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Matthews excited for competition in Swiss pro league

by Mike G. Morreale / NHL.com

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. -- Center Auston Matthews, who many believe will be the No. 1 pick of the 2016 NHL Draft, is excited for the opportunity to further his development with Zurich of the Swiss National League.

Matthews, who announced his decision to sign a one-year contract with Zurich on Friday, talked at length for the first time about playing overseas at the conclusion of United States National Junior Evaluation Camp on Saturday. The U.S. closed out the camp with a 6-1 exhibition victory against Finland.

"I'm really excited and fortunate for the opportunity to go over there and play for the Zurich Lions," Matthews said. "I started kicking around the idea of playing in Switzerland during the World Under-18 Championship in April; I saw the country and it was really nice. I was talking to a lot of people and getting feedback from players in that league."

Zurich is coached by Marc Crawford, who has 549 wins as an NHL coach.

Matthews said he will return home to Scottsdale, Ariz., before leaving for Switzerland within the next week to begin practicing and working out with Zurich. He's not eligible to play in any games until after he turns 18 on Sept. 17.

"I can practice with the team and work out with them; just not play in any games until after my birthday," Matthews said. "I'll have my mom there with me the whole season, so I think it'll be a good experience. I really think just playing for an NHL coach and playing against older competition is really going to push me to raise my level each game."

Matthews said he has spoken with Crawford.

"We've been keeping in contact most of the summer and he knows we're a little busy here (at camp)," Matthews said. "He didn't want to bother me, but I'm sure I'll hear from him the next couple of days. I think it's going to be awesome to play for him. He's won a Stanley Cup (in 1996, as coach of the Colorado Avalanche) and the guy knows what he's doing. I'm excited to be playing for him."

When he last was in Switzerland, Matthews led the United States to a gold medal at the 2015 IIHF World Under-18 Championship, scoring a tournament-high 15 points and tying for the lead with eight goals in seven games. He was named tournament MVP and best forward.

Goran Stubb, the NHL director of European scouting, is excited the American-born Matthews will make the jump overseas.

"I am sure a year in the Swiss league will make Auston a better and stronger player," Stubb said. "He will learn a lot from playing with men and against men. With his set of talent and skills, there should be no problem to not only make the team, but also become a leading player on the team."

Stubb said it isn't unusual to have many of the top draft-eligible prospects playing in Europe each year. Swiss hockey, in particular, has improved tremendously over the past 10 years.

"Ice hockey is a big, traditional and popular sport in Switzerland," he said. "The Swiss league is a good league with several good players. Remember, only two years ago Switzerland reached the World Championship final in Stockholm ahead of Canada, the United States, Finland and Russia."

The last time a North American-born player opted to spend his entire draft-eligible season overseas was William Nylander. Born in Calgary, Nylander played the 2013-14 season in Sweden before the Toronto Maple Leafs selected him No. 8 in the 2014 draft.

Nylander's situation was different, however, in that he played alongside his father, former NHL player Michael Nylander, for Rogle in Sweden's second division in the early part of 2013-14. He then had a stint with Modo in the top division and finished the season with Sodertalje.

"I think it's going to be a great opportunity for [Matthews]," U.S. National Junior Team coach Ron Wilson said. "He's going to experience a different culture and different way that hockey is played, and I think his schedule suits us perfectly. He won't be disrupted in anything he does (for USA Hockey)."

Wilson was asked if he thought the decision by Matthews would begin a trend in which more American-born players would consider playing overseas in their draft-eligible season.

"I don't see any danger in that at all," he said. "I suppose there's always a danger something can happen, but he's physically mature enough and he probably is best-suited to play in a league that won't be overly easy for him, because he's going to have to make a lot of adjustments. I personally think it's a great move for him."

Zurich, which had the second-best attendance in the 12-team Swiss league with an average of 9,331 spectators in 2014-15, according to the Swiss National League A website, has one other American-born player on the roster: forward Ryan Shannon of Darien, Conn.

Shannon, who spent four years at Boston College, went undrafted but has played for four NHL teams in his career: the Anaheim Ducks, Vancouver Canucks, Ottawa Senators and Tampa Bay Lightning.

Shannon has 29 goals and 99 points in 140 games in three seasons with Zurich.

Matthews will not participate in the CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game in Buffalo, N.Y., on Sept. 24 since he will be in Switzerland. He feels his decision will influence other American-born player to play overseas one way or another.

"I don't consider myself a trailblazer here; I just think I just saw an opportunity that I liked and we explored it, so I'm really happy I'm able to play for them," he said.

Matthews set records with the U.S. National Team Development Program for goals (55) and points (117) in a season in 2014-15, surpassing the 52 goals and 102 points in 2005-06 by Patrick Kane. He played in the 2015 IIHF Word Junior Championship and is eligible to represent his country at the 2016 WJC in Finland.

Jim Johannson, general manager of the U.S. National Junior Team, is excited for Matthews.

"I think it's great for the player and a unique situation and opportunity," Johannson said. "I played in Europe for two years, not in the status of an Auston Matthews, but culturally and socially, I think it's a good thing for him.

"Zurich's schedule allows for a lot of training and it's not as physical. For me, at this stage in his career, that's OK because I think other parts of his game can grow in that environment and he'll be able to do it under a pretty good training situation."

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