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Top prospect Matthews to play '15-16 in Switzerland

by Mike G. Morreale / NHL.com

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. -- Auston Matthews, a frontrunner to be the top pick of the 2016 NHL Draft, announced Friday that he will play for Zurich in the Swiss National League in 2015-16.

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

Matthews, who signed a one-year contract with Zurich and said he will join the Lions after he turns 18 on Sept. 17, is with 32 other U.S. prospects at United States National Evaluation Camp. The U.S. will play Finland on Saturday.

"I am deeply grateful to the ZSC Lions for the opportunity to be a part of their wonderful organization and look forward to joining them next month," Matthews said in a statement. "For now, however, my commitment is to my teammates and USA Hockey as we prepare to win tomorrow’s game."

Among Matthews' teammates at camp is center Dylan Larkin, chosen No. 15 by the Detroit Red Wings at the 2014 draft.

"I think it's great for Auston," Larkin said following U.S. practice on Friday. "It's a great opportunity for him. He's going to have a ton of fun over there, and I think it's going to help him a lot, playing on the big ice and also help him for the [2016 IIHF World Junior Championship]. I know he's excited about it."

In Zurich, Matthews will wear No. 34 and play for former NHL coach Marc Crawford in Zurich. He received his residence permit on the condition that it must be used only after his 18th birthday. The authorization was granted under a bilateral agreement between Switzerland and the United States for young professionals.

U.S. National Junior Team coach Ron Wilson, who played hockey in Switzerland for six seasons, feels playing overseas is a great opportunity for Matthews.

"He'll be playing with men and Swiss hockey has come a long way since I played there, so he's going to a city that I'm familiar with and I only think it will be a positive experience," Wilson said. "He's got a good coach in Marc Crawford. I told him this will be a really good experience."

Wilson's best season in Switzerland came in 1984-85, when he scored 39 goals and had 101 points to lead HC Davos to its second straight Swiss championship.

"We had a little talk about it, and I told Auston that he's going to have to really work hard to even come close to my records in Switzerland," Wilson said, tongue in cheek. "I do think he'll learn a lot under [Crawford]. Assuming that Marc treats him like a normal player, he'll play with a couple of good players. Zurich has a good team, and has been good the last two years. It's very competitive, and there are a lot of Swiss players capable of playing in the NHL, so that's the positive I see in this.

"He won't be just playing with guys his own age. He'll be a step above that so this will push him."

Crawford led Zurich to a Swiss National League title two years ago and an appearance 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, a somewhat unprecedented move for a North American player heading into his draft-eligible season, is an indication just how confident 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 best forward.

"His hockey IQ is second to none and his hand skills are unbelievable," U-18 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' U-18 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 Kane. He played for the U.S. at the 2015 IIHF Word Junior Championship and is eligible to represent his country at the 2016 WJC in Finland.

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