VANCOUVER — Mediocre is not a word often associated with Auston Matthews, and so when Kasperi Kapanen used it to describe the recent quality of the line he shares with Matthews and Andreas Johnsson, it stood out like a blown third-period lead by the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The towering centre agrees, too. There’ve been signs of life, such as the strong possession game and five scoring chances generated against the Canucks this week, but as they set off for Edmonton, it felt as though they were in search of something.
“I think we can be a lot better,” said Matthews. “Our strength is our speed. When we take care of the puck and we just get it in their zone, I mean we’re fast. Pretty agile, can make plays, move around in the offensive zone.
“I think a good goal for us is just to spend more time in the O-zone, hang on to pucks and [start] creating chances below the dots.”
Matthews identified that as the area where the game is played during the stretch drive and into the playoffs. He’s already felt the space in the neutral zone tighten and seen opponents collapse around their goaltenders.
Ingenuity might be his greatest asset — the special ingredient that makes him something more than a big centre with a deadly shot — and the task before him now is to find a way to break through, to be unpredictable, to find new ways to generate goals.
Before Matthews went up against Connor McDavid and the Oilers last week, he spoke of working towards the best version of himself: “Obviously there’s guys that are in the league like Connor, like Sid, that are kind of on their own level. I think guys look at that and they want to be on their level, obviously. But for myself, I measure myself to my own standard and I just want to be the best player I can be.”
He’s taken steps in his third NHL season, but can’t escape the echo of the left shoulder injury that cost him 14 games and virtually all of November. He’d scored 10 goals through 11 games when he took that jarring hit from Winnipeg’s Jacob Trouba. He’s added another 20 in the 42 games since returning to the lineup, a hair below his typical otherworldly pace.
“The injury sets you back a bit,” Matthews said after practice at Rogers Arena. “Probably about a month or two after, I felt like I got my legs back.”
That was roughly a month ago. It’s been a journey.
“It takes time, it’s hard. You can do so much stuff in the gym, but until you really get back in the game it’s really tough to get into game shape without playing games and practising every day and being in that setting, the pace,” said Matthews.
The season is in full gallup now and the Leafs are due to get stronger with Nazem Kadri ready to rejoin the lineup for Saturday’s game. He sat out the last eight while recovering from a concussion and head coach Mike Babcock hopes that layoff will provide a silver lining for his third-line centre — a little extra rest before the playoff grind sets in.
On the Johnsson-Matthews-Kapanen trio, Babcock was encouraged by how they played in a 3-2 loss to Vancouver on Wednesday. That game saw Kapanen use his speed to chase down pucks and disrupt defenders, while the only thing that kept Matthews from cashing on a couple Grade-A opportunities was sharp positioning from Canucks goalie Jacob Markstrom.
“I thought they were pretty good last game, to be honest with ya,” said Babcock. “I didn’t like ‘em as much in Calgary [on Monday], but they’ve done a pretty good job. The biggest thing is taking care of the puck. Auston’s a big man, he can roll around, and Johnny has that skill-set and so does Kappy.
“You’re playing in one zone or the other, pretty much. If you don’t have it, they have it, and that means you’re playing defence. It’s way more fun playing in the offensive zone.”
Hence why the trio has spent time reviewing video during this road trip. They’ve been held without a goal since the 6-2 victory over Edmonton on Feb. 27 — a night where Johnsson scored one at even strength and another on the power play — and are looking for ways to curb the trend.
“Once we’re going, it doesn’t matter what team we’re playing against. I think we can play against anybody,” Kapanen said this week. “It’s just us not being 100 per cent, but thank God we still have games left before playoffs.”
For Matthews, it boils down to a simple formula. A set of steps that should lead to more scoring chances and sustained shifts at the proper end of the ice.
“Making sure we get pucks through, guys to the net, have good structure, use some creativity and not just do the same stuff over and over again,” he said.
Heading to Edmonton, the Matthews line is looking for a breakthrough. Something fresh, with a chance to produce the old results.