TORONTO – Auston Matthews couldn’t buy a goal and, even worse, barely found himself with an opportunity to score one.
We’re not talking about the current seven-game stretch in which the Toronto Maple Leafs rookie has one lone assist, but a particularly gruesome run at the end of his tenure with the ZSC Lions in Switzerland last season.
“I remember there was a good five, six, seven games where I wasn’t scoring and I wasn’t playing well either,” Matthews said Thursday.
That experience has instilled the 19-year-old centre with some perspective about his current plight. More than anything, Matthews has been on the wrong end of scoring luck. He’s generated the most shot attempts by any Leafs player in five of his seven goalless games, including an impressive 32 over the last four alone.
Perhaps this is his penance for scoring four times in the first two periods of his NHL career. That was clearly unsustainable.
What has impressed those around the team is the way the 19-year-old has handled the cold stretch; there’s been no pouting off the ice or evidence of him cheating for chances on it.
“I think they’re doing pretty good, but there’s going to be ebbs and flows in the league,” said coach Mike Babcock. “You just want your ups to be a lot longer than your downs. You want your downs to be real short.”
The all-rookie line featuring Matthews, William Nylander and Zach Hyman continues to top the Leafs in puck possession and has shown itself well on the scoring chances tracked internally by the coaching staff.
Babcock is leaning heavily on that group – giving Matthews more even-strength ice time than any of his other forwards – while also trying to find them some comfortable minutes by deploying Nazem Kadri against the best players on the opposing team.
The coach acknowledged that he could make the transition to the NHL easier on Matthews by using him on the wing, but isn’t seriously considering that option.
“It’s way harder to be a dominant centreman in the league,” said Babcock.
Each of Toronto’s forward lines and defence pairs remained intact after getting hammered 7-0 by the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday night. The coach has shown more patience with those combinations than he might otherwise because he doesn’t feel he has the right pieces to form new ones.
Babcock has instead used two practice days to focus on regaining some structure heading into back-to-back games against Philadelphia and Pittsburgh on Friday and Saturday.
The Leafs did a good job of controlling shot attempts earlier in the season, but have gotten away from that during the recent stretch of games.
They should also soon be able to count on more production from Matthews, who leads all NHL rookies with 54 shots and is third in rookie points with 11. There’s a belief that he’s due for a breakthrough performance.
“I mean he’s hit how many posts and crossbars?” said Hyman.
“Sometimes the puck honestly just doesn’t go your way and you get in these little slumps,” said Matthews. “But I think the good thing is that we are creating these opportunities, and we’re getting these point-blank chances.
“We’ve just got to keep shooting, keep going, and some of these things are going to start to fall.”
There was no hint of frustration in his voice.
Matthews’ ability to see the big picture is particularly impressive given his age and the spotlight he’s operating under. It appears to have equipped him well for life in a hockey-mad city, where these types of storylines occasionally take on a life of their own.
It is also a reminder of how valuable his time spent abroad was last season. He blazed a new trail by playing professionally in Switzerland during his draft year and has benefitted from experiencing the ups and downs of hockey at its highest levels.
“You’re going to fall into these things,” said Matthews. “You’ve just got to stay level-headed – you can’t get too high, can’t get too low. Going into the season I knew it was going to happen. Everybody goes through them – it doesn’t matter if you’re Patrick Kane or Sidney Crosby, everybody has these slumps.
“It’s just a matter of working hard and you’ll get out of it. Just continue to keep pushing.”
Really, it’s only a matter of time.