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Top prospect Matthews to play '15-16 in Swiss league

by Mike G. Morreale

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. -- Auston Matthews, a frontrunner to be the top pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, has made official his decision to play in Europe for the Zurich Lions in the Swiss National League in 2015-16.

The announcement Friday comes after months of speculation that the 17-year-old center might instead play for the Everett Silvertips of the Western Hockey League. Matthews was selected in the third round (No. 57) by the Silvertips in the 2012 WHL bantam draft.

According to the official website of the Zurich Lions, Matthews will not be eligible to join the team until Sept. 17, when he turns 18.

Matthews will play for former NHL coach Marc Crawford in Zurich.

Crawford led Zurich to a Swiss National League title two years ago and lost in the league finals last season. He coached 15 years in the NHL, winning a Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche in 1996.

Matthews, a product of USA Hockey's National Team Development Program, missed the cutoff for the 2015 NHL Draft by two days; he was born Sept. 17, 1997. The native of Scottsdale, Ariz., is the projected top choice for what is turning out to be a deep and talented 2016 draft class.

That Matthews even considered the possibility of playing overseas, which is somewhat unprecedented for a North American player heading into his draft-eligible season, is an indication just how confident both he and agents Pat Brisson and Judd Moldaver of CAA Hockey are in his ability. He could become the first American-born player to go No. 1 in the NHL Draft since Patrick Kane to the Chicago Blackhawks in 2007.

Matthews played a huge role in leading the United States to a gold medal at the 2015 IIHF World Under-18 Championship in Switzerland, scoring a tournament-high 15 points and tying for the lead with eight goals in seven games. He was named tournament MVP and the championship's best forward.

"His hockey IQ is second to none and his hand skills are unbelievable," U18 World Championship teammate and 2015 second-round pick Jeremy Bracco said. "He gets the puck and does stuff that I've never seen before. He's 6-foot-2 and can skate and is strong; he pretty much is the complete package, so he's a special player."

Matthews won USA Hockey's Bob Johnson Award recognizing excellence in international hockey competition last season.

Matthews set records with the United States under-18 National Team Development Program for goals (55) and points (117) in a season, surpassing the 52 goals and 102 points in 2005-06 by Kane. He played for the U.S. at the 2015 WJC and is eligible to represent his country at the 2016 WJC in Finland.

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