Auston Matthews is taking his talents to Switzerland, an unprecedented move for the projected top pick in the 2016 NHL draft.
Matthews signed a one-year deal with the ZSC Lions in the Swiss National League A, foregoing a junior season with the Everett Silvertips of the Western Hockey League to play professionally as an 18-year-old.
The American centre going overseas in his draft year is more likely an anomaly than a trend setter, but the Zurich-based club will take it.
“As it has been reported, I will be playing this year for the ZSC Lions once I turn 18," Matthews said in a statement. "My focus and the focus of everyone here at the USA Hockey National Junior Evaluation Camp is on Team USA. Therefore, my strong desire was to wait until camp was over to make any kind of announcement, to avoid distractions for my teammates and USA Hockey. It was also my intention to speak, in advance of any announcement, with Coach Constantine as well as Gary Davidson of the Everett Silvertips, who have been nothing but absolute class acts throughout this entire process. I have learned in life, however, that many things are beyond your control and this is just one of them.
"I am deeply grateful to the ZSC Lions for the opportunity to be a part of their wonderful organization and look forward to joining them next month," he added. "For now, however, my commitment is to my teammates and USA Hockey as we prepare to win tomorrow’s game.”
"He is something special," general manager Edgar Salis said by phone from Switzerland on Friday. "He has good speed, good skill — the whole package. We have good players, and with his hockey IQ I think he can feed our guys and fit the team. He brings everything. That was why we jumped on him."
At six-foot-two and 194 pounds, Matthews is the runaway favourite to go first in the next draft and would have likely been a top-two or three pick this year had he not missed the cut for 2015 by three days. The Scottsdale, Ariz., native led the U.S. National Team Development Program's under-18 squad with 48 points (20 goals, 28 assists) this past season.
Matthews had been linked to the ZSC Lions for months. Salis said someone from CAA Sports, which represents Matthews, contacted him in the spring expressing interest.
Salis and team officials watched Matthews put up 15 points in seven games to lead the U.S. to gold at the IIHF under-18 world championships in Zug, Switzerland, in April. The initial surprise about Matthews wanting to play in Europe faded at that point.
"Not every day you get a possibility to sign a 17-year-old," Salis said. "After we saw him in Zug, we didn't care about the age at the end."
Work permit red tape held up the signing, with the final resolution being that Matthews can begin living in Switzerland and playing on Sept. 18, the day after he turns 18 years old.
"I think there was a regular process because he was so young and it's a new situation," Salis said. "But I really believed that everybody who was involved, we managed it and we had patience and at the end we are happy with the result."
Had Matthews stayed in North America, he was set to play for Everett, which owns his Canadian Hockey League rights. He is expected to address his decision after a U.S. under-20 exhibition game Saturday in Lake Placid, N.Y.
From the Lions' standpoint, getting Matthews made all the sense in the world. Salis hopes it's a mutually beneficial season.
"He can help us, and we can help him with our program to develop and help him for his next step," Salis said. "I think the league we are in here and the speed and everything, it's pretty good. I think it's really good. We've got a good coach and a good group."
That coach is Marc Crawford, who won the Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche in 1996 and led Zurich to the Swiss league title in 2014.
Salis believes Crawford is a big reason why Matthews decided to sign.
"Knowing that he coached in the NHL with success and he's doing really well with us and we had success the last couple of years, that helps, for sure," Salis said.