After netting 117 points for the U.S. National Team Development Program last season, shattering the program record of 102 set by Patrick Kane in 2005-06, Auston Matthews was viewed by scouts as being on the same level as highly touted NHL rookies Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. In fact, if Mathews had been born just two days earlier, he’d probably be skating with them in the league this season.
But rules are rules, and by virtue of his Sept. 17 birthdate, Matthews was pushed back to the draft class of 2016, where he projects to be the first American to go No. 1 overall since Kane was selected by the Chicago Blackhawks with the top pick in 2007.
By all indications, he'll be worth the wait.
“He’s everything you look for in a prospect,” a scout gushed to SI.com. “It goes beyond his obvious physical tools, which are on par with [Jack Eichel]. His work ethic really stands out. You can see there’s this desire to get better. And he’s an outstanding young man.”
Matthews is also someone who is unafraid to chart his own path. Instead of spending his draft year playing college or junior hockey, he made the unprecedented decision to skate for the Zurich Lions of the Swiss league. The deal not only pays him a reported $400,000—significantly more than the $50 a week or so he would have pocketed in juniors—it gives him a chance to test himself against grown men in one of the world’s top pro leagues.
So far, it looks as though he made the right decision. Despite getting a late start—he had to wait until he turned 18 to join the club—Matthews leads the league in goal scoring. And the extra practice time is helping address the areas of his game that need improvement.
“Whoever gets him [in the draft] is getting a franchise player,” the scout said.
Matthews spoke with SI.com from his home in Zurich.
SI.com: You're leading the NLA with 10 goals in your first 14 games. It probably hasn’t been as easy as it sounds, but something is obviously working for you. Can you explain your quick success?
Auston Matthews: It’s definitely been the help of the teammates around me. We have a great group of guys in the locker room and the skill level of each player on this team is great, to say the least. I’ve developed a lot of chemistry with my linemates Fabrice Herzog and Robert Nilsson. They both work hard and have a great skill set which makes it easy to play with them.
SI.com: You have a Stanley Cup-winning coach in Marc Crawford. How is he different from coaches you’ve had in the past? What’s he asking you to work on?
AM: All coaches are different and have different styles in how they do things. Coach Crawford is very demanding and always gets the best out of the group. He expects everyone to do their job and compete. He’s been focusing on my defensive zone play and positioning without the puck. I feel like I’ve come a [long] way from my first game of the season to now, but there’s still room for improvement and I am trying to learn as much as possible.
AM: Anze Kopitar is definitely someone I like to watch and try pattern myself after. Kopitar along with Jonathan Toews are two players I really look up to and try to watch closely as they are complete players.
SI.com: A lot’s been made of the fact that you’re playing in a league against men, but you’re also one of five teenagers on the Lions. Has their presence on the team helped ease your transition, or do you find yourself gravitating to the veteran players who’ve maybe seen it all before?
AM: Both. We have a great mixture of young guys and veterans. It’s a good balance in between. The presence of the young guys has definitely helped quite a bit. It helps seeing that they are going through similar things.
SI.com: I’m sure you have an idea of the pressures that were on Jack Eichel and Connor McDavid as they played their draft year under the microscope. Did a desire to avoid that play into your decision to go to Switzerland? And do you feel like the pressure has been lessened?
AM: That was never really in my mind when making the decision. I wouldn’t say the pressure has been lessened coming over here, either. Zurich’s an amazing city and we have quite a fan base that holds us accountable. This team’s been known for winning and that’s what}s expected of us.
SI.com: Speaking of the draft, I’m guessing you’ve given some thought to the possibility of playing for the Coyotes. Is that a dream of yours?
AM: I believe if you asked any kid if they would want to be drafted and have an opportunity to play for their hometown team (Matthews is from Scottsdale, AZ) they would say yes. Regardless, to be drafted by any one of them would be a dream come true and a tremendous honor.
SI.com: One of the appeals of playing in Europe for older players is that the schedule allows for a lot of down time. What are you doing with yours? Sightseeing, schooling, learning to yodel?
AM: There’s a ton of stuff to do here. For the most part I’ll go downtown with some of the guys and walk around a bit and get a bite to eat after practice. I feel very lucky to be in such a great environment.
SI.com: It’s a unique game experience over there as well. What can you tell us about the fans?
AM: The fans are so passionate about their teams here. It’s very similar to student sections in college hockey. It is loud. They have their chants, and it never stops. You can barely hear the guy next to you on the bench if you’re having a conversation.
SI.com: So you’re living with your mom and your sister, correct? Are they replicating the home experience for you or are they trying to ready you for living on your own?
AM: A little bit of both. Mom makes me breakfast and cooks dinner but I’m on my own for the rest of the time for the most part. I still have to put away my dishes and clean up after myself.
SI.com: What was the culture shock moment when you realized you weren’t in America anymore?
AM: Not too much. I’ve been to Europe before and even Switzerland last April so nothing really jumped out at me that I wasn’t expecting.
SI.com: What do you miss most about home?
AM: The occasional In-N-Out burger or Chipotle creeps into my mind sometimes, but I’ve found some great places here that the guys have showed me that I really enjoy going to.
SI.com: Your contract allows you to play for Team USA at the World Juniors, correct? It was a disappointing finish (fifth) for the team in your debut last year. Any thoughts on this year’s squad?
AM: Yeah, that's correct. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to compete for the US at the World Juniors this year. The tryout camps still a ways away and there’s plenty of things that could change, but judging from the camp in Lake Placid this summer, a lot of guys have played together before and there’s a lot of chemistry around the room along with a lot of competitive hockey players.
SI.com: There’s been lots of buzz about you possibly playing for Team North America at the World Cup next year. Have you had any contact with the management team yet? Is making that team a goal?