TORONTO – Auston Matthews looks and sounds like a man refreshed.
Fresh dipped in a sheen burgundy suit and a pair of dress shoes that scream stylish and expensive — no tie, no socks — the young face of the Toronto Maple Leafs franchise barely resembles the one we saw humbled and frustrated in the wake of Game 7 agony in Boston three months ago.
For one, he’s got a (mostly neck) beard.
“You should see Willy Nylander,” Matthews says (and you can, here.) “It’s summer. You obviously let loose and have fun a little bit.”
But there’s more to it than a 20-year-old’s facial hair.
Back in Toronto to support Mitch Marner’s Assist Fund and attend Nazem Kadri’s wedding, he moves about a lakeside nightclub smiling easy, hugging Marner, chatting with Morgan Rielly, and mock-booing friend and now former teammate James van Riemsdyk when JVR gets introduced at the charity function.
After the Leafs blew three one-goal leads in Beantown, again ending their season in Round 1 of the playoffs, Matthews flew away to a beach in Mexico as rumblings of a (denied) rift between he and head coach Mike Babcock surfaced.
“Get away from life,” Matthews says.
Trading the spotlight for sunlight was healthy. So was being back home around family and friends in Arizona. Matthews suffered three different injuries and sat out 20 games in his sophomore year. Rest helps.
Babcock did travel out to Matthews’ home to chat in person and clear the air early in the off-season, but the star centre downplays the significance of that visit.
“It was just a discussion, you know?” Matthews says. “I think you [media] guys look too much into it. It probably would’ve been better if it wasn’t so out to the public. The conversation went well. You move on from it and you go forward. Obviously, both of us hope to be here for a long time.”
Babcock’s contract runs through 2022-23. He makes more money and has more job security than anyone running a bench.
A restricted free agent in 2019, Matthews has a chance to achieve a similar status as a player. The other elite centremen of his generation, Jack Eichel ($80 million) and Connor McDavid ($100 million), both inked monster eight-year extensions before they could play a single shift of a contract year.
The case against Matthews as the next nine-figure star: McDavid won a scoring race, a playoff series, and a Hart Trophy before earning his deal. Also, it’s nice to leave some cash on the table so your GM can build a balanced roster.
The case for: the salary cap has since gone up since the McDavid deal, and Matthews plays the most important position in Canada’s most scrutinized and revenue-generating hockey town.
New Leafs GM Kyle Dubas guaranteed that Toronto will fit extensions for Nylander, Matthews and Marner all under the cap. “We can, and we will,” Dubas asserted on the 31 Thoughts podcast. Dubas, however, has picked up former boss Lou Lamoriello’s mantra of “If you’ve got time, use it.”
Although contract discussions between the three dynamic forwards and management have begun, RFA Nylander remains unsigned with training camp a little over a month away, and Matthews has been told by both Dubas and his agent, Judd Moldaver, to be patient.
“They’ve obviously started [negotiating]. It’s not something I’m too in tune with. I let my agent and management handle that and focus on my summer, training, getting on the ice and being ready for the season,” says Matthews, unsure if pen will hit paper before puck hits dot. “When it gets done, it gets done, but I don’t think anybody’s in too big of a rush.”
Matthews says he was “pretty sad” to see Lamoriello depart, but every Leafs player we’ve spoken with this summer seems invigorated by Dubas’s ascension.
“His plan, his vision, everything he wants to accomplish, it’s very exciting,” Matthews says. “You wish Lou the best. My sisters loved him. My parents loved him. They were really close. So it’s sad to see him leave the organization, but I think everyone’s really excited we have Kyle Dubas.”
Moldaver would do well to drag Matt Martin into the negotiating room with he and Dubas. Martin, traded back to the Islanders this summer, is also back in town to see friends and speaks glowingly about his former teammate.
“Auston’s a pretty rare breed,” Martin says. “He took the league by storm. Scored 40 goals his first year. He would’ve had 40 if he played a full year last year. He’s going to continue to grow and be one of the best players in the world—if not the best player in the world—in time.”
The 2018-19 Leafs now boast the best centre depth in hockey. Matthews knew free-agent prize John Tavares from summer training sessions with Darryl Belfry, performance coach to the stars, and sharing a dressing room at the 2018 All-Star Game. So he called Tavares up during the UFA courting period to let him know he’d be welcome.
“He’s a guy who takes his craft very seriously, and he’s been one of the premier players in the NHL since he’s been in the league,” Matthews says. “We’re extremely excited to have John. He makes our team a lot better. It’s another step to reaching our ultimate goal.”
Tavares accepted a cap-friendly $77-million deal ($11 million AAV) and took less than he could’ve fetched elsewhere to join the already-loaded Leafs offence. Dubas no doubt hopes the example set by Tavares (as well as Connor Brown and others) of not driving for every penny trickles down.
In light of the Tavares addition (and, perhaps, the Arizona summit), Babcock will start camp with a rejigged top six. Matthews is penciled in to centre Nylander and Patrick Marleau, who replaces Zach Hyman on his left side.
“I’m excited about it. Me and Patty are really close. He’s been in the league for so long. He such a smart player. For his age, he still skates like the wind. He put up really good numbers [27 goals] last year—a guy that can finish,” Matthews says. “To play with a guy of his calibre, what he can on the ice, it’s pretty exciting for myself.”
Slated to join the Tavares-Marner duo, Hyman—known more for hard work than soft hands—shrugs off the switch.
“We have so many great players, whoever you play with, you’re going to have a good linemate.” Hyman says. “Every year you start fresh.”
Feels a little extra fresh this year, doesn’t it, Toronto?