Greg Balloch – InGoal Magazine
Finding a way to shut down Auston Matthews is suddenly a major concern of NHL teams, since he will likely be taken first overall at the upcoming draft. It’s a task that Michael Lawrence, goaltending coach for Ambrì-Piotta of the Swiss National League, knows all too well.
Instead of spending another year playing junior hockey, Matthews decided to head to Switzerland to test his ability at the pro level. Lawrence and Ambrì’s goaltenders got an early taste of what is to come from the young phenom, as his career takes him back to North America.
“He’s a special player,” Lawrence recalled. “He stood out as a talented forward in an extremely talented league, which says a lot.”
The American-born Matthews played for the ZSC Lions, who are based out of Zurich. As an 18-year-old, he finished the season with 24 goals in 36 games. His team was surprisingly swept in the first round by SC Bern, but from a personal level, the season was a smashing success. It isn’t completely unanimous, but he will be entering the draft as the top ranked skater.
Although Lawrence and the goaltenders for Ambrì (Sandro Zurkirchen and Tim Wolf) are used to evaluating opposing teams as a whole, they couldn’t help but notice Matthews at the forefront of the Lions’ attack.
“We normally look at team-based habits as a group,” Lawrence noted, “but Matthews stood out because almost none of his chances came ‘outside of the box’ in front of the net.”
When Lawrence pre-scouts teams, he uses a method that is similar to the danger zones that are used for tracking advanced statistics. Matthews had an uncanny ability to drive plays into the centre of the zone, or the “high-danger” zone that teams generally try to keep shooters outside of.
Zurkirchen, who played in 48 of the team’s 50 games, faced an increased amount of chances from the dangerous ‘box’ in front of the net. That offence was driven by Matthews.
In terms of on-ice comparisons, Lawrence says that Matthews reminds him of a player that he had the pleasure of watching every night during his time with the Oshawa Generals:
“It’s scary when he picks up the puck, because he’s always creating. The waves of offence just keep coming when he’s out there. It’s very difficult to manage. Just like [John] Tavares was, Matthews is well ahead of other players his age.”
While Matthews’ move from Switzerland to the NHL will be the most publicized, it won’t be the only story. The Ottawa Senators have decided to revamp their coaching staff with two men that were behind the bench in the NLA last season.
Guy Boucher, who was let go from his contract with SC Bern earlier in the year, and Marc Crawford, who coached Matthews in Zurich, will be making the move back to the NHL with Ottawa in 2016-2017.
Senators fans should expect a much more aggressive, offensive team next season if his coaching style carries over.
“I worked with Guy Boucher at the Spengler Cup, and loved every minute of it,” said Lawrence. “He’s very prepared, very structured, and that definitely shows in the type of team that he puts onto the ice. His teams are always relentless on the forecheck.”
Lawrence and Boucher proved to make a winning combo, as their team Canada squad would go undefeated in the prestigious Spengler Cup tournament, on the way to the team’s second championship in four years.
Ottawa could look to build on that chemistry, as they do not currently have a goaltending coach – Rick Wamsley was released with the rest of the previous coaching staff. Several NHL teams have contacted Lawrence about vacant goaltending coach and goaltending development roles.
“Guy is great at getting people to believe that they can achieve great things. He has wonderful enthusiasm for the game, and winning the tournament was a really special experience for everyone.”
The dream season didn’t end there for Lawrence, either.
When the rosters for the IIHF World Championships were announced, two goaltenders of which he had close ties were named as representatives for their respective countries.
Ambrì’s Zurkirchen was announced as a member of the Swiss team, and Sebastian Dahm, who Lawrence worked with in Sudbury of the OHL, was announced as a member of the Danish team.
“Sandro [Zurkirchen] is a phenomenal athlete. His mental focus is some of the best I’ve ever seen. Working with him in Switzerland has been a blessing. Coaching in Switzerland in general has been eye-opening for me, and has helped me grow as a coach.”
For Lawrence, the pride he gets from seeing his students succeed is what drives him.
“I try to find three things that make that individual goaltender successful, and harness them. That’s the best way to improve, and when you see the results pay off at the end of the year like that – it’s a great feeling.”