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In an unprecedented move, Auston Matthews, the projected No. 1 overall selection of the 2016 NHL draft, will spend next season in Switzerland. The ZSC Lions in Zurich announced he signed a one-year contract with the pro hockey club today.
The Scottsdale, AZ., native ultimately would have signed with the ZSC Lions earlier in the offseason, but he had issues landing a work visa. Zurich’s release claims that there was a bilateral agreement between the United States and Switzerland to authorize his residence permit. It will officially take effect when he turns 18 on Sept. 17.
"He is something special," Zurich general manager Edgar Salis told the Canadian Press. "He has good speed, good skill — the whole package. We have good players, and with his hockey IQ I think he can feed our guys and fit the team. He brings everything. That was why we jumped on him."
The signing is a big blow to the WHL’s Everett Silvertips, who selected Matthews 57th overall in the 2012 bantam draft. Many reports claimed that he would play for Everett if he couldn’t get his visa worked out. The addition of the 6-foot-2, 194-pound centre would have easily made them a contender next season and possibly the favourite to come out of the Western Conference. Not to mention, it could have helped them recruit their top 2013 pick, Tyson Jost, who is currently playing with the BCHL’s Penticton Vees and is expected to commit to an NCAA college sooner than later.
There was a possibility earlier on of Matthews going the way of Jack Eichel by playing college a year early. It seems that route was crossed off the list of options because the left-handed sniper wasn’t interested in spending this summer accelerating his schooling.
The primary reason why Matthews chose to play pro in Switzerland appears to be for development purposes. He feels he’s ready to take the next step in his career after dominating the U.S. National U18 Team in 2014-15, notching 55 goals and 116 points in 60 games. Moreover, he’s going to an organization coached by Marc Crawford, a former NHL bench boss who won the Jack Adams Award in 1995.
That said, even though Matthews is poised to get paid next year, his six-figure salary likely played a significant role in his decision. He would have only earned a major junior stipend in Everett.
The big question is how the move will affect Matthews’ draft stock. He’s taking a bigger risk playing in a men’s league than the WHL because there’s a chance he could struggle to transition to the pro game. It would take, however, more than a slow start or an odd cold stretch for another prospect to challenge him as the draft’s top talent. He's regarded as having a notabe step on the draft's next-best prospects, who appear to be Finnish forward Jesse Puljujärvi and Sarnia Sting defenceman Jakob Chychrun.
He won’t receive as much attention playing in Switzerland as he would have in North America, but that shouldn’t be a big deal. He’s going over there as a well-known prospect and will be the centre of attention on Team USA's world junior championship team.
“I don’t think this will hurt his draft stock,” says an NHL scout. “I still see him going first overall. The reason he can go play professional hockey in Switzerland is because he’s at a different level than most of his peers. The only thing is he won’t get noticed by the media and fans as much as McDavid and Eichel did last year. He’s going to have to make the world junior tournament count when everyone is watching him across the world.”
At this point, the buzz around Matthews is that he would have challenged Eichel in the 2015 draft as the second-best prospect. When considering some scouts believe Eichel would have went ahead of Aaron Ekblad in 2014 and Nathan Mackinnon in 2013, it shows that Matthews is anything but a slouch as a potential No. 1 pick.
“There’s discussion on whether Matthews is better than Eichel or the other way around,” says the NHL scout. “Some would take Matthews and others would take Eichel. I don’t know myself.”
Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen