TORONTO – The decision to play pro hockey in Switzerland this season should have Auston Matthews more prepared to make the jump to the NHL, but it likely won’t be enough for him to earn a spot in the World Cup.
The 18-year-old forward wasn’t among the first 16 players named to Team North America this week and faces an “uphill road” to grab one of the remaining seven spots in June, according to general manager Peter Chiarelli.
But he is on the radar of team management.
“We’ve had a lot of viewings of him,” said Chiarelli. “We know what he is. … He’s got some obstacles just because he hasn’t played in the league. That may sound unfair, the kid’s a talent. He has the strength, and he’s got the skill and the speed, we haven’t ruled him out.
“There’s some really good players that are going to be left off this team.”
Matthews has had an extremely strong season playing in Zurich under former NHL coach Marc Crawford, scoring 25 goals and 47 points in 36 games.
He is expected to be picked first overall at the NHL draft in June. Had the Scottsdale, Ariz., native been born two days earlier, he would have been eligible for last year’s draft class alongside Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel.
Those two rookies were among the group named to the 24-and-under squad on Thursday, and it has been through watching them closely that Chiarelli got a read on how Matthews might react if thrown straight into September’s World Cup.
“Having seen how long it took Connor to get up and running, having seen how long it’s taken Jack … it would be unfair to us to expect (Matthews) to get up and running against that level of competition on NHL rinks,” said Chiarelli. “We’re talking a three-game round robin here.”
Team North America is arguably the most intriguing squad of the eight participating in the event, and Chiarelli expects them to be the fastest skaters in the tournament.
Matthews was a standout player for Team USA at the most recent world junior tournament and will likely represent his country at the IIHF World Hockey Championship once the Swiss League playoffs are over.
That means there is still an outside opportunity to change the minds of Chiarelli and associate GM Stan Bowman.
“He’s a man, he’s strong, he makes those strength plays,” said Chiarelli. “We know what he is. If you really want to know what he has to do to be a lock, it’s to play in the NHL and do what the other guys are doing. So he’s not going to be able to do that.”
Then he paused for a moment and added: “It’s a tough league to play in.”