Saturday, 8 August 2015

Going Swiss

Rarely do we see situations such as this, but a draft-eligible player from North America has decided to ply his trade outside North America as the highly-touted Auston Matthews informed the world on Friday that he'll take his skills to Switzerland to join the ZSC Lions in Zurich for the upcoming season. It will be interesting to see how the 17 year-old develops in a men's league that is regarded as one of the best outside North America, but I'm thinking he'll do alright over there once he gets acclimated. Matthews had a rather impressive 55 goals and 117 points with the US National Development Team in 2014-15, so it's not like he doesn't know how to find the net.

Matthews making the jump, though, isn't common. His rights were held by the WHL's Everett Silvertips, and there was thoughts that he could join one of the big NCAA programs in Boston College, Boston University, North Dakota, or Denver as per his personal short list. However, if he's already obliterating USHL records, would there be any reason to believe that he'd be challenged at the CHL or NCAA level?

That's where the Lions and head coach Marc Crawford can help him. The Swiss league has a pile of former NHL players who can provide him with some guidance as well. The Lions feature Marc-André Bergeron, Dan Fritsche, and Ryan Shannon as their former big-leaguers, while other former NHLers in the league include Keith Aucoin, Alexandre Giroux, Adam Hall, Ryan O'Byrne, Cory Conacher, Chuck Kobasew, Joel Kwiatkowski, Jeff Tambellini, Matt D'Agostini, Paul Ranger, brothers Taylor and Tom Pyatt, Martin Gerber, Chad Kolarik, Jim Vandermeer, Damien Brunner, Kurtis McLean, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Josh Holden, and Tobia Stephan. In other words, the Swiss National League A is a pretty darn good league!

US Junior National Team head coach Ron Wilson sees this move as a good one for Matthews. "Assuming that Marc treats him like a normal player," Wilson told Mike Morreale of, "he'll play with a couple of good players. Zurich has a good team, and has been good the last two years. It's very competitive, and there are a lot of Swiss players capable of playing in the NHL, so that's the positive I see in this."

I think there are more positives that just that. Despite Matthews missing the first four games of the season due to Swiss laws that state he must be 18 for a visa, he'll have 46 games plus the playoffs to develop against men. That's a phenomenal advantage right off the bat as he's already proven to be heads-and-shoulders above the rest of his age group here in North America. If Crawford uses him right and he scores fifty points this season, I'd call that a hugely successful debut against men who are twice his age and have played the game twice as long.

Secondly, he'll be allowed to come back and show his progress at the 2016 World Junior Championships before resuming his season with Zurich for the second half of the season, so he can get a quick confidence boost mid-season by dominating the junior tournament. If he struggles out of the gate with Zurich, he may cast him own abilities in some doubt. Young players who lose their confidence stop doing the things that make them successful: going to the net, finding openings, back-checking hard, and hustling every shift. By going to the World Junior Championships, Matthews will get a chance to stand above his peers once more as the best draft-eligible player on the planet provided he plays well. I don't think that's going to be an issue.

Some may say that he'd doing it for the money, but I don't think money will corrupt a player in a foreign land where he knows very few people and will be watched closely by the coaching staff of the Lions. He missed the draft cutoff for this season by a mere two days, so I don't see an issue with him getting paid when everyone else his age has already signed an entry-level deal at the NHL level. And yes, he mostly likely would have been taken in the first round this season, but he's almost assured to be the first-overall pick because of his abilities and birthday. If anyone thinks $400,000 is going to ruin Auston Matthews this season, they may want to look a little further ahead at the millions he'll earn in the NHL.

I can't see this move to Switzerland as being anything but a good test for Matthews. He'll have an excellent support system in Marc Crawford and his staff, there are players who have been in this nomadic situation before in Bergeron, Fritsche, and Shannon, and he'll be able to talk about the expectations that are being placed upon him with both Crawford and former second-round pick Fritsche. The Lions appear to be building a team that will compete for the Swiss League championship again after winning it in 2013-14, so Matthews is going into a great situation on a comeptitive team that should help relieve a little pressure off the kid.

While there will be some adjustments Matthews will have to make, I'm guessing that this transition to a higher level of play will go like Swiss clockwork for Matthews. And the timing couldn't be better.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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