Auston Matthews is headed to Europe after all.
The 17-year-old Arizona native signed a one-year deal on Friday to play for the Zurich Lions of Switzerland's National League A in 2015–16. In doing so, Matthews will become the first North American prospect to spend his draft year in a European pro league.
But this is not just any prospect. Matthews, a 6' 2", 194-pound center, is widely regarded as the best player available in 2016. He scored 55 goals and had 116 points in 60 games with the U.S. National Team Development Program in 2014–15, breaking Patrick Kane's scoring records. He also skated as a double-underage player at the 2015 World Juniors, scoring a goal, with two assists, for Team USA. He capped off his season with an invite to skate with the U.S. men’s side at the World Championships. Although he didn’t end up making the team, the fact that he was given the opportunity speaks volumes about where he stands in his development.
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Playing against men full-time, rather than going the junior route with the WHL’s Everett Silvertips, makes sense for Matthews. “I wouldn't say he had nothing to prove [against players his own age],” a scout told SI.com, “but he’s a unique player who has both the skill set and the maturity to handle this kind of challenge. Not many his age could do it. And if it doesn’t work out, he can always come back to Everett.”
The road to Zurich hasn’t been smooth. In June, Matthews initially was denied a work visa to enter Switzerland because he didn’t yet have a year of professional hockey on his resume. According to a story on the Lions’ website, that hurdle was cleared thanks to a bilateral agreement between Switzerland and the U.S. for young professionals, but there’s a catch: It doesn't kick in until his 18th birthday. That means he’s ineligible to play until September 18.
For Zurich coach Marc Crawford, he'll be worth the wait.
“Matthews is an outstanding young hockey player and everyone involved with the ZSC Lions is so excited about seeing him play in Zurich,” Crawford said earlier this summer. “I believe [the Swiss National League A] is the the perfect training ground for young athletes. He will be coached by an NHL coach [and] he will be challenged by playing against men in a fast-skating, highly-skilled league.”
It's not just the challenge that's appealing, though. There are reports Matthews will be paid $400,000 for a season's work by the Lions, significantly more than the $50 a week or so he would have cleared in juniors.