I’m on record as saying that, before he finishes his tenure with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Auston Matthews will be recognized as the greatest center in franchise history. Granted, the unexpected might happen to erase that possibility.
For example, we have no idea yet about the long-term physical or mental effects of having contracted the COVID-19 virus. Could that impact his future play? Or, might Matthews suffer a debilitating injury that snuffs out his career much too early? Or, might he do a Bjorn Borg (tennis) or a Michael Jordan (basketball) and retire because he’s lost his love of hockey? Although Jordan eventually came back, his actions show the stress of being a star might have on a person.
However, if none of those things happen, Matthews seems on the way to an impactful career. In 2016-17, still in his teens, he scored 40 goals and won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. Furthermore, every season, Matthews grows stronger, faster, more driven, more confident, and more experienced in understanding the game. Watching him offensively, there’s nothing he believes he can’t do. He’s become a virtual highlight reel.
Matthews Added Defense to His Game
Matthews was clearly the best Maple Leafs player this season. Although it’s clichéd to say, he “raised his game to another level.” He became a two-way player, which means he’s growing into a great defensive player as well as being elite on offense.
He’s the driver and the face of the team. Furthermore, and a fact that bodes well for the Maple Leafs as they face a short play-in series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Matthews starts every season on a hot streak. He’s been doing that throughout his career. This season, he scored five goals in the team’s first three games and only went scoreless in more than three games once all season.
Matthews not only led the team offensively, but he also became more physically engaged in the defensive zone. He’s not a player to run anyone over the boards – which is a good sign for his longevity – but he doesn’t need to. He’s learning to utilize his size and strength effectively by taking good defensive angles on opponents carrying the puck and by his skating ability, which seems underrated.
As an aside, Matthews was a young student in Arizona of little-known Boris Dorozhenko, who helped him develop his skating skills. Dorozhenko, a former professional hockey player from the Soviet Union who emigrated to Mexico, first met Matthews at an Arizona hockey camp in 2005 when Matthews was only seven. Matthews was taught Dorozhenko’s system. Who knew this a kid learning hockey fundamentals would be an NHL star?
As a result, adding Matthews’ skating ability to his growing hockey IQ and experience has made him a more effective two-way player. Indeed, he has grown into one of the most dominant two-way players in the NHL.
Matthews Career Season in 2019-20
Offensively, in 2019-20 Matthews had a record-breaking career season both personally and franchise-wise. When the season came to a sudden stop, he was on his way to a franchise-record season. Had he played the full 82-game schedule, there’s a chance he would have broken Rick Vaive’s 1981-82 record of 54 goals and also come close to a 100-point season. As it stands, with the season now over, Matthews’ 47 goals came up one short of Rocket Richard Trophy co-winners, David Pastrnak and Alex Ovechkin.
He’s also grown in his ability to generate offensive opportunities for himself and his teammates. He’s shown an ability to limit scoring chances from the opposition. Matthews’ philosophy seems simple: when you’re on the ice, always have the puck in the other team’s end. As a result, his line generated quality-scoring chances at an elite rate and Matthews converted for a league-leading 30 goals at 5-on-5.
He might not be recognized as one of the top defensive players in the NHL because he doesn’t kill penalties; however, opposing teams seem unable to generate shot attempts in front with Matthews on the ice.
Matthews’ growing defensive prowess include tying the Vegas Golden Knights’ Mark Stone for second in takeaways with 78. Only the Carolina Hurricanes’ Jaccob Slavin had more with 81. He was also among the top 20 NHL players in faceoff percentage with 55%. He led the team among forwards and was 12th among all NHL forwards with 60 blocked shots, which was unexpected.
Although Matthews’ offense is growing more impressive every season, it’s encouraging that his defensive acumen is also expanding. His puck skills and hockey sense have begun to translate to both zones, making him tough to play against all over the ice. He might be the most talented player on the team, and that’s saying something with Mitch Marner on the same roster.
Matthews’ commitment to tracking the play and stripping pucks from opponents led to multiple transition opportunities. When he gains the puck with the other team going a different way, watch out.
Matthews has always been among the NHL’s elite scorers. His wrist shot is his weapon of choice, but this season, he’s grown more adept at shooting an amazingly quick and accurate one-timer. He can blister the puck at the net. His ability to stick-handle his way up the entire ice or beat goalies from a distance is the stuff of late-night sports highlights.
What to Expect Against the Blue Jackets
Matthews regularly faces the opposition’s top defense, and he’s done well all season against such competition. The Blue Jackets are tough to play defensively. But the Maple Leafs have an elite offensive unit, and Matthews is fast out of the gate after long breaks in play. Unless he’s suffering from COVID-19-related symptoms we don’t know about, he should be unstoppable when the play-in round begins.
Matthews also lifts his game during the playoffs. Last season he was the team’s best player in their first-round series against the Boston Bruins. He scored six points (including five goals) in that seven-game series. He’s also coming off a career season, after a long layoff. He’ll be ready to play and hungry to score.
In addition, as teammate Morgan Rielly noted, the Maple Leafs are playing with a chip on their shoulder and want to “prove people wrong.” You get the feeling that the whole team is tired of being postseason patsies.
Whatever happens during the postseason and into the future, watching Matthews will be pure entertainment. He’s a combination of skill and swagger with absolute confidence. I think he’s ready for the spotlight. The only question left for me is whether this might be the season the Maple Leafs as a team comes through.