If he were two days older, he’d be playing in the NHL. Instead, Auston Matthews is tearing up the Swiss league before inevitably being drafted No. 1 in June.
In a world gone viral, it is often difficult to keep things in perspective. Realistically, only a small percentage of hockey players can truly be elite. And if we’re going to stick to the meaning of the word, “generational” can’t be tossed around more than once every 10 years or so. Last year, we had two generational talents in Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. But this year we face a new conundrum, because we already used “generational” throughout 2014-15, and here comes Auston Matthews, an extremely talented player who belongs in the same conversation as McDavid and Eichel. Had he been born two days earlier, we would have seen Matthews go head-to-head-to-head with McDavid and Eichel already in the NHL. Instead, we got a summer full of international intrigue and one more year of Matthews at the world juniors.
As the top prospect for the 2016 draft, Matthews has already played in one World Junior Championship and is gearing up for a second, where he will be one of the most anticipated players to watch in the whole tournament. The only reason there’s a qualifier on that is because host nation Finland has draft phenoms Jesse Puljujarvi and Patrik Laine to cheer for.
But for the non-Suomi crowd, Matthews is the jewel to covet in Helsinki. Not only is he in a class by himself for the 2016 draft, he has also been relatively remote for North American fans, plying his trade for the Zurich Lions in Switzerland. While YouTube clips and Vines of his derring-do have popped up on social media, the world juniors will be his biggest stage. It was a game-changing experiment to have him play pro during his draft season, but so far the gamble has paid off. Despite a late entry into the season and a back injury, Matthews was Zurich’s leading goal scorer with 10 in his first 14 games. And before he got hurt, he was one of the Swiss National League’s top scorers (and certainly in points per game). “It’s actually crazy to think about,” Matthews said. “To be able to live here and play hockey at a high level, I feel very lucky.” But often you have to be good to be lucky, and Matthews is that good. Few players have ever reasonably considered the path he has now trailblazed. Ray Whitney played a bit in Germany at the beginning of his career, though he had already been drafted by San Jose, and there had been talk of an underaged John Tavares going to Austria, but that never gained traction. And really, there was no political statement involved this time. “It wasn’t an attempt to set a precedent,” said Judd Moldaver, an agent who works alongside Pat Brisson in representing Matthews. “It just came together organically. The stars aligned, and Auston had the work ethic to do it.” Let’s rewind the tape a bit, here. The genesis of the Auston Experiment came last year, when Matthews was still a member of USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program. He was putting the finishing touches on his record-breaking season with the squad, which saw him blow apart Patrick Kane’s previous mark for points in a season with the NTDP. A nice dollop of those 116 points (Kane had 102 in 2005-06) came in Switzerland, where Matthews was helping Team USA clinch yet another world under-18s title. Because Matthews missed the 2015 NHL draft by two days, he and his reps were already thinking about where his development would be best served for 2015-16, and Switzerland started to become a possibility. While Matthews was overseas, he met with Zurich GM Peter Zahner and coach Marc Crawford, picking their brains and doing some research. Playing in Zug for the medal round, Matthews got a sense of what hockey in Switzerland could be like, and he was impressed. It would be easy to truncate this story by saying, “Matthews signed with Zurich and everything was awesome,” but it was a little more tricky than that. To begin with, 17-year-old American kids don’t often apply for work visas to play professional hockey in Switzerland, so there was a lot of paperwork and behind-the-scenes work to be done by Brisson, Moldaver and crew. In fact, the under-18s ended in late April, but getting the go-ahead for Matthews to play for the Lions didn’t happen until August, prompting an entire summer of media hand-wringing about the kid’s ultimate destination. The Everett Silvertips of the WHL owned his major junior rights and were also chasing another excellent 2016 prospect in center Tyson Jost (he committed to North Dakota instead and is playing in the BCHL this year). Meanwhile, five different NCAA schools had made Matthews’ short list. You’d think it would rattle a player, not knowing where he would be playing the most crucial season of his young career, but Matthews was pretty chill about it: he kept telling his representatives he would be patient. In the meantime, Matthews had another European sojourn when Team USA invited him to play in an exhibition game for the men’s squad at the World Championship in the Czech Republic, where he acquitted himself well. “It was definitely a test for me,” Matthews said, “to prove to myself that I could play against older men and better competition.” Finally, on Aug. 6, the Zurich signing became a reality. Matthews had to wait until he was actually 18 to play in the NLA, but he was going to Switzerland, and his life would be changing. So why all the fuss over this kid? Simply put, they don’t make ’em like Matthews very often. His rise began in Scottsdale, Ariz., where he attended Coyotes games as a youth and also played baseball. He latched on with the Arizona Bobcats program, playing for ex-QMJHLer and ECHL coach Ron Filion. Brisson and Moldaver first saw Matthews at a tournament in Los Angeles when he was 14, skating against players such as future New York Islanders first-rounder Matt Barzal (also repped by Brisson’s Creative Artists Agency firm). Matthews also impressed at a WHL Showcase in Anaheim, on the ice and off it. Since Brisson’s clients include Kane, Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews, the agent knows a little bit about special players, and Matthews was registering with him. “These kids all have a special chip,” he said. “They look you in the eyes, they’re comfortable in their own skin and they mean business. And when they’re challenged, they take that challenge on.” Matthews wasn’t really aware of how good he was until he made it to the final-40 cut for the NTDP. Once he made the under-17 team, however, his ascent was knocked off course early when a knee-on-knee hit broke a bone in his leg during the second game of the season. He missed three months but played so well in his return that he finished the campaign with the NTDP’s under-18 squad. Though scouts in the know were already touting Matthews at this time, he didn’t have the same chorus of hype surrounding him as a McDavid or Tavares did in their underage days. And last year, McDavid and Eichel provided deep cover for Matthews, as their war on typewriter superlatives reached a frenzied crescendo.
This year, however, it’s all about Matthews. At 6-foot-2, 194 pounds, he’s already got NHL size, and the competition he is facing is some of the best in Europe. “He’s an elite talent,” said another NHL exec. “He has a ton of confidence in his abilities and a lot of poise, so he tries things that are unconventional. It makes him so hard to defend against.” According to the other NHL exec, Matthews is elite when it comes to skating, hockey sense, stick strength and heaviness on the puck. “The one thing I’d like to see is for him to utilize his linemates more,” he said. “With that being said, no one could get the puck off of him last year.” During his short tenure in Zurich to date, Matthews has concentrated on scenarios where he does not have the biscuit. “Playing without the puck is something coach Crawford has focused on with me,” he said. “The skill level here is very high, and players are very dangerous in the offensive zone. It’s very important for me to continue to hear that.” Playing for the NTDP, whose schedule features top college opponents, helped Matthews adjust to the pro game in Switzerland. Not only was he getting in reps against players several years older, but that grand old college atmosphere prepared him for the chanting supporters in Europe. “It’s like the NCAA on steroids,” he said. Matthews got a taste of that while watching Zurich’s first few games, then got the full experience when he finally skated for the Lions himself Sept. 18. In Zurich, the announcer broadcasts the goal scorer’s first name and lets the Lions faithful bellow out the last name, and Matthews got to hear his name chanted in the very first game. “If anyone hasn’t been to a game in Switzerland, they should,” Moldaver said. “It’s electric.” And yes, an adult dose for a newcomer, particularly since his older mates were giving him the business in the dressing room beforehand. While Matthews wouldn’t fall for the favorite prank of the day – telling the rookie to skate out on the ice first and then hanging back at the doors so he gets a couple laps out there by himself – he still felt the butterflies Ping-Ponging around. “It was a little bit nerve-wracking,” Matthews said. “So much was going through my head and the adrenaline was going, but I had so much fun out there.” Off the ice, things are a lot more chill for Matthews. Netflix, Xbox and the miracles of Internet communication make North America seem a lot closer than it used to be. Matthews’ mom lives with him in a village just outside of the city, further easing the transition from American teen to international hockey star. She cooks breakfasts and dinners, while he often heads into town with teammates (many of the team’s imports live in the same village) to walk around or grab a bite to eat. He even has a favorite kabob place already. Now, the time for marinating is over. Matthews will be the key to America’s attack at the world juniors in Finland, and he is more than ready to take the lessons he learned from last season’s tournament – which ended in Team USA’s penalty-filled calamity against Russia in the quarterfinal – and apply them this year. “You need to show up each game,” he said. “Typically that’s the team that wins. It doesn’t matter what country it is. That game against Russia was a tough pill to swallow, but it’s another year now.” Team USA has lost in the quarterfinal two years in a row now, offsetting the gold medal won on Russian turf in 2013. With former NHL coach Ron Wilson now behind the bench, the team has an internationally experienced tutor who commands respect and will have to get his boys in line fast for the 11-day tournament. “His resume speaks for itself,” Matthews said. “He expects a lot from us, and he doesn’t need to say much to get his point across.” And although it’s hard to distinguish hype from hope these days, here’s a take on the most recent phenom from one NHL exec, whose team did not draft in the top-five in June. “If you asked me to rank them, I’d go McDavid, Matthews, Puljujarvi, then Eichel,” he said. While Matthews is the unquestioned No. 1 in the 2016 draft pool right now, a hearty showing in Finland would only serve to grow his budding legend further. You probably won’t hear any complaints from USA Hockey about that.
This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the January 4 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.