Auston Matthews is less than half a week away from arguably the biggest day of his young life. Come Friday, the 18-year-old center is expected to become the first-overall pick in the 2016 draft and a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
He’s already seen what the pro life can be about. He’s gotten the experience playing in the World Championship, he’ll be a key player on Team North America at the upcoming World Cup and, on Monday, Matthews inked the first major equipment deal of his career, signing on to become one of the new faces of Bauer.
But getting to this point, and being less than a week from being drafted, saw Matthews carve out a new path. He made a bold decision to forego the traditional development path and eschew time in the NCAA or Canada’s major junior ranks saw him take a highly publicized trip over to Switzerland, sign a deal with Zurich’s Lions of the NLA and try his hand at pro hockey. It could blaze a new trail for Matthews. He says the choice was a wise one.
“It helped a lot, and if I were to do it all over again, I’d do the same thing,” Matthews said.
Matthews' decision was somewhat shocking, given no North American talent had even tried to challenge themselves by heading to Europe as the draft's top prospect before. It didn't exactly start out smooth -- there were work permit issues that threatened to axe Matthews' plans to head overseas -- but the situation got sorted and Matthews embarked on a season in Switzerland.
Among the things Matthews said helped him was the time against top competition. He had already shown he could dominate his age group, but his brief stay in the Switzerland certainly made it clear why the hype surrounding Matthews was with good reason. If there were any doubts about Matthews’ ability before he ended up in the NLA, they were quickly erased.
As the league’s fifth-youngest player, Matthews finished 10th in scoring with 24 goals and 46 points, but his 1.28 points per game average was second-best among any player to complete at least half a season in the league.
“Zurich was a first-class organization through the whole thing and I have nothing but great things to say about them and the league,” Matthew said. “It’s very fast and skilled. I think playing against older and more experienced players challenged me night in and night out to elevate my level and be that much quicker on the ice. I believe it really helped me.”
One thing Matthews pointed to as a big tool that helped him was the tutelage of coach Marc Crawford. Matthews said the veteran coach’s resume — which includes a Stanley Cup, NLA title and Swiss Cup, as well as 15 years of NHL experience and one Olympic as Canada’s bench boss — speaks for itself.
“I’m very happy that he got the job in Ottawa,” Matthew said. “He deserves it and I’m definitely looking forward the possibility of playing (against his team) someday in the NHL.”
And, of course, there’s another team he’s looking forward to suiting up against: his hometown Arizona Coyotes.
While Matthews pointed to players like Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane as a pair of opponents he’s looking forward to lining up against, it was another, more veteran member of the NHL ranks, one Matthews said he's looked up to forever, that would make the game against the Coyotes that much more memorable.
“Just to play against Shane Doan, my childhood idol growing up and still one of my favorite players today, it would be pretty special,” Matthews said. “Just kind of thinking that — daydreaming or whatnot — is pretty exciting to think about.”