TORONTO — There is a part of Shawn Matthias that has to wonder if the promise of NHL stability will remain forever dangling like a carrot at the end of a treadmill.
Within sight, but always a little out of reach.
His first half-season with the Maple Leafs certainly hasn’t gone to plan — not after scoring 18 goals in Vancouver last year and joining a rebuilding organization with hopes of building on that success.
The first sign of trouble actually came in July when he spent five roller-coaster days as a free agent before settling on a $2.3-million, one-year deal with Toronto. While he emerged better off than many of his peers, it set the stage for a second straight season where he is playing for a contract.
And that means a second straight year where he can’t help but wonder what the future will bring.
“Last year I put a lot of pressure on myself because you just don’t know what’s going to happen, and this year it’s kind of the same thing,” Matthias told Sportsnet on Wednesday. “It’s a little stressful. You want to be somewhere for a few years and get to know the guys on a personal level better. I mean it takes time to get to know guys, but that’s just how it is.
“You see a lot of guys around the league signing one-year deals; it’s just the way it was this summer and there’s not much I can do about that.”
All he can control is his own performance and with the recent injury to James van Riemsdyk he’s in line to get more of an opportunity to shine. Matthias certainly made excellent use of the 16-plus minutes of ice time he received during a 3-1 loss to Columbus, with coach Mike Babcock labelling it “probably one of his best nights.”
That represented the second-most he’s played in 40 games this season.
In fact, since mid-November Matthias has essentially been a fourth-liner for the Leafs, which is certainly not where he saw himself heading when he signed with his hometown team.
Not that the 27-year-old winger is complaining. It doesn’t seem to be in his character. He’s been around NHL dressing rooms long enough to know the drill by now.
“You’ve got to accept any role you’re given,” said Matthias. “I thought playing with (Brad Boyes) and (Byron Froese) we were doing a good job with the role we were given. We were playing in their end, we had good possession numbers, we were rolling around in the corners and making it hard for defencemen.
“Now it’s going to be a little bit different of game, but I think for myself I’ve just got to play the same style I’ve been playing: Getting in on the forecheck, winning puck battles, being hard and heavy down low and getting to the front of the net.”
On Wednesday night, he certainly used his size to dig pucks out and create plenty of opportunities for his linemates — although they weren’t able to get one behind Blue Jackets rookie Joonas Korpisalo.
“Those guys had tons of looks and they spent a lot of time as the game went on in the offensive zone,” said Babcock. “I thought he was real effective for them. I thought he really helped them out.”
As much as Matthias is focused on contributing to the team’s success, this is a period where he can help himself out, too. The coming summer isn’t likely to be much kinder to free agents thanks to a stalled salary cap, so a strong second half will help ease any job concerns.
The biggest challenge for Matthias in the weeks ahead will likely be having his named mentioned in rumours as the Feb. 29 trade deadline approaches.
“Well I’ve been hearing that since I signed the contract,” he said. “I think I’ve been hearing it all year. I’m sure I’ll hear it more — the noise will get louder — but I’m not going to worry about it.”
He’s hardly alone in a Leafs dressing room that is among the least secure places in the league. There are seven pending unrestricted free agents among the group, everyone from James Reimer to Roman Polak to Parenteau.
Matthias was involved in a deadline deal once before — part of the package Florida gave up to acquire Roberto Luongo in March 2014 — and that wound up being a positive experience for him.
He loved his time in Vancouver. He doesn’t see any reason why history won’t repeat itself if the Leafs decide to deal his expiring contract.
“Every (dressing) room’s the same, we’re all hockey guys,” said Matthias. “If it does happen, you’re making more friends and it’s another journey in this crazy life. You’re in the NHL and you’ve got to be thankful for that, appreciate that.
“Not a lot of guys get to spend this much time in the NHL so if you’ve got to play somewhere else, you’ve got to play somewhere else.”