Auston Matthews, a 17-year-old American hockey prodigy from Arizona, is likely to be the #1 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft. He has been referred to as "the next Jack Eichel" since seemingly before Eichel ever set foot at Boston University. So the questions naturally followed: would Matthews follow Eichel's path to the NCAA, or would he go down the more well-trodden route for top draft prospects of heading to the Canadian Hockey League?
The Everett Silvertips own Matthews' rights in the WHL, while Matthews listed BC, BU, North Dakota, Michigan, Denver and Wisconsin as potential college destinations. But a total curveball was thrown over the weekend when it was reported that Matthews was considering signing instead with ZSC Lions of the Swiss Elite League.
While this struck some as an odd possibility, I think it has the potential to shake up the CHL vs. NCAA debate, as the prospect of going to Europe is really a quite appealing one for an elite prospect if you think about it. If he does go, it's something both the CHL and NCAA are going to have to start to think about going forward. Consider the positives:
I don't know how much the ZSC Lions are going to pay for an 18-year-old, but all available data suggests that for first team players, a low end salary is around 75,000 Swiss francs per year, or about $82,000. Salaries for ex-NHLers playing in Switzerland can top $300,000. It's fair to say that wherever Matthews' potential salary would fall in that range, it's a lot more than the stipends players receive for playing in the CHL, or the $0 for playing in the NCAA.
For some dumb reason that has always infuriated me, the NHL rules protect the Canadian Hockey League by not allowing a player under 20 who signed with a CHL team to play in the AHL until they finish their under-20 season. Essentially this means that a u-20 player from the CHL can either make the NHL roster, or go back to the CHL, preventing a lot of CHL players from making the jump to the pro ranks. But players who leave the NCAA or the European leagues have the option of playing in the AHL even before they turn 20. In the case of Auston Matthews, it's easy to imagine him being ready to play in the AHL next year at age 18/19, even if whoever drafts him doesn't think he's quite ready to play full-time in the NHL. By going to Europe, he'd keep that option open.
How many 18 year olds would love the opportunity to go to Europe for a year at such a time in their lives? Many who have the means do take a year to travel and get new experiences.
Playing against older players
The NCAA has sold itself as an opportunity for elite young prospects to face older, stronger, tougher players. Well, the European leagues certainly offer this opportunity as well, boasting many ex-NHLers and ex-AHLers.
There are negatives to this possibility for Matthews, obviously. A professional team in a highly competitive league is not going to be focused on a kid's development - they will be focused on delivering for their fans. So if Matthews is struggling, he'll play reduced minutes or see some time in the press box. He'd be in a foreign country and have many teammates who are much older than him, creating the possibility of being isolated and dealing with homesickness. And of course he misses out (for now) on the opportunity to either earn a college scholarship or the CHL's educational benefit.
I don't envision a massive flood of prospects heading to Europe even if Matthews makes it work, but the possibility could add yet another twist as the CHL and NCAA continue their arms race to attract top prospects, particularly Americans, to their ranks. There will be a lot of talk in upcoming years about how to adjust rules and practices in such a way as to put the NCAA at an advantage relative to the CHL, and this route will be another thing to consider.
One thing seems pretty likely, though: I wouldn't expect to see Matthews at BC in the fall. I never really considered it a realistic possibility anyway, but it was at least something fun to envision. If Matthews going to the ZSC Lions means he won't be tearing it up for one of BC's opponents in 2015-16, I guess I can't be too upset about that.