Matthews Potentially Setting Precedent by Signing in Switzerland

Auston Matthews, the projected first overall pick in the 2016 NHL draft, seen here in action against Germany at the 2015 world junior championship in Montreal in January, has reportedly decided to sign with a pro team in Switzerland for next season.  |

Auston Matthews is, apparently, ready to play with the big boys.

The highly touted American, blessed with size and skill, and projected to be the first overall pick in the 2016 NHL draft, has reportedly signed a contract to play for the ZSC Lions of the Swiss League next season. It’s said to be a one-year deal worth as much as US$500,000 for the kid who doesn’t turn 18 until September but only missed being eligible for the 2015 draft by two days.

Had he been born 72 hours earlier, Matthews might have been in the NHL next season — most likely selected third overall behind generational talent Connor McDavid and fellow American phenom Jack Eichel. Instead, Matthews will be forced to wait a year, which the Scottsdale, Ariz., native seemingly plans to spend in Switzerland playing with and against men, including several former NHLers, while earning six figures. You can’t blame him for preferring that route to other one-and-done options — be it the WHL’s Everett Silvertips or a handful of top NCAA schools — but this is big news because Matthews would be blazing a trail as the first North American prospect to play overseas during his draft year.

European prospects have long been coming to North America to play major junior for added exposure and a fast-track to the NHL — there is an annual CHL import draft — but Matthews’ journey in the other direction would be precedent setting. And with this rumoured signing just breaking, there could still be some protests or red tape standing in his way before the move becomes official.

Credit Ryan Kennedy of The Hockey News — and Matthews’ advisors/agents, Pat Brisson and Judd Moldaver — for creating awareness about the European option. Sportsnet’s Damien Cox investigated further with sources on the other side of the pond, which relayed to him details of the pending contract.

UPDATE: Mike Morreale of managed to speak with Matthews on Sunday and was informed that, although Switzerland is a viable option, no decision has been made yet and reports of a signing are premature. Matthews did say he “will probably make a decision soon”, likely a public announcement to end all the speculation.

It makes sense for Matthews to make that leap, given his dominance to date amongst his peers. A creative power forward, he’s fresh off breaking Patrick Kane’s record for points in a season with the U.S. National Team Development Program, finishing with 116 points to Kane’s 102. That total included 55 goals to Kane’s 52, with the latter having been selected first overall back in the 2007 NHL draft and blossoming into a superstar for the Chicago Blackhawks.

Matthews, listed at 6-foot-2 and just under 200 pounds, is much bigger than Kane — 5-foot-11, 177 pounds — but has a similar build to Eichel, who will most definitely be playing pro next season, probably with the Buffalo Sabres.

That Matthews may choose Switzerland and specifically the Zurich-based Lions shouldn’t be surprising. He’s familiar with the country, having led Team USA to a world under-18 gold medal in Zug and Lucerne last month. The Lions are coached by Marc Crawford, who guided the Colorado Avalanche to a Stanley Cup championship in 1996 — the year before Matthews was born — and this year’s roster featured a half-dozen players with NHL experience, including American-born Dan Fritsche and Ryan Shannon.

Making that landing spot more enticing, Kennedy noted that the Swiss League is a fast circuit with a 50-game schedule and ample practice time. Travel is easy in the country since all the teams are just a few hours away from each other and players always return home to their own beds even after away games.

The pros are certainly outweighing the cons for Matthews, who also suited up for Team USA at this year’s world juniors in Canada back in January and most recently for an exhibition game prior to the ongoing men’s world championships in the Czech Republic. Eichel is on that American team, but Matthews had to return home to wrap up his high school education. He’ll get another shot at both those tournaments in 2016 regardless of where he plays, but the consensus top prospect appears destined for Switzerland.

The question is, will others follow his lead in the years to come and what impact will that have on junior hockey in North America? Time will tell and it’ll depend on how this maiden voyage pans out for Matthews should he actually set sail in the fall.

Larry Fisher is a sports reporter for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.