The overwhelming favorite to be the first overall pick in the NHL draft this summer is on the verge of seeing his season end shockingly early. With his Zurich squad losing 4-3 in overtime today, Auston Matthews and his team find themselves facing a playoff upset of enormous proportions in the Swiss League.
Matthews and his team face a 3-0 deficit and the prospect of a humiliating elimination Thursday night in Bern. Matthews has two assists so far in the first three games of the series, with his second assist of the series coming on Zurich’s tying goal early in the third period. If Zurich goes on to lose to Bern, it will be a monumental upset, since Zurich finished in first place in the regular season with a 31-12-7 record for 98 points, while Bern, which is led by former NHLers Andrew Ebbett and Cory Conacher, had a 21-20-9 record, which put them in eighth place with 67 points.
Klaus Zaugg, a longtime Swiss hockey writer, has been watching the series and said Matthews has faced an enormous amount of pressure. Zurich coach Marc Crawford has leaned heavily on Matthews and his linemate, 2003 first-rounder and former NHLer Robert Nilsson in this series, and it has taken its toll. Matthews is logging more ice time than any player on the Zurich roster, which is understandable since he led the team in points-per-game this season and finished the year with 24 goals and 46 points in 36 games. Had he not been injured and played the full schedule, Matthews might have won the scoring title. He scored 1.28 points per game, which was second only to former NHLer Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who led the league in scoring and notched 1.37 points per game.
“(Matthews) is playing well, but he can’t do it on his own,” Zaugg said. “He has had no luck around the net. He has been able to handle the ice time, but it’s a very heavy load for him to shoulder to have to carry the team. That’s a lot of pressure for an 18-year-old.”
A loss would likely not affect Matthews’ draft status, but it might strike a blow to his hope of making the North American team for the World Cup of Hockey. North American GM Peter Chiarelli has already said Matthews faces “an uphill road,” in his bid to secure a spot on the roster and a poor playoff showing won’t help. The brain trust of the North American team was hoping to be able to see Matthews play in the Swiss League playoffs. If Zurich is eliminated, it will have one more tournament to view him, since Matthews will likely be on the Team USA roster for the World Championship.
“That’s probably the next step for him playing against the big boys,” assistant GM Stan Bowman said last week. “I don’t know if that’s in the cards or not, but I think he’s capable of that. It would be a really good test for him.”
If Matthews does end up playing for the North American team, it would likely be as a winger, since the team already has five centers in Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Sean Monahan, Nathan MacKinnon and Sean Couturier. And with four spots remaining at forward, there are still centers Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Mark Scheifele in consideration, along with center-winger Alex Galchenyuk and winger Jonathan Huberdeau.
Chiarelli’s biggest concern with Matthews is whether or not he’ll be able to adjust to the pace of the game without having played it to that point. Eric Lindros played for Team Canada in the 1991 Canada Cup without having played in the NHL, but he was surrounded by veterans who were also the best players in the world, while Matthews would be surrounded by a bunch of other young guys.
“We saw that it took Connor and Jack a little while to get going and I think it would be unfair to Auston to expect him to get up and running against NHL players on NHL rinks. We’re talking about a three-game round-robin here.”
Chiarelli agreed that it would help Matthews cause to play in the World Championship against teams that are largely comprised of NHL players. Bowman, meanwhile, has not seen Matthews play live this year, but has watched on video and has been impressed with his viewings.
“The thing I liked about him is for his talent level, he was an involved player,” Bowman said. “He didn’t just float around and score goals. He played high energy and he was always in motion. He was a busy player, physically strong, but skilled.”
So far, that hasn’t been enough for Matthews to give his team a win in the playoffs, which proves that even in leagues other than the NHL, the post-season is another level of play. And when you’re playing against men, sometimes it’s difficult for an 18-year-old kid to match it. And when that player is expected to be a leader of men, it makes it that much more difficult.