Quietly, amid the excitement of the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs and in the shadow of McDavid-Mania, Jack Eichel’s huge World Championship showcase and Babwatch, there is a potentially ground-breaking story developing involving the next Connor McDavid—U.S. uber-star, Auston Matthews. The 17-year-old phenom torched the USHL this season, breaking Patrick Kane’s scoring record in the process, with the U.S. National Under-18 team, while dazzling on the international stage in the World Junior Championships and World Under-18 tournament. With his credentials and explosive talent, Matthews would be a sure-fire top-5 pick in this year’s NHL draft. The problem is, he’s not eligible for the draft until 2016, meaning he has a very big decision to make on where to ply his trade next season.
Most kids in Matthews’ position would have two prominent options: major junior or the NCAA. Matthews was drafted in the 3rd round in the 2012 WHL draft by the Everett Silvertips and can handpick any school he wants in the NCAA. For any kid in his situation, this is a tough choice. Patrick Kane picked the OHL. Jonathan Toews picked the NCAA. For the most part, you can’t go wrong with either path when you’re as talented as Matthews. The thing that makes Matthews’ situation unique is the emergence of a third option: professional hockey in the top league in Switzerland. This is unchartered territory for North American players, which makes it so unique.
Here are 5 reasons why Auston Matthews should become a trailblazer and set off on a Swiss adventure:
- Talent Level
Auston Matthews is one of those elite talents that come along once in a while, much like McDavid and Eichel. At this point in his development arc, he’s too good for major junior or college hockey. For him to best challenge himself, given his draft status and situation, he would need to find a league that was better than the two aforementioned levels, but not quite as good as the NHL. This is what makes the Swiss league a perfect breeding ground for players with Matthews’ advanced talents. The top Swiss league is considered a “European Elite” league. Typically, North American imports need to have played games in the NHL or had prolonged success at the AHL level to receive interest from teams in this league. Simply put, the Swiss league is a really good level of hockey.
There has been a lot of uproar about the possibility of Matthews’ spurning the WHL and NCAA to play pro in Switzerland. Like anything that is different, most of these arguments are based on the fact that it’s “not normal.” The fact is that it is normal practice for ridiculously talented teens in Europe to play in elite pro leagues like the top Swiss league or the Swedish Elite League. Players like Victor Hedman and Nicklas Backstrom greatly benefitted from playing in these leagues prior to their NHL Draft selections, easing their transition into the rigors of the NHL. Teens in pro hockey in Europe are able to finish their schooling, while playing less games and learn from seasoned pros who have played in the NHL.
If Matthews was born two days earlier, the conversation surrounding this kid would be about whether to select him ahead or behind Jack Eichel. He would likely be in a position come the fall to push for an opening day roster spot for an NHL team. It is important to keep in mind that Matthews was born in 1997, just like Connor McDavid and most of the 2015 NHL Draft class.
The rumoured amount of money that is being offered to Matthews to sign in Switzerland on a one-year contract is 500,000 Euros. That is a lot of money. In the case that something terrible happened or he became a bust, this amount of money provides a security blanket for Matthews. This would easily cover all the costs of a university degree and then some. Knowing how fragile a career in hockey can be and that there are no guarantees with projections, it makes a lot of sense to grab the money and run.
- Coaching & Development
The Swiss team that has been linked to Matthews is the ZSC Lions, located in Zurich, which is coached by Stanley Cup Champion and long-time NHL coach, Mark Crawford. Last year’s team boasted a lineup with 6 players who played over 250 games in the NHL, including Marc-Andre Bergeron. Crawford, known for employing an up-tempo style of play, would provide Matthews with guidance to develop his game in the mold of a player with his sights set on an impactful transition to the NHL the following season. Anyone who has played at high levels can tell you the immeasurable value of being surrounded by guys “who have been there.” Living day-in and day-out with guys who have played a significant amount of games in the NHL and gleaning off of their leadership and experience is a huge benefit.
- Future Options
There is a major benefit to signing a one-year deal in Switzerland that will trigger options for the following season for Matthews and that is the opportunity to play in the AHL if he isn’t ready to play full-time in the NHL in the 2016-17 season. Currently, due to an agreement between the CHL and NHL, junior-eligible players (prior to their overage, 20-year-old season) are not eligible to be sent down to the AHL. This only applies to players who have signed CHL contracts and doesn’t apply to players who play in European pro leagues. This means that by choosing the Swiss league option, Matthews would open up the option of playing in the AHL if he wasn’t quite ready for the NHL the following season.
At the end of the day, who knows where Auston Matthews will decide to play next season. There will be a lot of pressure for him to choose one of the traditional options (CHL or NCAA) simply because it’s what you’re “supposed to do.” In reality, Matthews signing in Zurich would be no different than European import players signing with CHL teams.
From a business standpoint, the CHL and NCAA are praying Matthews doesn’t cross the pond. If he does, this will surely pave the way for others to choose this option in the future. The CHL and NCAA want to do what they can to retain their McDavids and Eichels. Losing your headliners is just bad for business.