Auston Matthews a likely all-star, despite Lamoriello’s preference

The Montreal Canadiens continued their dominance over the Toronto Maple Leafs winning for the 13th consecutive time.

Even in an almost-half season of exceeding expectations, controversy in Toronto is a given.

You’d think that the Maple Leafs could somehow avoid it for a few days in the news cycle, especially when things are giddily good. Even with a 5-3 loss to Montreal at the ACC Saturday night, Toronto is still five games over .500 with 39 contests in the books.

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The Leafs posted the worst record in the NHL last season but, with a rookie-laden roster, they are where few among them imagined possible in the fall: contending for a playoff spot.

And when you look at their best player across that stretch, you’d think that he’d be no source of controversy whatsoever. Even after going pointless in the loss to the Canadiens, Auston Matthews has 21 goals and 35 points.

A half year after being selected with the top pick in the draft, Matthews finds himself where even the most rabid Leafs fans only dreamed he’d be: lurking around the top of the league goal-scoring leaders. OK, maybe they allowed themselves to dream after his four-goal NHL debut in Ottawa, but still, you’d have to believe Matthews’ life should be tempest free.

Lou Lamoriello is in his second year as Toronto’s general manager but he has picked up on the spirit of the thing. With the Leafs going into a mid-season four-day hiatus, breaking out in good news all around, someone needed to whip up something.

Thus it has come down second- and third-handed that Maple Leafs management wouldn’t be unhappy if Matthews stayed home rather than go for a casual skate at the all-star weekend in Los Angeles.

I don’t have the stats in front of me but it’s a metaphysical certainty that an NHL player can get into more trouble if he doesn’t mingle with the stars and instead goes to Vegas or the Caribbean. The risk of injury in the all-star festivities—“game” so overstates it—is probably on par with a couple of rounds of air hockey.

Supposedly Lamoriello isn’t keen on his young star getting eyestrain looking up at the spotlight. Or that the franchise player might come back with sunburn and an inflamed ego. Or that a teenager really shouldn’t be around a bunch of louche veterans in the league’s elite.

Which is all pretty rich and entirely Lamoriello’s history.

When Lou was in New Jersey, he earned a reputation for patience in the development of young talent. Extreme patience. It wasn’t just that 18- and 19-year-old players need not apply. It wasn’t just that an extended AHL apprenticeship was what you signed on for. It went way beyond that. Prime example: Sergei Brylin had his name engraved on the Stanley Cup in June and was back down in Albany in October. And the October after that. That was the Devils’ culture.

It must be said be that Lamoriello never had a teenager whose talents were in the range of Matthews.

This, of course, is not a collision course. This isn’t a deal-breaker. Lou is 74 and Matthews will be in the organization when the GM is rolled out for alumni events only. Lou isn’t a father figure but a grandfather figure.

Of course, Lamoriello’s organization never gave a damn about the stuff that draws attention to the league and its players. The Devils were notorious for keeping their players’ profiles low. If Lamoriello had his druthers in New Jersey he’d probably take their names off their sweaters. Maybe their numbers.

He could do that in Jersey because the Devils won a lot more than they lost for a long time and he had Cups he could dine out on. He could do that in Jersey because the Devils weren’t anybody’s priority in the media or the general population. That was the reason that they were David Puddy’s team.

If he hasn’t noticed yet, someone should tell Lou that he’s not in Secaucus anymore.

Toronto fans have waited a long time for games that matter. They’ve waited a long time for a young talent who can pass for a franchise player and can survive the spotlight. Previous management envisioned Phil Kessel as that—make your case either way on the former count but on the latter he was ill-suited.

Saturday night was far from a great game for Matthews going into the four-game break but it wasn’t so very bad. He still wins what looks like a 50-50 puck four times out of seven. It’s uncanny. He competed on every shift, didn’t act out when things didn’t go his way.

When he wasn’t on the first power play—or even the second—in the second period, when he wasn’t the choice to go out in a four-on-four situation, his fire didn’t go out. And as admirable as the likes of Zach Hyman, Connor Brown, William Nylander and whoever else lands on his wings are, you wonder exactly where Matthews might be in the league scoring with an established veteran threat alongside him.

What would he be doing with, say, Alexander Radulov on his right side. I get that you don’t go out to the open market and sign Radulov, not because of his mixed history, simply because you’re trying to develop talent. But still, Radulov killed the Leafs on Saturday.

Matthews, of course, should go to the all-star game if he stays healthy. I’d bet that he will go and it won’t be a matter of a kid getting his way but rather those invested in the Leafs—that being both ownership and the fans.

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