BUFFALO -- Even though Auston Matthews was not invited to play in the 2015 CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game on Thursday because of commitments to ZSC in Switzerland's top professional league, the consensus favorite to be the No. 1 pick of the 2016 NHL Draft is on the minds of many players and coaches involved in this year's game at First Niagara Center (7 p.m. ET, NHLN).
Former NHL player Derek Plante, who will coach one of the teams, spent the 2002-03 season with ZSC at the end of a playing career that spanned eight seasons in the NHL, including a Stanley Cup championship with the Dallas Stars in 1999.
Plante said that while it would have been nice to watch Matthews play in North America this season for personal reasons, he said understands the decision.
"It's no different really than playing in the American Hockey League in a lot of ways, though it might be a step down. But maybe not," Plante said. "The rink [in Switzerland] is bigger so it's a little different game. But anytime a guy like that has to play against men, it's hard. It'll be a push for him and he'll learn a lot.
"He'll improve his skating and game against men. And whenever you're playing against men you're going to have to learn how to play because the pros over there are like the pros over here; they know the tricks."
U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member Jeremy Roenick, who spent 20 seasons in the NHL, knows Matthews well. Roenick's son Brett played with Matthews on the Arizona Bobcats bantam team. Born in Scottsdale, Ariz., Matthews worked his way through the state's development programs before joining USA Hockey's National Team Development Program in 2013-14. After two seasons with the NTDP, Matthews opted in August to join ZSC rather than play for the Everett Silvertips of the Western Hockey League.
"I bring it right back to USA Hockey and the development programs," Roenick said. "They teach these kids, whether it's in the Sun Belt or the hockey hotbeds of Minnesota and Michigan. To have a kid come out of Arizona and be as good and as talented, and probably the No. 1 pick in the draft, shows where USA Hockey has come."
Roenick, who spent six seasons in Phoenix and owns a home in Scottsdale, believes Matthews needed this challenge.
"I think when you're that good you have to find different ways of challenging yourself with older people and grown men and guys who play at a higher level play in a lot of games," Roenick said. "He's getting things that are preparing him for the NHL game maybe better than what he would get here."
Matthews has scored two goals in two games for ZSC.
"His decision kind of surprised me a little bit, but it's all about your growth," Roenick said. "Switzerland has a great program and he's with Marc Crawford [ZSC coach], who will make sure he does the right things. I think it's a good stepping stone for him; it's something he wanted to do.
"Really, I think he'll be great no matter where he goes."