TORONTO — Even though Auston Matthews is carving out his own path to the NHL by signing in Europe as a 17-year-old, he’s not likely to be a pioneer.
Matthews, the front-runner to be the first pick in the 2016 draft, signed a one-year deal to play for the ZSC Lions in Switzerland’s National League A rather than staying and playing junior hockey.
That shouldn’t hurt his draft stock, but members of the hockey community don’t believe other draft-eligible players will follow Matthews’ lead.
“I don’t think it’s a likely trend that’s going to affect a ton of guys,” player agent Steve Bartlett said.
“I think it’s obviously sort of a break-through approach, but having said that I don’t think next year you’re going to have 10 European teams say, ’Hey, we’ll take the top 10 players in the draft if they’re interested in coming over.”’
Son and fellow agent Brian Bartlett laid out the case on Twitter why Matthews is more one-of-a-kind than the first of many to try this route. Bartlett wrote that “Matthews to Zurich isn’t ’trailblazing’ because almost no one else can follow the trail.”
Matthews turns 18 on Sept. 17, which is when his work permit begins and he can start playing games for the Lions. For another player to do the same, he would almost certainly have to have a mid-to-late September or October birthday and be talented enough that a European team would want to use up one of its import spots on a teenager.
“He’s strong in all areas,” Phil Myre of ISS Hockey said of Matthews, who starred for the U.S. National Team Development Program last season. “He’s got the size, he’s got the speed, he’s got skill. But not only that, he knows the game, he places the game 200 feet very well. He can participate in the forecheck, he’s reliable defensively. He’s a good all-around player with a really above-average skill-set.”
Bartlett also pointed out than any player with a CHL contract also wouldn’t be eligible. Among prospects for the next few drafts who are late birthdays, Nolan Patrick (2017) is already playing for the Western Hockey League’s Brandon Wheat Kings, and Ryan McLeod (2018) was a first-round pick of the Ontario Hockey League’s Flint Firebirds.
While it doesn’t matter as much where Matthews plays next season — Myre said scouts will have to make a point to go see him — there’s a danger that playing overseas would be far less exposure for a North American prospect.
Steve Bartlett said there’s “probably less risk” for Matthews because he’s already well-regarded. But Matthews is more in the echelon of Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel than most 17- or 18-year-old hockey players.
Beyond just being off the radar more in Switzerland, Matthews will be playing against men, rather than dominating against his peers.
“I think Matthews has probably solidified his status pretty strongly,” Bartlett said. “If I had somebody that was even entertaining that idea who maybe wasn’t as established or wasn’t as clear-cut where his draft position is, sometimes I think you can hurt yourself by reaching to such a high level that you struggle and scouts don’t properly weight the fact that maybe you’re playing at a much higher level than the other guys that are being compared to you.”
Matthews would have played for the WHL’s Everett Silvertips in his draft year had he stayed. Growing up in Scottsdale, Ariz., Bartlett figured Matthews “wasn’t as swept up in the major-junior culture that I think most Canadian kids are.”
Dallas Stars centre Jason Spezza sure was, which is why he wouldn’t have considered the Matthews path back in his draft year.
“My dream, even almost before I wanted to play in the NHL was to play in the OHL,” Spezza said Sunday at the Rogers Cup tennis tournament. “I knew I wanted to play in the OHL, I knew I wanted to play on the world junior team. Those are all stepping stones that I guess I foresaw being part of my career. I wouldn’t have wanted to skip over those steps for myself.”
Spezza, who played in Switzerland during the 2012-13 lockout, said the amount of practice time surprised him but should help Matthews as he develops on his own trail.
“It’s definitely a different decision to kind of go against the grain, but I think he’s an extremely talented kid,” Spezza said. “He’s already a phenomenal skater from what I hear. … I think his skating will improve being over there.”