Wood, who seems to relish the comparisons to Thompson, views him as a bit of a trailblazer. Players that tall rarely have a dynamic skill set.
“I’ve seen people call him a unicorn,” Wood said last Saturday following fitness testing at the NHL Scouting Combine in LECOM Harborcenter.
Wood said he spoke to more than 20 teams at the combine, including the Sabres. During their chat, he said he asked the team questions about Thompson, whose development took off when Don Granato was named coach in 2021.
“I always want to learn about him and stuff,” said Wood, a natural center who mostly played the wing as a freshman. “He’s a big role model of mine and, I mean, I really look up to him so it was really fun.”
Wood believes if the Sabres make the postseason, Thompson can display another side of his game.
“He’s going to really show where he shines in playoff hockey and his big body, using it really well,” he said. “I’m trying to develop the same way. Both aspects of the game are really important and I value them both really high.”