— ZSC Lions (@zsclions) August 7, 2015
It’s finally official: Auston Matthews is headed to Switzerland.
The 2016 NHL Entry Draft’s top prospect will forego the typical route of junior or college hockey in his draft year to take on professionals overseas and show what he can do in one of the world’s top leagues.
Matthews never seemed interested in the NCAA route. He spent his two years with the USNTDP showcasing his talents against USHL and NCAA players already, and proved that he was more than capable of being a top player at that level as a high school junior. He would need to accelerate his classes to even make college hockey a possibility, and without a commitment in August it was basically confirmed he wouldn’t go.
But Matthews skipped out on the Everett Silvertips of the WHL, probably the world’s second-best junior hockey league, in favor of becoming a professional hockey player on his 18th birthday. Had Matthews been born two days earlier, he would have been eligible for the 2015 draft and many believe he’s ready to play in the NHL today. It makes sense—if you’re ready to play professional hockey, why not play professional hockey?
From here it’s a question of whether or not we continue to see this happen, particularly with players from non-traditional hockey markets and no emotional ties to college or junior hockey. Ryan Savage, a highly-touted 2018 draft prospect from Arizona, has made the move with his family to Salzburg, Austria. EC Red Bull Salzburg’s state-of-the-art facilities and top-flight coaching staff were a draw for Savage’s family, and if he continues progressing at the rate he’s expected to he could very likely be playing professionally for Red Bull in the 2017-18 season.
As good as the amateur hockey is in North America, for a young player like Matthews the best option is to challenge himself against older players. Grown men. Playing with physically and mentally mature men will not only help him develop on the ice, but as a professional off the ice. As good as Jack Eichel was this season at Boston University, the initial struggle of playing against professionals at the IIHF World Championships was obvious. Even though his NCAA career pitted him against players in their mid-20s, taking on professionals was a different beast.
Those who see this as a shortsighted attempt for a young kid to make money are simply missing the point. It’s not the best league in the world, but the Swiss National League A is one of Europe’s best for development and competition. Lions teammate Jonas Siegenthaler, a 2nd-round pick of the Washington Capitals, called it “perfect” for Matthews. ZSC Lions will also compete in Champions Hockey League this year, giving Matthews and his club a chance to take on the rest of Europe’s best.
The counter-argument has almost exclusively been, “the CHL is good enough for everyone else, why isn’t it good enough for Auston Matthews?”
Just like Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel toyed with the competition they faced this year, Matthews would do the same. Matthews just finished an absolutely historic season with the NTDP, dominated NCAA talent, and has nothing left to prove. Connor McDavid posting over two-and-a-half points per game in the OHL did nothing but reaffirm the fact that he was much better than his peers. Eichel’s only true draw to Boston University was his upbringing in the area, but watching him score thirteen more points than the next college player who didn’t also play for BU was almost pointless. Both of those players would have been better off in Europe.
SwissHockeyNews.ch reported that “In addition, there is now a bilateral treaty between Switzerland and the USA about young professionals” which is huge news. Switzerland may have just opened the floodgates for a hell of a lot more young American prospects to apply for visas.