TORONTO — The only other three players to score in their first four season openers already have a spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
That’s the company Auston Matthews now keeps in the NHL record book.
It may at first blush seem like trivia or coincidence that the Toronto Maple Leafs centre always grabs the spotlight when the bright lights first get fired up, but those around the organization insist it’s anything but.
Matthews is a unicorn who hones his craft with meticulous precision during the off-season. He and skills coach Darryl Belfry are famous for going under the hood in search of ways to tease more performance out of one of the NHL’s sleekest Lamborghini’s.
The results speak for themselves: An unfathomable nine goals — two of which came in Wednesday’s 5-3 victory over the Ottawa Senators — across the four curtain-raisers so far in his NHL career.
“He’s that kind of player, right?” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. “He has the chance to be a generational player.”
“I guess as teammates you become a bit used to it, but I think when you take a step back and look at it, it’s pretty impressive,” added defenceman Morgan Rielly.
Matthews was a wrecking ball on the night John Tavares was officially unveiled as Leafs captain, and he joined Rielly and Mitch Marner as an alternate. He outshot the Senators 5-3 on his own during the second period and outscored them, 2-1.
There had been prevailing thought in these parts that he was in line for the “C” himself — including in this corner — at least until word surfaced last week about the complaint for disorderly conduct he received following a drunken incident outside his condo building in Scottsdale, Ariz., in May.
Matthews is alleged to have dropped his pants, but not his underwear, after he and a group of friends attempted to open the car of a female security guard.
It was an unfortunate, regrettable incident only made worse by the fact the Leafs front office got blindsided by the news when the story broke on Twitter. While that didn’t factor into the decision to make Tavares captain, general manager Kyle Dubas told reporters on Wednesday night, it did raise some questions about how Matthews might handle the very public nature of his job after a self-described “error in judgment.”
“I would like to think he put it behind him the day [he] owned it,” said Babcock. “I’m a big believer in that because we all make huge mistakes. The second you own it, you can fix it and that’s the whole key.
“What he did at the time or he didn’t, he owned it. That’s it, it’s done. You forgive yourself. You’ve got to love yourself first to share yourself with other people.”
This should not be confused with a redemption narrative or an attempt to find a silver lining. However, with the legal situation still pending in Arizona and Matthews’s side of the story still untold, it’s notable that the organization made a public show of faith by including him in its leadership group.
“I’m happy to be wearing a letter in general and just playing hockey with this team,” said Matthews. “We’ve got a special group.”
This has all of the makings of a special season. Matthews has already established himself as the NHL’s most dangerous 5-on-5 scorer and begins his fourth year playing alongside a rejuvenated William Nylander, who found him with a lovely 2-on-1 pass for his first goal against Ottawa.
It was Marner’s no-look cross-seam feed that opened a window for his second goal on the power play, albeit one that required Matthews to perfectly place his shot up under the bar behind Craig Anderson.
His night also included a goal post among a game-high 14 shot attempts. There was even a hint of one of his new tools when he appeared tempted to go for a lacrosse-style goal while circling behind the net in the second period.
“I think that’s one of the cool things about his game is that he works really hard at it during the summer and he comes back and he’s always doing a move or he always moves a bit different than he has in the past and that’s pretty impressive,” said Rielly. “When you think about how good he was last year to come back and appear to be better, it’s pretty cool.”
Scoring for a fourth straight opening night put Matthews alongside Dit Clapper, Dave Andreychuk and Sergei Fedorov as those to have done it.