TORONTO — To help Auston Matthews through the first offensive slowdown of his early NHL career, Mike Babcock has been employing video of Sidney Crosby and Henrik Zetterberg.
The Maple Leafs head coach has professed utmost confidence in Matthews throughout a November offensive slide, noting the difficulties of handling the centre-ice position as a first-year player. Matthews stormed out of the gate with six goals and 10 points in his first six games, including a historic four-goal outing in his NHL debut. He’s since slowed, at least production-wise, with no goals and only two assists in the past nine games.
The 19-year-old is still tied for second among all NHL rookies in scoring (12 points), four points behind the early leader Patrik Laine.
Babcock has observed subtle adjustments from Matthews over the past couple weeks, specifically the Arizona native’s dramatic improvement in the faceoff circle. Matthews went 43 per cent on the draw in the opening five games, 53 per cent in the following five and 61 per cent in the last five outings.
That was an indicator of rapid adjustment from a player who was just getting his bearings in hockey’s most competitive league.
"What he’s telling you already is he likes having the puck," Babcock said. "He’s sick and tired of chasing it already. So then the next thing he’s going to figure out if he stops in the right places on defence and puts his stick in the right place, the offensive players are going to keep giving it back to him and then his skill-set is going to come out.
"But the hardest part for a kid when you come in the National Hockey League is you never get the puck."
That’s where the video has come in handy.
In one-on-one sessions Babcock showed Matthews how Zetterberg, the long-time Red Wing, got the puck back just by standing in the right places defensively. He showed Matthews how when Crosby got the puck, he lured the defence out of position and then didn’t hesitate to make a play.
The Leafs are still badly outchancing the opposition with Matthews on the ice and puck possession indicators remain strong despite the lacking production. Matthews believes he’s grown stronger defensively in recent weeks. He also leads Toronto with 58 shots, though he last scored Oct. 25 against Tampa, a string of nine games.
Matthews was one of the few Leafs, however, to fare well in some respects in a Saturday loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Facing off primarily against the Penguins second pair of Olli Maatta and Trevor Daley, Matthews finished with a 56 per cent puck possession mark in nearly 16 five-on-five minutes.
He had only one shot though and was held pointless in the 4-1 defeat.
"In our situation we need him to be a dominant, dominant centre for us," Babcock said. "We think he’s going to be by Christmas time. We think he’s a very good player already. But we think he can be lights out both with and without the puck."