Auston Matthews (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
The No. 1 prospect for the 2016 draft will play this season for the Zurich Lions in Switzerland's best league. For a player who could have been in the NHL this season had his birthday been a few days earlier, this represents a trailblazing path for North American phenoms.
It began as a possibility months ago, but now it is a reality. Switzerland's ZSC Lions have announced that American center Auston Matthews will play for the Zurich-based squad in 2015-16, becoming the first high-end North American prospect ever to play in Europe during his NHL draft season.
Matthews, the favorite to go first overall in the 2016 draft, is an Arizona native who played this past season for the U.S. National Team Development Program, where he wrecked Patrick Kane's franchise record for points in one season. He has the same build as Jack Eichel and many of the same dynamic traits.
By going to Zurich, he will be playing against men in what agents Pat Brisson and Judd Moldaver believe is one of the best leagues outside of the NHL. One NHL scout I reached out to came to a similar conclusion, praising the Swiss League for its strong competition and coaching. Matthews' coach will be former NHL bench boss Marc Crawford and his teammates will include ex-NHLers Dan Fritsche, Ryan Shannon and Marc-Andre Bergeron, not to mention recent draft picks Denis Malgin (Florida) and Jonas Siegenthaler (Washington).
"It's a really good place for development," Siegenthaler said. "It would be perfect for him."
Other benefits of the Swiss League include a forgiving travel schedule – all roads game are close enough that the players return home that same night – and plenty of practice time.
"It's an exciting opportunity," Brisson said. "We believe that from a development standpoint it's the right decision and he is ready for this type of challenge."
Matthews' more traditional choices had been between the WHL, where the Everett Silvertips held his rights, and the NCAA. Boston College, Boston U., North Dakota, Michigan and Denver were on his short list.
This is going to be a fascinating season for the talented center. He's going into uncharted territory, but could serve as a trailblazer for future prospects of his caliber. While there's nothing wrong with major junior or the college game, if players are good enough to hang with professionals, should they not have that opportunity? Eichel proved at the World Championship this spring that he was that good.
And though it didn't factor into the decision, Matthews will be largely shielded from the North American media circus that McDavid and Eichel faced this past season. The fact the world juniors take place in Finland – as opposed to the twin cauldrons of Toronto and Montreal – will also help him develop with fewer distractions and concentrate on his task at hand.
Not that getting Matthews to the Lions was easy. Brisson and Moldaver had tons of legwork to do thanks to Swiss labor laws and how they apply to American amateur hockey players. But according to Moldaver, Matthews had remained calm throughout what was a long process.
"Auston has a lot of poise and he comes from a great family," Moldaver said. "A lot of thought went into this decision."
Matthews is currently in Lake Placid at Team USA's summer world junior camp. He will go home to Arizona in a couple days and then leave for Switzerland some time in the next week. His mother will live with him in Zurich.
So now the adventure really begins. How much of an impact can Matthews make offensively? ZSC was the best team in Switzerland last season, but lost to Davos in the playoff final, so the Lions will have a great cast surrounding him. He would have dominated either junior or college, but now expectations will be re-calibrated. Having said that, they'll still be high.
Officially, Matthews has a one-year contract with ZSC and based on his talent, that's all they'll get out of him – because he's going straight to the NHL in 2016-17.