Auston Matthews, who many project to be the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, is playing for Zurich in Switzerland's top professional league this season. NHL.com will follow his journey leading to the NHL Draft this season with a weekly update.
It wasn't the way Zurich center Auston Matthews envisioned his season ending when he decided to spent 2015-16 playing in National League A, Switzerland's top professional league.
But he said the lessons he'll take away from the experience will go a long way in helping fulfill his dream of playing in the NHL next season. Matthews, No. 1 on NHL Central Scouting's midterm ranking of international skaters eligible for the 2016 NHL Draft, had his season end after four straight losses to Bern in a best-of-7 first round playoff series.
"This was a great learning experience for [Matthews]," former Zurich coach Marc Crawford told the Toronto Sun. Crawford was fired as coach after the series ended Thursday.
"We would talk every day about how intense [the league] was and he loved every minute of it. He got better with each game. He was definitely our best player. He had the best chances, he was our most dominant performer. He just ran into a hot goalie he couldn't figure out."
Matthews finished the regular season tied for fourth in the league in goals (24) and points per game (1.28), and second in even-strength goals (19) in 36 games. He had three assists, a plus-1 rating and 13 shots on goal in four playoff games.
"Matthews was the best player on the ice in Games 1, 2 and 4; he tried very hard, made some world-class plays, and did hit the [goal post] several times," said Central Scouting's Thomas Roost, who evaluates talent in Switzerland and Germany. "In the playoffs I noticed that he also did raise his intensity level a bit and started to hit sometimes, showed high-end playmaking, excellent board-work and confirmed on nearly every shift that he is very strong on the puck.
"He also never got rattled when provoked, stayed calm and unemotional. I still think he will be the No. 1 pick in the NHL draft but he needs to confirm this with a solid World Championship."
The 2016 IIHF World Championship will be held May 6-22 in Russia. Matthews, from Scottsdale, Ariz., could play for the United States in the tournament.
In addition to winning the league's Rising Star award, Matthews finished second in voting for most valuable player in NLA. He got six first-place votes; the winner, Zug forward Pierre-Marc Bouchard, got eight first-place votes. Bouchard had 12 goals and a league-leading 67 points in 49 games. Bouchard, 31, spent 11 seasons in the NHL, playing 593 games with the Minnesota Wild and New York Islanders.
"For me it would have been clearly Matthews; he would have had my personal first-place vote," Roost said.
Crawford said he believes that overall Matthews' time in Switzerland was positive.
"[Matthews] has seen a lot of different experiences [in NLA]," Crawford said. "He's had a great season but there have been a lot of ups and downs. He made the all-star team and finished second in MVP voting. On the other hand there was the World Junior loss [the United States won the bronze medal] and the disappointment of our playoffs. You learn a lot from adversity. He's much more worldly. He hung around with an older crowd like [former NHL players] Ryan Shannon and Marc-Andre Bergeron. He was around an older group. When I was 18, I was, well, 18. But Auston comes across as a young adult. A real worldly 23, 24-year-old, not an 18-year-old.
"There's still lots more for him to learn. But I know he'll be a complete player in the NHL. A great player."