Auston Matthews embarking on grand hockey experiment – ESPN
Marc Crawford has dozed through some of the early-morning bus trip from Zurich through the Swiss Alps but is looking forward to new scenery as the Zurich Lions’ team bus heads into the French Alps near Grenoble.
It is, he reports later, “spectacular.”
The Swiss Elite League is just nicely getting underway. There is a Champions League that involves the winning teams in other European elite leagues facing off. And the season ahead promises to be a seminal one for Crawford, the Lions and the entire league.
Yet the reason for such optimism, the reason for so much attention being paid at this early date to the hockey scene in Switzerland, isn’t even with the team as the Lions’ bus winds its way through some of the world’s most spectacular scenery.
Instead, Auston Matthews is back in Zurich working out, biding his time, waiting for his official start to his first hockey season as a professional — the season that will lead into next June’s NHL draft when the Phoenix native is already projected to go first overall.
The next “Next One” as it were.
Matthews admits over the phone that he’s anxious for things to get going even though he knew he had to wait until his 18th birthday on Sept. 17 before he would be allowed to play in games for the Lions. In the interim, he is getting to know his teammates and learning Crawford’s system.
“Obviously, I wish I could play,” he tells ESPN.com.
Matthews’ work with the team’s power-play unit is a window onto his vision and skill set, Crawford said.
And it is not just about scoring or collecting points, as there was Matthews after a recent practice asking for additional video time to ensure he understands his defensive assignments.
The next day he was in perfect position, Crawford said.
“He’s as advertised,” Crawford said. “He’s really good.”
Crawford, who won a Stanley Cup as head coach of the Colorado Avalanche in 1996, says Matthews can do things that no one on his team — a very good professional team in a very good European elite league — can do.
And he is hungry to learn more.
“He’s smart enough to know that he doesn’t know everything,” Crawford said.
Matthews’ decision to join the Lions as opposed to playing major junior hockey (Everett holds his junior rights) or plotting an NCAA career has sparked all kinds of debate.
Will the move — which came with a $400,000 contract — spark a flood of talented teens heading to Europe looking for a different path to the NHL?
Not likely, because just as his game has set Matthews apart, so, too, have his circumstances.
Matthews missed being eligible for June’s draft by two days. A member of USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, Matthews has starred internationally for the U.S., including being named tournament MVP for the U18 team that won gold, coincidentally, in Switzerland last winter.
But Matthews never committed to a U.S. college — like good friend Jack Eichel — and he didn’t move north to ply his trade in the junior ranks — like Connor McDavid — (which would have precluded him playing in Europe), so his options were open to try something different.
Former NHL general manager Craig Button, a respected evaluator of young talent around the world, said he’s not surprised that Matthews ended up in Switzerland.
“There is nothing traditional hockey-wise about Auston or his path,” Button told ESPN.com.
And in the end, Button said, only half-joking: “It really doesn’t matter where he goes and plays. He’s too good a player.”
So he’s in Switzerland, a grand hockey experiment with a great view.
Crawford met with Matthews and his family after the U18 tournament. The coach had watched Matthews play, including a game against a Swiss team with a number of young players who were set to play with the Lions, and Matthews excelled. He finished the tournament with eight goals and 15 points in seven games.
When the idea of coming to Switzerland came up there was discussion about billeting Matthews with a local family or older player, but the Matthews family immediately insisted that Auston would stay with family.
So his mother and 20-year-old sister, who is taking a semester off from Arizona State University, are in Zurich sharing the adventure.
Matthews admits that Mom does the cooking and that he cleans up after himself. She does the laundry but he sorts the clothes to help in the process.
Already, he said, there is a kind of feel of a home away from home in Zurich. And after spending the past couple of years in Michigan with the NTDP, it’s comforting to be with family again, he said.
Crawford and some of his coaching staff live in a condo across the street. Former NHLers Dan Fritsche and Ryan Shannon live next to and above the Matthews family, respectively, while defenseman Marc-Andre Bergeron is around the corner.
“Yeah, definitely. It’s nice to have those young guys around,” Matthews said. “Where you can kind of just hang out and talk. They’re kind of going through similar things.”
A year ago the lure of McDavid and Eichel at the end of the draft rainbow sparked a cottage industry in designed crappiness from a handful of NHL teams as tanking became part of the lexicon of the NHL regular season.
New elements to the draft lottery that will come into play in June make it even harder for teams to lose their way to a player like Eichel or McDavid, but being bad — really bad — is still the best way to get a generational player. Matthews is that kind of player.
“As a player, to me, he’s an elite franchise centerman,” Button said.
He is, as they say, the complete package. Size, drive, skill, huge hockey brain. Mature, both physically and mentally.
And while nothing is a given, few imagine that Matthews will have trouble adjusting to life in the Swiss elite league.
“I don’t think he’ll have any problem being a really good player,” Button said. “He’s too good.”
While Matthews faces similar expectations as McDavid and Eichel faced regarding the potential impact on an NHL franchise, Matthews gets to play out his draft year literally half a world away from the center of such attention.
“Being out here it’s a little bit different than that,” Matthews said.
Matthews paid attention to how those players handled themselves. Knowing Eichel personally through USA Hockey, Matthews watched how the big center approached the game and how he faced the attention off the ice without letting it disrupt him.
“Maybe being in the same position,” Matthews said. “I think I definitely watched closely how he handled himself.”
Not that Matthews will play in a bubble in Switzerland.
The Swiss are still heavy consumers of newspapers, and all of the country’s top columnists and reporters have been talking to Matthews, Crawford said.
And Matthews’ arrival has generated a significant buzz around the Swiss league, a buzz that will only grow more intense once he actually starts to play.
In that sense, Matthews’ presence should be a boon to the profile of the Swiss league in the same way that Crawford recalls coaching in Cornwall of the Ontario Hockey League when Eric Lindros entered the league.
The attention could also open the door to a return to the NHL for Crawford.
The 54-year-old native of Belleville, Ontario, last coached in the NHL with the Dallas Stars in 2011. Since then he has re-energized himself with two successful seasons in Zurich, taking over for Bob Hartley after Hartley found his way back to the NHL with the Calgary Flames.
Crawford’s coming off a championship season with the Lions and he understands that Matthews’ development will be scrutinized on a number of different levels by a host of NHL front-office people.
Indeed, it is no coincidence that Matthews ended up playing for Zurich given Crawford’s experience at the NHL level.
Crawford understands NHL players and how to set young players up for success at the NHL level, Button said. That’s good for Matthews and the other NHL hopefuls on the Lions’ roster.
But it’s also good for Crawford, because he gets to showcase his coaching talents, Button added.
Used to be that if you were coaching in Europe you were “out of sight, out of mind” when it came to the NHL, Button said.
“Marc’s not going to be out of sight, out of mind anymore. I think this is a great opportunity for Marc.”
For his part, Crawford insists his focus is simple: Prepare the Lions as best he can and hope for another successful season.
Matthews is part of that process.
“I’m confident in my own abilities,” he said. “I’m not stupid. I see the possibilities. But right now, I think we just need to keep things in order.”