Auston Matthews believes he’s ‘physically and mentally strong’ to handle pressure in Toronto

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) His European hockey apprenticeship over, Auston Matthews is back on North American soil and turning his attention on beginning his NHL career.

From Matthews’ home in Scottsdale, Arizona, to playing pro in Switzerland and last month’s world championships in Russia, the 18-year-old forward arrived in Buffalo this week to participate in the league’s annual pre-draft combine. It’s the final step for Matthews, who in three weeks will be back for the NHL draft in Buffalo, where he is projected to be selected first overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“A lot of adventures, but it’s nice to be back home,” Matthews said Friday, standing in front of a large crowd of reporters – many of them from Toronto.

“Whatever happens, happens. It’s out of your control now. Our season’s over,” Matthews said about whether he’ll become the first American-born player drafted since 2007, when Chicago selected Buffalo-born forward Patrick Kane. “We have the testing tomorrow and that’s really the last time besides meetings that you can really make an impression on teams.”

Matthews has made his mark despite making the unusual move of playing for Zurich last season.

Finishing second in the league’s MVP voting, he led the Lions and finished 10th in the league with 24 goals, while adding 22 assists in 36 games. Despite a two-month layoff after Zurich was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in March, Matthews led the United States with six goals, while adding three assists at the world championships.

“He lived up to expectations,” NHL Central Scouting director Dan Marr said about the 6-foot-2, 194-pound Matthews. “No one was going to say it would happen, that he would be one of the best players in the (Swiss) league, one of the top scorers in the league. That certainly wasn’t expected. It wouldn’t be of any 18 year old. But he went over there and had success.”

Central Scouting ranks Finnish-born forwards Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi second and third.

What separates Matthews is his play-making ability and speed, leading Marr to describe him as “the complete package.”

Matthews’ performance at the world championships convinced Team North America general manager Peter Chiarelli to make him one of the final seven players chosen to the squad’s 23-player World Cup of Hockey roster last week.

“We couldn’t ignore it,” Chiarelli said. “For me, he was the best if not one of the top two or three on that U.S. team.”

Matthews’ decision to play overseas was prompted because he was too old to play for the U.S. Developmental team and too young – by two days – to be eligible for last year’s draft because of his Sept. 17 birthday.

Rather than spend a season playing in college or at the Canadian junior level, Matthews and his agent Pat Brisson, decided it would be best to develop his game in Zurich. Another benefit was the Lions were headed by Marc Crawford, who coached the 1996-Stanley Cup-winning Colorado Avalanche.

“We flew him and his parents over to explore and he was sold on it immediately,” Brisson said. “We wanted him in the right environment and felt the Swiss league was better than college or the CHL.”

Matthews has no regrets of just missing out on being part of last year’s draft, where Marr said he would have drawn comparisons to the top two players selected, Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and Buffalo’s Jack Eichel.

“When I was born, you can’t change that,” Matthews said. “I think it’s nice to get that extra year to grow into your body some more and develop a little bit more.”

Growing up an Arizona Coyotes fan, Matthews has no difficulty accepting the pressure that would come playing in a hockey mecca such as Toronto. It’s where coach Mike Babcock and general manager Lou Lamoriello are in the midst of rebuilding a once-proud franchise that has made the playoffs just once in the past 11 years.

The Leafs met with Matthews this week, but have yet to tip their hand regarding who they’ll draft first.

“If that were to happen, I definitely think I can handle that. I think I’m physically and mentally strong,” Matthews said of playing in Toronto. “I want to be an impact player in the NHL. For whatever team, I can see myself being that player.”