Editor’s note: Introducing Canes Country’s top 25 under 25 series. Last week, a group of us set out to rank the top 25 players 25 years of age or younger in the Hurricanes’ organization. We were successful in that endeavor. We took into account what players have accomplished to date, their likelihood of making it as a regular NHLer and the level of impact they’re likely to have.
On this list, you’ll find players currently on the Hurricanes’ roster and prospects scattered across the AHL, Canadian junior leagues and Europe. We’ll be revealing one player each week day (with a couple exceptions for holidays) from now through early January.
We continue today with a player who made an emotional return to the ice last November:
In the days following the Charlotte Checkers’ 2019 Calder Cup championship, Stelio Mattheos was on top of the world - and then, all of a sudden, a bombshell dropped.
Instead of celebrating a championship, Mattheos learned that he had testicular cancer. That meant surgery, and a months-long recovery time. It kept him out of the Hurricanes’ 2019 training camp, and ruled him out of the first month of the season in Charlotte. His treatment was successful, and he made an emotional return to the ice in November.
His return lasted two games before a lower-body injury cost him more than three months of the season. Again he returned, then a month later the coronavirus pandemic ended the season prematurely. Everyone wants 2020 to be over and done with, but it’s probably a safe bet that no one wants to see it in the rear view mirror more than the hapless Mattheos.
And it’s a shame, too, because few prospects have made such a steep climb up the ladder than Mattheos, who was a third-round pick in 2017. Following his draft year, he put together back-to-back 90-point seasons with Brandon before joining the Checkers for their playoff run in 2019. At 6-foot-1, Mattheos has good size, and he’s added nearly 20 pounds since being drafted. Everything points to Mattheos, at worst, being an eventual AHL/NHL tweener, with an outside shot at a permanent bottom-six NHL roster spot.
So why is he stuck this far down the list, if the future is bright? Simple: we don’t know what we should make of Mattheos as a professional yet. None of this is his fault, and to be fair, other players - Phil Kessel and Shea Theodore among them - have successfully treated testicular cancer on their way to solid NHL careers. There’s no reason Mattheos can’t join them.
But when you’re 21 years old, the last thing you need as a mid-round draft pick is to miss a year of development. Mattheos has yet to show that his added size will pay dividends as a professional, and he’s going to have to work hard to make up for lost time this season — not to mention that the pandemic will cost him at least half of a typical season.
One thing working in his favor is that Mattheos is in a bit of an in-between spot among Hurricanes draft classes. Assuming Martin Necas is a full-time NHLer now, and discounting Andrei Svechnikov for obvious reasons, Mattheos is the only winger currently in the system from either the 2017 or 2018 classes who has signed an ELC. Perhaps Lenni Killinen or Kevin Wall will make a run for it eventually, but Mattheos’ path is very clear in front of him, if he can take advantage of it.
The Hurricanes are high on Mattheos, a player with a proven scoring touch in junior hockey who should be big enough to play gritty, difficult minutes without being run over. This season, whenever it starts, will be of great importance to his development, even in a shortened season. The contingent of recent Hurricanes draft picks will get increasingly larger in the rear-view mirror, and Mattheos is going to have to fight hard to avoid being overtaken in the race to the NHL.