Philly Sports Live

What We Learned: Who can do what Auston Matthews did? (Puck Daddy)

(Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend’s events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it) On Friday afternoon, it was announced that Auston Matthews, projected to be the No. 1 overall pick next June, would not go the usual route top North American prospects take on their way to the NHL. Instead of playing major junior in the WHL, or committing to a college hockey team, Matthews instead signed with Zurich of the Swiss A League, becoming the first such player to take the step to play against nothing but full-grown professional athletes. While European-born players who go high in the first round often play against similar competition in their native countries in their draft years, Matthews is probably the first North American to farm himself out to a foreign league in this way. He was immediately hailed as a trailblazer who would lead similarly good players in the future to take the same path. And why not? Playing against men is better for development than playing against kids as young as 15 or 16 in some cases, and he’s also going to make $400,000 for his efforts as an 18-year-old, which isn’t bad take-home pay before you even sign your first NHL contract. But as Boston-based NHL agent Brian Bartlett pointed out soon after the signing was announced, this isn’t necessarily some crazy step no one had thought to take before, but rather one that may have been unique to Matthews’ circumstances. Bartlett lists three reasons why Matthews is probably not going to lead to a mass exodus of major North American youth talent to European pro leagues: His birthdate, his quality as a player, and his lack of contractual ties to a CHL club. All are extremely important here, but birthdate is probably the most restrictive. Matthews turns 18 on Sept. 17, meaning that if he were two days or so younger, this would have been his draft year, and not 2016. The basic breakdown is: You have to be 18 on Sept. 15 because that’s when training camps open, and NHL teams can’t sign pros younger than that. Most European leagues, though, open in early September, meaning that the season in Switzerland will already be under way when he turns 18 (and is therefore eligible for a work permit), but only a week or so old. This gives Zurich the ability to add him after playing just four games of their 50-game schedule. Very, very few players are going to have that specific a birthdate that they can be comfortably added to the roster without missing a good chunk of the season. For instance, Jack Eichel was one of the youngest players in college hockey last season, and while he almost certainly could have played — and acquitted himself very well — against the A League’s professionals, the fact that he was born on Oct. 28 means that he would have missed 19 of Zurich’s 50 games last season, or 38 percent of the regular-season schedule. Connor McDavid and Noah Hanifin didn’t turn 18 until mid-January, Dylan Strome’s 18th birthday was in March, and Mitch Marner’s was all the way at the beginning of May. They weren’t even close to being viable candidates. What’s interesting to note here, though, is that this hasn’t stopped KHL teams from selecting elite junior players in that league’s entry draft over the years. The KHL is of course its own whole different thing, because it acts as though international rules do not apply to it and so on. Which is why guys like Taylor Hall, Nathan MacKinnon, Aaron Ekblad, and McDavid — four of the last six No. 1 picks — were taken in the middle rounds of the KHL draft prior to their NHL draft years. At that point, they figure, “Why not take a flyer on luring Hall over?” Hasn’t worked out for them, obviously, but again: they all had CHL contracts (a topic we’ll get to in a minute). And talent level is also a major factor here because, a) you have to convince the Swiss government that this player is good enough to warrant a contract, and b) there are rules about how many guys you can “import” from foreign countries. You don’t want to waste a roster spot and a few hundred thousand Euros on a kid who can’t play for you at a high level. Again, Eichel or McDavid could have gone over there and put up decent or better numbers (you’d need to be roughly a point a game over there to match the NHL equivalency scores guys are putting up with video game numbers in juniors), but other factors precluded them which do not apply to Matthews. The final condition here is CHL contract status, and that basically precludes almost all potential Canadian signees from this kind of deal straightaway. The CHL has worked quite hard to make sure it’s getting truly elite talent through the door as early as possible with the “exceptional player” rule that allows some to play in the OHL, WHL, or QMJHL at 15 instead of the normal 16. John Tavares was the first, way back in 2005, but more are getting through the door these days. Ekblad was deemed an exceptional player in 2011, McDavid was the next season, and Sean Day (who’s actually American) got it in 2013. The CHL took a year off in 2014, but recently named Quebec-born Joey Veleno that status for the coming season. And even after that, there are still a lot of high-level players — like Strome, Marner, Sam Reinhart, and so on — starting in the CHL at 16. Their doing so at that age denies them European opportunities later on. Hell, even young European players are heading to the CHL (Pavel Zacha, Ivan Provorov, and Timo Meier from the top 10 in June’s draft alone) for their draft years, or earlier. Meanwhile, that still leaves a very small number of Canadians do actually go high in the draft out of Junior A leagues like the USHL and BCHL so that they could maintain their college eligibility. Just to give you an idea, though, the most recent to do so was Kyle Turris in 2007. But Turris was also a mid-August birthdate, so he’d have been eligible to sign in the NHL anyway. This doesn’t mean Americans can’t do what Matthews did, but navigating all those waters — avoiding the CHL, which fewer Americans are doing these days, and having that kind of very specific birthdate — isn’t easy. In addition, Matthews probably avoided some of these issues simply by being from a non-traditional hockey market. Kids born in hockey-mad U.S. states tend to grow up with dreams of playing in college even if they don’t want to go the CHL route. Those kids want to be Badgers and Gophers and Wolverines and Terriers and Eagles, even if they’re only going for a year or two at most. Matthews, being from Scottsdale, has no real parochial ties like that, so when choosing between Portland in the WHL, some school to which he has no real connection in the NCAA, or Zurich in the Swiss A League, emotion likely doesn’t enter into it. Getting $400,000 and a better development path probably did. So with all this in mind, if you go through the years and look at all the top-five picks who have a birthday, talent level, and obligation-related status falling in all those ranges at the same time, there’s really only one name that pops up. Of all the elite-level players taken out of the U.S. or the very small number of Junior-A Canadians, whose birthdays fall in maybe just two or three weeks out of the 52 in the year, there’s really only one guy who might have even been close to being considered for signing in a European pro league: Phil Kessel, who by the way is from Madison, Wisconsin, and ended up a Minnesota Golden Gopher. Kessel is an Oct. 2 birthday (he would have missed six or seven games), so that’s one box ticked. He never played for a CHL team, so that’s two. But when it comes to quality, the fact is that, good as Kessel was and is, whether he would have excelled against grown men is up for debate; he did not put up the same kind of numbers as Matthews in his age-17 season (41-32-73 in 41 games versus 55-61-116 in 60). He also didn’t have Matthews’ size; Kessel was 5-foot-11 and 188 pounds in his draft year, versus Matthews’ current 6-foot-2 and 200-ish pounds. That’s more conducive to success against grown men, for sure. So what Matthews might do, if he’s successful in Switzerland — and there’s no reason to believe he won’t be — is start convincing more super-elite Americans and the very small sliver of Canadians who are born within that roughly three-week period that going Junior-A for their age-16 and age-17 seasons so as to be unencumbered for that one year of pro hockey before they’re drafted. But again, you’re maybe going to get two or three kids per decade who fall into that category. Whether that’s actually good for their development long-term remains to be seen. And we probably aren’t going to get too many test cases to begin with. What We Learned Anaheim Ducks : Dustin Penner is selling his house on Newport Beach . Looks like he’s not sticking around for the El Cid Lounge softball league after all. Arizona Coyotes : There’s a non-zero chance that four Sun Devils games aren’t the worst-attended hockey dates in Glendale this season. Boston Bruins : The Bruins’ defense is bad . If only they had, like, a 22-year-old future franchise player. Hmm. Buffalo Sabres : Well shoot, you’d hope they’re “ built for long-term success .” Calgary Flames : Johnny Gaudreau will be inducted into the All Sports Museum of Southern New Jersey this week. After one season? Carolina Hurricanes : If you’re counting on Derek Ryan to make your NHL roster , well.. Chicago : New details in the Kane investigation . They are, umm, not pretty. Neither is the party line from the bar owner, who is (unsurprisingly) being gross. Colorado Avalanche : This is exactly what you’re supposed to do with young backups. Give them one-year deals until it doesn’t make sense any more. Columbus Blue Jackets : If Columbus can come out of the gate playing well — never a given with this club — that would probably be good. Maybe everyone can stay healthy this year. That also helps. Dallas Stars : Based on ticket sales, the Stars are already set to average an extra 1,900 people through the door per game. That basically means Tuesday night games against, like, Florida are going to be much better-attended. Detroit Red Wings : I don’t know enough about other sports to say for sure, but if the Wings are your best hope to win a championship in the near future, that’s not a bright outlook. Edmonton Oilers : Isn’t it crazy that this kind of thing is still technically news in Canada? Just bizarre. Florida Panthers : Here’s Gerard Gallant talking about his first season behind the bench in Sunrise. He also likes summer!!! Los Angeles Kings : The Kings have had a pretty decent offseason , if you think about it. Minnesota Wild : Mike Reilly chose Minnesota because he felt “ comfortable ” with the organization. And also probably because they’re going to use him on the NHL roster this season, I bet. Montreal Canadiens : Three of the five Canadiens’ “ must-see games ” are in October. None are after Jan. 1. Hmm. Nashville Predators : Speaking of the Winter Classic: No . New Jersey Devils : And on this question: Also no . New York Islanders : The Isles are looking to hire a Zamboni driver . I bet it’s fun just to try out. Give ’em a call. New York Rangers : Wait a second here. Everyone just got done saying Rick Nash is a bad loser and now he’s good and crucial to the Rangers’ hopes again? But… wait…… does that mean……. playoff performance isn’t as indicative of player quality as people think? Ottawa Senators : Well, this kind of pursuit has really worked out great for the Habs. Philadelphia Flyers : The Flyers have undoubtedly improved this offseason, but getting back into the playoffs ? I wouldn’t bet on that. Pittsburgh Penguins : And normally, I would say a player praising his GM for a summer’s worth of transactions is just de rigueur stuff. But in this case, Sidney Crosby is right: Jim Rutherford had himself a good offseason . San Jose Sharks : Slow down . St. Louis Blues : Blues fans’ biggest concern? Doing well in the playoffs . The team has done nothing to address that concern, of course. But it’s nice to acknowledge. Tampa Bay Lightning : When you’re like, “See, an NHL team has a better relationship with female fans,” that’s really damning the other side of the issue with faint praise. Toronto Maple Leafs : Nazem Kadri raises a lot of money for London-area charities. But because it’s Toronto: “Last month, the Maple Leafs signed Kadri to a one-year contract extension after he was suspended for a couple of games due to off-ice issues. He reportedly has been working hard in the off-season.” Vancouver Canucks : This list could be a lot longer . Washington Capitals : Well heck the Caps went out and added so many capital-C Clutch players so they are guaranteed to win the Stanley Cup. Just my thoughts. Winnipeg Jets : Jets prospects had a pretty good run of things at junior evaluation camps in Lake Placid the last week. Doesn’t guarantee anything, but it’s better than being bad. Gold Star Award