On March 11, 2003, Marc-Andre Bergeron made his NHL debut. In 13:11 of ice time for Edmonton, the hard-shooting defenseman landed two pucks on net.
Auston Matthews, one of Bergeron's current teammates in Switzerland, was 5 years old at the time.
Had Matthews been born two days earlier, he would have been eligible for the 2015 NHL Draft. It's a good bet that Arizona, his hometown team, would have picked Matthews third overall after Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel.
But because he was born on Sept. 17, 1997, the Scottsdale native is waiting until June to become NHL property. He is a slam dunk to go first overall.
Matthews is already a man at 6 feet 2 inches, 210 pounds. He projects to be similar to Anze Kopitar: a rugged but skilled left-shot center who is strong on the puck, defensively reliable, and capable of making high-level offensive plays. Matthews may not have the top-end speed of McDavid and Eichel. But he can lug the puck, protect it from opponents, and control the game in the dirty areas of the offensive zone.
This season, Matthews is doing something neither McDavid nor Eichel, his teenage peers, found fit to do: play against men with mortgages and children, not just beards.
Through 22 games for Zurich in Switzerland's National League A, Matthews has 14 goals and 11 assists for 25 points, second most on the team. Robert Nilsson, the Islanders' first-round pick in 2003, leads the club with 30 points in 30 games. Former Boston College captain Ryan Shannon, who won a Stanley Cup ring with Anaheim in 2006, is third on the team in scoring, six points off Matthews's pace. Former NHL coach Marc Crawford is in charge of Zurich's bench.
"He's really been focusing on my defensive-zone play and positioning without the puck," Matthews said. "Obviously at that level there's so many highly skilled players. They can really burn you in the defensive end. He's really just been focusing on my defensive game and positioning, then kind of letting me do my thing offensively, which has been nice."
It is not a traditional approach to a draft year. The last nine first overall picks (McDavid, Aaron Ekblad, Nathan MacKinnon, Nail Yakupov, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall, John Tavares, Steven Stamkos, Patrick Kane) played Canadian junior hockey before they were selected.
Matthews could have become the 10th. The WHL's Everett Silvertips held Matthews's junior rights. But because he turned 18 by the start of the 2015-16 season, he was eligible to play overseas. Upon consultation with his family and agent Pat Brisson, Matthews concluded he would be best served playing with and against men instead of alongside 16-year-olds.
"Maybe a run-and-gun type of game," recalled Loui Eriksson, who played for Davos in Switzerland during the 2012-13 lockout, and also for Crawford in Dallas. "Everyone went everywhere. There wasn't that much structure in the game, I felt like, on our team. But the quality was pretty good, though. Good players, players who could make plays. It was good."
The infrastructure is set up to help Matthews succeed in Switzerland. He is living with his mother. Crawford has watched over Matthews's development while pushing his team for wins. The club held him out of November's Deutschland Cup, an annual tournament, because of a back injury, which Matthews termed a precautionary move.
While Matthews missed the Deutschland tournament, he is preparing for his second spin in the World Junior Championship. Last year, Matthews and teammates such as Eichel and Norwood's Noah Hanifin finished fifth. This season, Matthews will lead Team USA's charge toward a medal.
On Monday at Boston University's Agganis Arena, Matthews kicked off a week of practice with his American teammates in preparation for the World Juniors. Matthew Tkachuk, son of former NHL star Keith Tkachuk, was riding on Matthews's left. Alex DeBrincat, McDavid's junior teammate, was Matthews's right wing.
Former NHL coach Ron Wilson watched over the session. In San Jose, Wilson coached a big and skilled center in Joe Thornton. Matthews has some similarities with the ex-Bruin.
"Only great things is what I see," Wilson said. "He handles the puck. He controls the puck when he's on the ice. He sees the ice very well. He dishes the puck very well. DeBrincat's going to have to get used to going around the front of the net and just have his stick on the ice. The puck's going to get there. Matthew Tkachuk loves to make plays around the net and has a knack for doing that. I think that line was made for us."
Matthews is an anomaly. The majority of draft-eligible players will come from junior hockey. But as a trailblazer, Matthews is proving that his route can work for exceptional talents.
"In the future, that's going to give everybody some new ideas, especially the Swiss clubs, that they can recruit North American kids to come and play in their league," Wilson said. "The player will be able to fit in and do a good job. It takes a special guy to be able to do that. I think with his success, you're going to see a lot of guys start to do that. I don't know what that's going to have for American college or Canadian junior hockey. But he has set a precedent, that's for sure."
Ex-Bruin Ference using his head
Andrew Ference still looks like a hockey player. The 36-year-old pushed himself through a hard skate on Monday morning at TD Garden, long after his younger Oilers teammates had left the rink. At the start of the season, Ference blew a career-best on his VO2 max test.
But his 2015-16 résumé says otherwise. The former Edmonton captain has dressed for just six games. He is under contract for one more season at $3.25 million annually. Ference does not intend to retire. Two-time boss Peter Chiarelli will have to buy out the defenseman to drop him from the roster.
As much as Ference dislikes his situation, he understands why it's taking place.
"It's part of the evolution," Ference said. "I took someone's job when I was younger. Someone's taken mine. It's part of the deal."
With all this in his present and future, Ference is happy he is just one semester away from earning a certificate in corporate sustainability from Harvard Extension School. It will be up to his daughters, joked the ex-Bruin, to make him a cap and gown if he wants to go through a full-blown graduation.
"It's no fun not playing and doing the extra work and all that stuff," Ference said. "But there's more to life."
Ference does not have an undergraduate degree. He played junior hockey in Portland before turning pro. So while he can't pursue a master's degree, his certificate will allow him to pursue interests such as green technology, civic engagement, and venture capitalism. They are avenues that excite Ference now and promise to continue doing so as he ages. He could not say the same about hockey.
So while the sport is not giving Ference what he wants now, he is not playing doom-and-gloom in what is likely to be his final season. He's used hockey as both a platform and a launching pad to propel him into the next segment of his life. Ference does not intend to linger once he's done.
"Coaches work way too hard," Ference said. "The video would make me crazy. I don't think I'm cut out for that."
New skates helping Rask
Tuukka Rask does not like change. While other goalies regularly freshen paint jobs on their masks, the Bruins puck-stopper has made a habit of his regular design: Rask on the chin, bear claws around the spoked-B on the temples, the Finnish flag on the back plate.
But so far, an in-season skate swap has paid off.
This season, Bauer released a prototype of a new goalie skate. Most goalies wear skates with the boots tucked into plastic cowlings. The cowlings help to protect goalies' feet from pucks. But the cowlings also restrict how far goalies can lean into their inside edges before the plastic slams into the ice.
Bauer's new Supreme 1S did away with the cowlings. Rask first played with the 1S skates in a 3-2 loss to Colorado on Nov. 12.
"It's a bulky, plastic part. It's traditional. The way it's been forever," said Garnet Alexander, Bauer's director of development services. "What we've done is remove that cowling and just had a built-up toe cap. It allows the goalie to get a better angle of attack on the ice. They're able to make a better push with moving laterally. Goalies are telling us they can get a foot on each post, get that low, and still have grip on their skates. The cowling was touching the ice, so it was limiting the angle of attack."
That Rask even took delivery of his skates required good luck. It just so happened that on Nov. 7, when the Bruins were in Montreal, a Bauer representative had a size-10 pair of 1S skates that had been used for display. Rask is a size 10. Rask, who was backing up Jonas Gustavsson that night, tried the skates that morning. He liked them.
Rask did not wear them the following night against the Islanders, but debuted them Nov. 12 against the Avalanche. They have been on his feet ever since.
"You get a better edge lower," Rask said. "You get more edge when you're butterflying or when you have to lift your knee that high to get an edge. That and the lightness are the biggest differences."
Bauer has equipped Rask with replacement blades. But if something happens to the boots, Rask will be out of luck because they are a one-off prototype pair.
Rask did not start the season well. Neither did his teammates. Rask's performance has been much better in the last month, which also has coincided with an uptick in the team's play.
So it may be a coincidence that Rask has a .939 save percentage and three shutouts in the first 12 games he's played while wearing his new skates. His save percentage was .902 in 10 games before making the switch. But Rask said he feels good in his new skates. For goalies, feeling good is the most important thing.
Draisaitl is a keeper
On Oct. 24, Leon Draisaitl played his sixth game of the season in Bakersfield. It was the last time Draisaitl will be seen in the AHL. The Edmonton center, recalled on Oct. 29, has been one of the best centers in the league since his varsity call-up. Through 22 games, Draisaitl had nine goals and eight assists while averaging 18:36 of ice time. Draisaitl's heavy, professional, and reliable presence has meshed well with Taylor Hall on Edmonton's top line. Draisaitl can protect the puck, wait for Hall to get open, and let his fast-paced linemate loose. Draisaitl (0-0—0, one shot on net, 16:13 of ice time) didn't make much noise on Monday against the Bruins' Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara. Not many players do. Otherwise, Draisaitl has been a consistent three-zone force. "He's been able to take his summer message and apply it, and that was to get a little bit quicker, a little bit stronger," said Edmonton coach Todd McLellan. "He took his demotion to the American League earlier in the year very well. Bit of a chip on his shoulder, which helped him, I think. Since he's been back, he's proven to us he doesn't want to see that league ever again. The way he's playing, I think it's fair to say that [won't] happen."
Lemelin shows old-school moves
On Wednesday, following a tuneup for the Bruins-Canadiens alumni game that will precede the Winter Classic, Reggie Lemelin walked off the ice with a pair of antiques strapped to his legs. "I had to go upstairs to the museum to get them," cracked the ex-Bruins goalie. But in contrast to contemporary goalie Andrew Raycroft's pads, Lemelin's pillows looked like relics. They were smaller, heavier, and covered a lot less real estate than the pads today's goalies wear. Today, goalies' skyscraping size and bloated equipment allow them to play deep in the crease, take away everything down low, and choke the offense out of the game. Had he attempted the same approach, the 5-foot-11-inch, 170-pound Lemelin would have been scraping pucks out of his crease every other minute. Instead, Lemelin turned to his athleticism and instinct to backstop the Bruins into the playoffs. In 1987-88, upon his arrival from Calgary, Lemelin posted an .889 save percentage. Such a number would be laughed at today. "Totally different," Lemelin said of the modern puck-stopping approach. "But it's the way we were raised. If you look at [Jack] Nicklaus and his equipment, he was shooting under par then. Today's equipment is totally different, but they're still shooting under par."
Daley looking for expanded role
Things didn't work out in Chicago for Trevor Daley. In 29 games, the ex-Dallas Star had zero goals and six assists while logging 14:45 of ice time per outing. So the Blackhawks traded Daley to Pittsburgh for former Boston College defenseman Rob Scuderi last Monday. It was the first player-to-player swap of the season. Pittsburgh also retained part of Scuderi's salary, which will allow the Blackhawks to save approximately $1 million in cap space. Of the two defensemen, Daley projects to have more juice left in his legs and stick. The left-shot Daley had a career year in Dallas last season, scoring 16 goals and 22 assists in 68 games. In theory, Daley's assets should have meshed with Chicago's up-tempo, get-the-puck-out approach. In practice, it didn't work out.
Old friend Hal Gill is doing some traveling as the Panthers' manager of player development. Otherwise, Gill is preparing for the alumni game in which he'll dress as a Bruin, even though he was a Canadien for three seasons. During Wednesday's tuneup, Gill played alongside Brian Leetch. A Gill-Leetch pairing could still log regular NHL shifts . . . Former North Stars coach Glen Sonmor died on Monday. He was 86 years old. The NHL fined Sonmor $1,000 after a brawl-filled game against the Bruins on Feb. 26, 1981. Sonmor challenged then-coach Gerry Cheevers to a fight after the game . . . If you believed, after 26 games, that Tyler Randell would have four times as many goals as Ryan Getzlaf, you also trust the big fellow in the red suit will leave one of those red-ribboned coupes in your driveway.
A big reason the Penguins fired Mike Johnston just 28 games into his second season as coach is Pittsburgh's surprising inability to put the puck in the net. As of Johnston's dismissal, the Penguins ranked 26th in the league in goals per game, a full goal less than what they averaged three seasons ago when they led the NHL — while taking as many shots on net as they did in the 2012-13 season. A declining power play is also to blame for Pittsburgh's problems.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.