All too often, players that can't quite cut it in the NHL often find themselves stuck in the AHL making between $75,000 and $150,000 playing professional hockey. For many people, that seems like a pretty nice salary. Yet when you consider that these players careers don't often last past the age of 30, they need to either save really well to be able to retire or take a chance on making money somewhere else before their career ends. Often times, that means a trip to Europe. For European players, it's often an easy choice to return to their home countries and play in their home leagues. For Canadian and American players though, the choice isn't always so clear.
The Russian Kontinental Hockey League has often been a destination in recent years as the KHL teams with money to spend have often been aggressive in trying to lure talent away. The recent instability of the KHL and maybe even some apprehension about living in Russia has meant a little bit of a shift to other European league options.
Over the past few seasons though, we've started to see more players choosing the Swiss National League A (NLA) as a destination. Not only is Switzerland a beautiful country, many of it's inhabitants speak English, making the transition easier. It has also become a landing place for NHL caliber coaches looking to reestablish themselves such as former Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Guy Boucher. Several former Lightning players are currently playing in Switzerland; Cory Conacher (SC Bern), Tom Pyatt (Geneve-Servette), Marc-Andre Bergeron (ZSC Lions), Adam Hall (HC Ambri-Piotta), Ryan Shannon (ZSC Lions), and Paul Ranger (Geneve-Servette, though not currently under contract).
On top of those former Tampa Bay players, presumptive number-one pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, Auston Matthews, has decided to play for the ZSC Lions in the NLA once he turns 18. He had the option of joining the college hockey and played with a number of competitive programs, or played major junior hockey with the Everett Silvertips of the WHL. His third option, to go play professional hockey in Switzerland, may prove to be the wiser choice for his development. Granted, there is some risk that he could suffer an injury before being drafted while playing against older, bigger competition, but that risk exists wherever he plays. This way, he'll be competing against better competition, making some money, and he'll be able to play in the AHL immediately after being drafted if he doesn't make the NHL roster of the club that selected him.
This is the first time such a high profile prospect from North America has decided to go to Europe in his draft year. However don't expect this to become a regular thing; Matthews missed the 2015 Draft cut off by only two days (the cut-off date-of-birth for draft eligible prospects this year was was September 15, 1997; Matthews was born September 17th). He will turn 18 in September shortly after the NLA season starts. Because of Swiss work laws, he cannot obtain his work visa until he turns 18. Most draft eligible players don't turn 18 until later in the season and thus would not be able to play a full season in the NLA.
In addition to Matthews, Swiss born Nikolaj Ehlers is considering playing in the NLA if he does not make the NHL with the Winnipeg Jets this fall. He is in much the same position as Jonathan Drouin was last season: He is 19 years old and not eligible to play in the AHL. He was dominant in the QMJHL putting up over 100 points two seasons in a row for the Halifax Mooseheads. If he doesn't make the Jets, it would be a waste to send him back to Juniors.
While he may want to go to the Swiss league, there is the matter of his Entry Level Contract that he has signed with the Jets. For him to go to the NLA, he would have to be loaned by Winnipeg to whatever team he signs with. This is significant because it would use up a year of his Entry Level Contract whereas sending him to Juniors wouldn't. This puts the Jets into an interesting position from a business standpoint: If he doesn't make the NHL, either they do what's best for his development by sending him overseas and burning a year of his ELC, or send him back to Juniors where you could stunt his development but save a year on the ELC.
The Lightning have an example of development-over-business with Joel Vermin after selecting him in the 2013 NHL Draft, though they had the option of bringing him to the AHL since he was drafted out of Europe. Ultimately, Steve Yzerman signed him to an ELC and loaned him to SC Bern. While Vermin is only entering his second pro season in North America, he is on the last year of his ELC.
The Swiss league is competitive and is one of the better leagues in Europe. The beautiful country and the ease of living there makes it quite attractive for North American players, especially ones that do not wish to play in Russia in the KHL. Might we see more players choosing NLA as a place to make money before retiring? Might we see more draft prospects choosing that route? Time will tell.