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Top prospect Matthews already 'class of the league'

by Tim Wharnsby

Until last week, 18-year-old Auston Matthews' first season of professional hockey with Zurich in National League A, Switzerland's top professional league, was ticking along as efficiently as one of the country's finest timepieces.

But Matthews' smooth season hit a bump in the road during a game Oct. 23 when he fell and crashed into the boards, sustaining a back injury.

He finished that game and played in the next two. But the Zurich medical staff decided it was best to hold Matthews out of a game last Friday, especially since the league now is on a two-week break.

While the injury will prevent Matthews from playing for the United States at the Deutschland Cup, which will be held Nov. 6-8 in Augsburg, Germany, Matthews hopes to be ready when Zurich resumes its schedule Nov. 12.

Zurich, Switzerland
GP G A Pts Shots PIM +/-
14 10 6 16 46 2 +2

"He'll have about 2 1/2 weeks off since his last game to heal," Zurich coach Marc Crawford said. "He's bummed that he won’t be able to play in the Deutschland Cup. He loves the game so much.

"But he's hopeful that he'll be ready after our time off."

Crawford, who coached the 1995-96 Colorado Avalanche to the Stanley Cup and has 549 NHL wins, said Matthews has fit right in with Zurich and has been a dominant player for the first-place club.

"He's such a great kid; he really is," Crawford said. "Don Granato [Matthews' coach with USA Hockey's National Team Development Program under-18 team last season] told me that he was beyond belief in terms of how good a person he is and he was right. He likes the right people. All you need to know is that he wants to be like Jonathan Toews, and that says everything right there."

Matthews could not play for the Lions until his 18th birthday, which was Sept. 17. So he had five weeks of practice with his new team before he could showcase his abilities.

Despite playing five fewer games than most players, his 10 goals in 14 games leads the league, and his 16 points are second on his team.

"By the second or third game he was the team's top guy, and by his seventh or eighth game he was the class of the league," Crawford said.

Crawford guided Zurich to the league title in 2013-14, but it was rival Davos that claimed the championship last season.

When Zurich and Davos played three weeks ago, Matthews scored two goals to help Zurich to a 3-2 road win.

"He was dominant," Crawford said. "He scored two goals coming through the neutral zone with so much speed. They didn't have an answer for him. Even our guys were saying, 'Wow.'"

Crawford said Matthews is improving at a rapid rate because of his willingness to learn. Most of Matthews' education has been focused on his explosiveness to the net, his play without the puck and his positioning in the defensive end of the rink.

Most young players are too puck focused in the defensive zone. But because of his goal to be like Toews, the 2013 Selke Trophy winner as well as a three-time Stanley Cup champion, Matthews has learned better positioning and to be aware of his opponents.

"If you show Auston something he gets it the first time," Crawford said. "He's like today's athlete. He asks a lot of questions and he's good at giving feedback.

"He wants to be the guy counted on in crucial moments. He's a winner. He's no shrinking violet."

Physical confrontation is a component the Swiss league lacks, but Matthews certainly will experience that at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship in Finland, which starts Dec. 26. He had one goal and two assists in five games for the U.S. at the 2015 WJC in a lower-line role. This year he's expected to be the centerpiece of the U.S. roster.

Coming out of the NTDP last season Matthews had his choice of destinations for this season. He missed out on being eligible for the 2015 NHL Draft by two days, and with his experience internationally as well as his well-developed 6-foot-1, 210-pound frame, Matthews, his family and agent Pat Brisson believed the best path was continuing his development with Crawford in Zurich.

Brisson said he came up with the idea at the suggestion of a former junior-hockey teammate, Doug Honegger, who played several seasons in Switzerland in the 1990s and later became an agent.

Crawford got to know Matthews and his family during the 2015 IIHF World Under-18 Championship in Switzerland last April. Crawford spoke with Matthews' parents, Ema and Brian, and answered their questions. After the U.S. celebrated its gold-medal win, Crawford and Matthews had a lengthy chat.

Matthews flew out the next day to join the U.S. for preparations for the 2015 IIHF World Championship and then returned to Switzerland to tour the Zurich facilities in May. He signed with Zurich in early August.

In Zurich, Matthews lives with his mother. His two sisters, Alexandria and Breyana, a top-flight golfer, also have visited.

"You're worried when a young guy takes a premier roster spot," Crawford said. "But our guys quickly found out not only how good a player he is, but what a good person he is. He's really popular with our group."

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