Happy Birthday Auston Matthews

Auston Matthews turned 18 today.

In the grander scheme, it means he is officially eligible to now suit up and play for the Zurich Lions of Switzerland’s top pro league.

The native Arizonan and prohibitive favorite (as of September 17, at least) to be the top overall selection in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft missed the 2015 draft’s cutoff date by a couple of days, so he goes into 2015-16 as one of the older first-year eligibles.

The big center can really skate and push the offensive pace of a game- he has the skill and sense to bring a finesse style. However, with his big frame that is still filling out, he also has the ability to bull his way to the net, protect the puck on the cycle and excel in the greasy areas of the ice. In short? Matthews is the total package.

At last year’s WJC U20 championship, I thought at times he flashed the brilliance he is capable of, but at others- he appeared not quite ready for prime time, struggling to make plays in traffic when older, stronger players could put the body on him or deny Matthews the time and space that he created on his own when dominating at the junior level.

When it all comes down to it, Matthews will beat you any which way: wheeling the puck out of the corner and straight to the net…walking out from the tops of the circles and snapping off a wicked wrister through traffic…with a loping stride and separation burst on the breakaway…with a quick stick in tight to bury a rebound before someone can get a body or stick on him…you name it. I think that entitles a player to opt for the developmental track away from the norm, and I like his decision to forego North America and the WHL to play in Switzerland against men this year under the tutelage of former NHL coach and Stanley Cup-winner Marc Crawford. As an older 18-year-old, it will better prepare him for the NHL next year- and he’s going to be in the NHL next year- little doubt about it. It’s a good look for the Swiss pro league, too- it reminds me of the mid-90’s when European teen sensations Petr Sykora and Sergei Samsonov came over to skate in the IHL before they were drafted into the NHL.

My guess? Matthews will excel across the Atlantic, putting up at least a point per game and filling buildings over there by hockey fans eager to get a look at the NHL’s next new thing. In turn, he’ll use his natural talent and creativity to score while learning to be a pro in an environment that will enrich him culturally much more than what he would have experienced (and no disrespect to the great state of Washington) in Everett. That’s undoubtedly a major disappointment for Silvertips and WHL fans in general, but this is a good fit for Matthews.

It’s not a path every kid should take, mind you- but in this case, it makes sense. Here’s hoping that when we’re previewing the 2016 draft in May and June, we’re looking back and validating his decision to skip out on major junior to take a path much less traveled by a North American-born prodigy.  So, happy birthday Auston…and good hunting. We’ll see you at the WJC in a few months to check on that progress.

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