The consensus top prospect for the 2016 draft engaged in a grand experiment when he went over to the NLA and so far it’s paying off: opponents haven’t been able to stop the 18-year-old.
When Auston Matthews decided to eschew major junior and the NCAA in favor of a trailblazing route in Switzerland, the hockey world was intrigued. How would an American teenager fare against men in a league known for being one of the most challenging in Europe?
In the early goings, the answer is “quite well.”
Matthews, who is playing for the Zurich Lions of the NLA, Switzerland’s most elite league, has three goals and five points in four games. He had to wait until he was officially 18 to play for the Lions, which meant missing the first four games of the season. So right now he’s not the top scorer on ZSC in terms of gross output, but he is the best in terms of points per game.
In fact, when it comes to points per game, Matthews is one of the top producers in all of Switzerland right now. Only a handful of players, including ex-NHLers Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Cory Conacher and Chad Kolarik, are in the same range or slightly better (Bouchard leads the NLA with 12 points in seven games).
And Matthews is not getting garbage points. Check out his second goal, which came against Langnau:
That goalie had no idea where that shot was going and if he did, he just couldn’t catch up to it in time.
Zurich played on Wednesday against Chur, a lower-tiered Swiss team, as part of an FA Cup-style tournament and Matthews was unstoppable. Though the game didn’t count in official statistics for the season, the powerful teen center had a goal and three points in a 9-2 destruction of the Capricorns. The Chur players – despite being older – had no answer for Matthews when he had the puck, particularly when he was working in his office in the offensive zone corner.
Whether he was using his 6-foot-2, 194-pound frame to shield the puck from defenders, or simply spinning off them, Matthews often controlled play and his line seemed to have a definite edge in zone time on all the shifts I watched. And sure, the competition wasn’t top-notch, but consider where Matthews is in terms of his development arc: he’s only going to get bigger, better and stronger from here on out.
It actually boggles the mind to think what he would have done in the WHL, especially early in the season when many of the top drafted prospects were still at NHL training camps.
The Arizona native will also be getting some nice challenges this week. Zurich plays a banged-up Geneve-Servette team first, yet one that will still have ex-NHLers Tom Pyatt, Matt D’Agostini and newly-signed Jim Slater at its disposal. Then, the third-place Lions get EV Zug, a squad second in the NLA, followed by the second leg of a Champions League playoff set with Sparta Prague of the Czech Republic.
And lest you think Matthews has been feasting on weaklings to date, keep in mind his debut goal came in a close loss to the best team in Switzerland right now, Fribourg-Gotteron.
Small sample size? Sure. But considering that Matthews has gone halfway around the world to a totally new culture with brand-new teammates, older competition and even a different size of ice sheet, it’s hard to call it beginner’s luck. It may even be a case of “you ain’t see nothin’ yet.”