Photo Credit: Erie Otters

With the 2024 NHL Entry Draft right around the corner, you would think that we here at Prospect Watch would be getting ready to sit back and watch our prognostications begin to unfold just as we said they would. Instead, we prefer to get a jump on the following year’s crop and to do that, I can think of no better prospect to start talking about than a guy who the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League chose to take number one overall in the 2023 Priority Selection Draft, and that player was 16-year-old defenseman, Matthew Schaefer.

Now, for those of you not yet familiar with Matthew or his game, let me tell you I have seen some defenders with size. I have seen some defenders with speed, but it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen a defender who has been so lucky to possess both of these qualities and be able to utilize them so fluently together at such a young age.

Offensively, while on the rush, Matthew appears so poised that you would think he’s an NHL veteran of at least ten years. This is thanks to that aforementioned speed, which permits him to break away from a pack of defenders with ease and provides him (and his team) with endless scoring opportunities, which they then make look effortless.

But I assure you Schaefer is so much more than just some run-of-the-mill point-producing offensive defenseman. This young man has shown us this past season that he is wise beyond his years. What I mean by that is he has already appeared to have learned the importance of being patient while standing guard on the blue line. Matthew knows when to join the rush and when it’s best to stay back and protect his end of the ice. And we all know or at least are playing witness to just how invaluable a true two-way defender who can put up points as well as maintain a positive plus-minus rating can be in the playoffs.

As exciting as this prospect already is, it should be noted that he is only going to get better. In fact, one attribute that I feel should be both documented and monitored closely over the next year by NHL scouts is just how physical this young man is becoming. While reaching an age and maturity level where most are struggling just learning how to drive, Matthew (while only weighing in at 161 pounds this past season) was made to show that he could be relied upon to combat the advances of some of the leagues oldest, largest, and most talented competitors. And, if you had watched any of his games or even the video clips I provided you with in this article, you would have seen that Schaffer was able to do so flawlessly.

With most of the leagues around the world now preferring a kinder/gentler game, most defenders have become soft for fear of receiving a penalty. With that, sadly, it has become satisfactory to most coaches if a defender just throws out a lazy poke check to a speedy opposing winger who is able just to brush it off and keep advancing into the attacking zone. So as a result, these leagues have become more wide-open, leaving goalies to fend for themselves.

However, this is not the case with Schaefer. Despite him being known to throw out an effective poke check on the opposition, what sets him apart from the rest is while the forward drops his head to try and regain control of the puck, Matthew has been trained to follow said poke check, up by immediately putting on the brakes and lowering his shoulder. This is done in an effort to eliminate any threat of a potential goal by taking his man out of the play completely.

The last and seemingly most important quality that we’ll talk about Matthew possessing (that most players his age don’t) is his ability to lead. Almost instantaneously upon his arrival in Erie, Matthew appeared to become a leader of this rebuilding franchise. To this point, multiple teammates have gone on record saying it’s true when Schaefer walks into the locker room, it is almost like his presence demands respect. And it’s not because of an attitude problem or him being vain, far from it, because he’s one of the nicest, most wholesome kids you would ever want to meet.

What I think has developed this worthwhile quality is the fact Matthew has unfortunately had to deal with a lot of hardship in his young life with the loss of both his mom, whom he loved dearly, to breast cancer as well as his billet Mother in Erie, whose death was unexpected. Both women (or mother figures, if you will) in his life passed only a couple of months apart. And, when forced to deal with that kind of adversity, you do one of two things: you crack under the pressure or you press on like Matthew chose to do because it’s what his mother, who played mini sticks with him since he could first stand with a binky in his mouth would have wanted him to do.

Now, Schaefer’s three goals and fourteen assists for seventeen points this season for the Otters would be impressive for any 16-year-old defender playing in this league (especially), given all he had to go through this season. But for me, it was what he was able to do at the World Championships recently in Finland that proved to me that he at least belongs in the conversation of who will be named the top ten talents for the 2025 NHL Entry Draft.

This is because Matthew did not only play for Canada in the U-17 Tournament, where he scored four points in eight games. He also managed to make the cut to join their U-18 Team as well, where he tallied five points in seven games. In all these games, Schaefer showed that he could not only play with some of the best young talents in the world today, but in my mind, he was able to get the best of them.

So, if you get the chance next season to head up to Erie for a game, I would highly suggest it because with the Otters having both Malcolm Spence, who they took second overall in the 2022 Priority Draft, and Matthew Schaefer, who they took with the first overall pick in 2023 returning to play for them next season there’s no doubt that the cheers reverberating out of the Insurance Arena will be heard all the way across Lake Erie and up into Matthew’s hometown of Hamilton, Ontario.