We all know the ZCS Lions of the National League A in Switzerland are on the verge of sending an impact player to the NHL.
Auston Matthews, by all accounts, will deservedly be the first player chosen in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft.
However, the Lions have another member of the organization who is hoping to get serious consideration for an NHL position: coach Marc Crawford.
The 54-year-old Crawford’s resume speaks for itself: 176 games in the NHL as a player; AHL coach of the year in 1992-93; NHL coach of the year in 1995-95; coached the Colorado Avalanche to Stanley Cup championship in 1995-96; won the Swiss championship in 2013-14; lost in Swiss final last season. The Lions are among the favorites to win the championship this season.
Crawford wants another shot at the NHL. While he loves much about coaching in Switzerland, Crawford admitted there are times he catches himself thinking, what am I doing here instead of the NHL?
“I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t have that thought,” Crawford said. “I’ve got, I don’t know if it’s an ego, but I have enough confidence to know I am still at that level and I am hopeful that will again be the case.”
Crawford was a head coach in the NHL for 15 seasons and has a record of 549-421-100-77. In a perfect world he would return to the NHL next season as a head coach, but he has come to the realization that to return to the best league in the world, he might have to take a step back.
Being on top of the world as one of 30 NHL coaches one day only to be told your services are no longer required is a humbling experience.
“I want to give myself the best opportunity to get back in the NHL next year,” Crawford said. “If that is being a head coach, which I hope it is, or if it’s being an assistant coach or if it’s going back to one of the other leagues, I want to give myself every opportunity.”
Crawford said coaching in Switzerland has allowed him to take a step back and analyze his performance as an NHL coach. At the same time he found himself taking a trip down memory lane, to his pre-NHL days.
“It has been really good for me,” Crawford said. “You remember what it is like when you are in junior – you do everything. You’re the councilor, you’re the coach, you’re the assistant coach, you’re the video coach, you’re the strength and conditioning coach…you do it all. It has really brought me back to my roots again. From that standpoint I think have become a better coach.”
Crawford said he is an improved coach technically and tactically speaking having stepped away from the NHL to coach in Europe where the ice is larger, the season is shorter and there is a greater emphasis on practicing versus playing games.
Crawford also counts himself especially blessed to have the opportunity to coach Matthews. Fans in North America may have caught a glimpse of the 18-year-old Scottsdale, Ariz., native at the World Junior Championship, but to totally appreciate Matthews’ impact is to see him every day.
“He is the real deal,” Crawford said. “He reminds me a lot of Anze Kopitar with how he carries his speed and drives to the net and the overall game that he has. He has an NHL shot and the quickness and agility in the offensive zone of a Johnny Gaudreau. Honestly, he stops and turns and comes out of the corner with 1-on-1 moves where he protects the puck by pivoting so well. He is really explosive and is a really dynamic offensive player. The thing that separates great players from the pack is their vision and he’s got that. He sees the ice so well.”
The 6-foot-2, 195-pound Matthews ranks second on Zurich in scoring with 24 goals and 40 points in 31 games. Only former NHLer Robert Nilsson has more points, 46, but he has played 12 more games than Matthews.
Crawford said he often finds himself thinking, ‘Wow! He did that and he’s only 18!’
“Our last game, for instance, we were playing Lugano and he came through the neutral zone and the puck was in his feet,” Crawford recalled. “He brought it with his back foot up to his stick, then made a great pass and kept going to the net. Our left winger made a great pass back to him and he put the puck into the yawning cage.”
It isn’t just Crawford who has been blown away by Matthews’ supreme talent.
“One of our players, Ryan Keller, said to me, ‘It’s like he’s playing the game on the biggest capacity computer there is and everybody else is playing with a Commodore 64,’ ” Crawford said. “The players know who the great players are.”