With it all said and done, Auston Matthews’ unorthodox decision to turn pro in his draft season seems to have paid dividends. The Scottsdale, AZ., native remains the 2016 NHL draft’s consensus top prospect and pocketed a six-figure salary after wrapping up his 2015-16 season with the Swiss National League A’s Zurich Lions last week.
“I still think he is the front-runner for No.1 at this point,” says NHL Central Scouting Service’s Thomas Roost, who is a Switzerland-based scout.
The 6-foot-2, 194-pound centre looked anything but an 18-year-old freshman in Zurich. While showcasing his elite stride, top-notch offensive abilities and superb hockey sense, he netted 24 goals and 46 points in 36 games.
“Before the season, I did expect that he will be one of the best players in the league until November and the best player after that and I guess I was quite correct with this prediction,” says Roost. “I wouldn't say that he did exceed my expectations, but he definitely did meet them and my expectations were pretty high.”
With the eighth-seeded SC Bern sweeping his top-seeded Lions, Matthews’ draft season didn’t have a storybook ending in Switzerland. His club’s poor playoff doesn’t bode well for him, but when judging him based on his individual play, he seemed to be one of the top players in the series.
“Matthews didn't score a goal in these four games and "only" managed three assists. So, I hear already some whispers that he might not be the guy for clutch moments because he also was not that productive on the score sheet in the big games at the world junior championship,” says Roost. “But as I told you, this is just a superficial judgement because if you dig a bit deeper and analyze how he played in these games, I come to the conclusion that he really did play well. He was the best player on the ice in three of these four games and maybe the best or at least with some high-end flashes in one game.”
Roost feels Matthews is poised to hit the ground running as an NHL rookie next season. He believes he has what it takes to produce roughly 60 points next year before evolving into one of the game’s top superstars.
“I expect that he will be a very good player right away and I give him approximately 60 points if he is going to play an injury-free 82-game season,” says the scout. “And in the not-so-far distance, he will be a point-per-game player.”
Beyond Matthews, it appears Finland products Jesse Puljujärvi and Patrik Laine are the favourites to don the second sweater in Buffalo. Puljujärvi, a 6-foot-3, 201-pound winger, is regarded as the more polished prospect of the two. Laine, a 6-foot-4, 209-pound winger, is believed to have a higher ceiling, though.
“I guess the answer to this question is changing nearly on a monthly basis,” says Roost on which Finnish talent has the edge. “One year ago, it was Puljujärvi then Laine catched up with a great U18 WJC. Personally, I would go for Laine because I think his upside is a bit higher. His upside might even be higher than Matthews' upside. Laine is still a bit raw and not very consistent yet with his performances, but when he is on, he is unbelievable and the mix of size, wingspan, handskills, physical potential and especially his shooting ability is very attractive.”
Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen