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Matthews' smooth transition earns him top rating

by Mike G. Morreale / NHL.com

It hasn't taken Auston Matthews very long to become an international success.

Matthews, a 6-foot-1, 194-pound center who many project will be the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, made headlines in August after announcing he would join ZSC in Switzerland's top professional league this season instead of playing NCAA hockey or in the Canadian Hockey League.

The decision by Matthews was made with the help of his parents and player agents Pat Brisson and Judd Moldaver of CAA Sports.

It's an unusual path for a top prospect in his draft season, but the majority of NHL scouts felt the native of Scottsdale, Ariz., wouldn't require much of a learning curve.

As it turns out, they were right. In four games with the Lions, Matthews has three goals, five points and a plus-2 rating.

"He has all the tools to become a world-class, two-way center in the mold of [Chicago Blackhawks captain] Jonathan Toews or [Los Angeles Kings center] Anze Kopitar," said Thomas Roost, who evaluates draft prospects in Switzerland for NHL Central Scouting.

Matthews is listed as the only A-rated player from Switzerland on NHL Central Scouting's September players to watch list, which was released Tuesday, meaning he's expected to be taken in the first round of the draft at First Niagara Center in Buffalo, N.Y., on June 24-25, 2016.

"Matthews isn't that flashy at first sight and you need to dig a bit deeper into his plays to discover the true value of him," Roost said. "He has the ability to make his linemates better. He moves the puck very well, has very good hand-eye coordination, quick hands for plays in tight around the net, and excellent puck control. He thinks the game ahead of a normal good player."

The evaluation by Roost is similar to what North American scouts were saying last season when Matthews had a record-setting season with USA Hockey's National Team Development Program Under-18 team. His 55 goals and 117 points broke records set by Chicago Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane (52 goals, 102 points) in 2005-06. Matthews also was named most valuable player and best forward while helping the United States win the gold medal at the 2015 IIHF World Under-18 Championship.

The 18-year-old left-shot center said the fans in Zurich have welcomed him with open arms and the media coverage is just as thorough as in North America.

"Hockey hasn't been too different here in Switzerland," Matthews told NHL.com. "We have a great group of guys in the locker room. Everyone was the same age when I played for the NTDP, and now being in a pro locker room with a lot of older guys who have been around for a while, you have to know your place and earn their respect. I feel really lucky since it's an awesome group."

Auston Matthews is listed as the only A-rated player from Switzerland on NHL Central Scouting's September players to watch list. (Photo: Getty Images)

He lives about 15 minutes from the arena by car, and has found success on a line with left wing Fabrice Herzog, a 2013 draft pick (No. 142) of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and right wing Ryan Keller.

He's also learning a lot from ZSC coach Marc Crawford, who has 549 wins as an NHL coach.

"He's a really detail-oriented and passionate coach," Matthews said. "He gets the best out of every guy. Off the ice he likes to joke around and keep the mood light. So far he's been really focusing on my defensive-zone play and positioning. There's a lot of skill in this league to say the least, so if I can be responsible in our defensive zone it'll lead to a lot more opportunities in the offensive zone."

Roost said the Swiss league is high tempo with many above-average speedy players. He thinks the level of competition will be good for Matthews, and in the handful of games Roost has watched, he believes Matthews has been the best player on the ice.

"Not by far the best, but noticeably the best," Roost said. "I guess by the end of the season he will be the best player in the league, though he might actually be that already."

Also among the potential first-round candidates on Central Scouting's players to watch list from Europe are two forwards playing in Liiga, Finland's top professional league: right wing Patrik Laine (6-4, 206) of Tappara and right wing Jesse Puljujarvi (6-3, 203) of Karpat. They're also expected to play for Finland at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship in Helsinki, which runs Dec. 26 to Jan. 5, 2016.

Laine has three goals and five points in six games.

"Laine is a sniper," said Goran Stubb, NHL Director of European Scouting. "His combination of size, skills, strength, soft hands and sharp shots make him a very effective power wing. He has matured both on and off the ice and is a player with great offensive instincts and a nose for the net."

Puljujarvi has two goals and three points in seven games.

"Puljujarvi is a tower on ice," Stubb said. "He's a little more of an all-around player than Laine; a threat each time he's on the ice. He's a powerful skater with good speed, fine balance and he possesses outstanding hockey sense."

Two other A-rated skaters play in the Swedish Hockey League: center Rasmus Asplund (5-11, 176) of Farjestad and right wing Carl Grundstrom (6-foot, 194) of Modo.

"Asplund is a smooth skater and excellent competitor," Stubb said. "He's more of a finesse type than an aggressive player.

"He's a high-level energy player and is a good skater. He's always a threat around the net."

Among the top international goaltenders is Filip Gustavsson (6-1, 184) of Lulea's team in Sweden's junior leagues, who received a B rating. He helped Sweden win the silver medal at the 2015 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup with a 2.11 goals-against average and .930 save percentage in five games.

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