Forty goals, 69 total points and the 2017 Calder Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie. With that haul in the bag, it’s safe to say Auston Matthews exceeded expectations during his first go-round in the big leagues with the Toronto Maple Leafs .
But don’t count head coach Mike Babcock among those crowning him as one of the league’s next kings just yet.
The veteran bench boss has heaped plenty of praise on Matthews for the exceptional campaign, but he suggested the onus is on the young centreman – and his fellow young stars – to prove they can do it all again if they want to truly enter the league’s upper echelon.
“Obviously we have good young players. We have a lot of them,” Babcock said to NHL.com’s Adam Kimelman at the World Junior Summer Showcase on Monday. “It’s kind of a group that’s growing up together. But it’s one year and one year doesn’t make a career. You have to do it again and again and again.”
The line of critics gathering to doubt Matthews’ ability to post an equally impressive 2017-18 effort is likely a very short one, especially after Matthews followed up his impressive regular season with four goals and five points through the first six playoff games of his career – against the Washington Capitals, no less.
However, Babcock said he’s concerned with more than just his young star’s stat line.
“I don’t measure guys by points,” Babcock said. “I measure guys by how they play and how they compete every day and how much better they get in their determination. We’re excited to see what (Matthews) can do. He feels he’s a real good player and wants to be one of the best players in the game.”
Even after proving himself as arguably the best of his draft class, and perhaps among the best in the league overall, Matthews’ coach sees room to take another step.
“He really improved his 200-foot game last year, more and more pace,” Babcock said of Matthews. “He’s gotten way better without the puck so he has the puck more He can play against everybody. He’s got a lot of growth options.”
While there’s always reason to be wary of the sophomore slump, the fact that Matthews should return in his second season one year stronger, wiser, and with the same cast of exceptional young teammates, should give him all the opportunity needed to keep his stock trending upwards.
It’s fair to assume he’ll have plenty of motivation, what with fellow new-school young gun Connor McDavid enjoying a historic summer that included a sizeable trophy haul and a hefty $100-million contract extension.
With his rookie year in the books, 2017-18 will provide the young Leaf an opportunity to show the hockey world just how small or large the gap between the two young phenoms truly is.