TORONTO – Immediately after saying how honoured he was to be voted captain of the Atlantic Division for the 2019 NHL All-Star Game, Auston Matthews hit the nail on the head with his next comment.
“With the way it’s set up, obviously a lot of very deserving guys won’t be able to go,” Matthews said Thursday, following his first practice since Christmas with the Marleaus.
“We’ve had four or five guys who’ve made huge impacts night in and night out on this team: Mitch [Marner], John [Tavares], Morgan [Rielly], Freddy [Andersen] are all really deserving to go and compete in this game.”
As dominant as their individual campaigns have been, barring a series of unforeseen injuries or dropouts, we won’t see the Maple Leafs roll five-deep through San Jose on Jan. 25-26.
The NHL wishes that all 31 clubs send at least one representative, and the Leafs are far from the only team that should expect a high-profile snub as a result.
Joining Matthews are Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon and Alex Ovechkin as the divisional superstars nominated by fans via online ballots (the voting tallies were not revealed by the league). With the exception of Ovechkin, who referred to himself as the group’s “old horse,” the other captains all dressed as Team North America mates at the 2016 World Cup.
“It’s just the way the game’s trending — young guys coming up being able to make an impact early in their careers and continue to get better,” Matthews reasoned.
“It’s fun to watch. It’s fun to be a part of and play in this type of game now, where it’s just fast and skilled. It’s still physical — guys are still competing out there — but it’s definitely not how it used to be. It’s evolving.
“I’m really grateful to be able to play in a market like Toronto and have such passionate fans that go out of their way to vote for you and do that kinda stuff. It means a lot to me as a player and as a person and being part of Toronto.”
Matthews gets to wear a letter on his sweater (hey!) despite missing 38 per cent of Toronto’s games due to a shoulder injury.
“Well deserved,” Rielly said. “One of the best players in the world, so… shocker.”
The 21-year-old Matthews’ 19 goals and 34 points over 23 games speak for themselves. Though Matthews ranks fourth on his own team in scoring, his 1.48 points per game place him fifth overall in that category.
“He’s at that point in his career — a lot of notoriety right now. He’s exciting. It’s exciting for our franchise,” coach Mike Babcock said. “It’s a real compliment to him from the fans. You always want to be good to the fans, and they’ll be good to you. With the skill set he has and the demeanour he has, there’s a lot to like.”
And there’s a lot to question regarding the NHL’s selection process, which favours equality over merit. Satisfying player quotas for every team, every division and every position could leave some marquee, deserving names enjoying career years in Colorado, Calgary, Winnipeg, Tampa and Toronto on the outs.
Frederik Andersen’s 20 wins tie him with Vegas’s Marc-Andre Fleury for the most in the league and are five more than any other goaltender in the division (Montreal’s Carey Price and Tampa backup Louis Domingue have 15 apiece). Because Montreal (Price) and Detroit’s (Jimmy Howard) best blends of star power and All-Star Game worthiness rest in net, there’s a chance Andersen misses out. (Although I’d give up press-box ice cream sandwiches for a month to see Connor McDavid and Dylan Larkin head-to-head in a Fastest Skater heat.)
Rielly is arguably the Norris Trophy frontrunner. He leads the NHL in plus/minus (+26) and tops all defencemen in goals (13) and points (44). Not naming Rielly to the Atlantic’s blue line would be a crime, although the defenceman says he “doesn’t really think about it.” He simply wants to help the Leafs win games.
If Rielly had one vote? “Our goalie. Freddy, for sure. No question.”
Ottawa’s Thomas Chabot and Florida’s Keith Yandle would be our hunch for the other two D spots, although that could come at the expense of teammates Mark Stone and Aleksander Barkov, respectively.
It’s an ugly, complicated puzzle for the league’s head office and its hockey operations department to sort out, and some colourful pieces will be left in the box.
The Lightning’s Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh each have a case, for example, but how could the NHL possibly overlook Nikita Kucherov (No. 2 overall in scoring with 57 points) and Brayden Point (47 points, 11th overall)? Steven Stamkos, with a cool 20 goals before Christmas Eve, may lose out because he’s a great player on a loaded team.
Buffalo’s Jeff Skinner, Colorado’s Gabriel Landeskog, Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine, and Calgary’s Elias Lindholm are all on the bubble.
Here in Toronto, Tavares (third overall in goals with 24) and/or the electric Marner (fifth overall in scoring with 50 points) are in serious danger of their invites getting lost in the mail despite their career years. Crazy to think that Tavares’s streak of four straight all-star game appearances is in doubt the first year he’s tracking 50 goals.
Matthews has four deserving teammates, so, we ask, who would he bring if he could vote just one of them in?
“It’s tough,” Matthews smiled. “I think if I could take one guy, it’d probably be Patty Marleau. Take him back to San Jose. Probably stay at his house there, the whole nine yards.”
The Maple Leafs (again) recalled Trevor Moore Thursday, and it appears he’ll get a look on the second power-play unit. The injury fill-in had been formally returned to the Marlies over the Christmas break only as a cap-saving measure…. Babcock is still keeping Matthews and William Nylander apart. Despite starting Sunday’s game together, the duo was split after one period versus Detroit Sunday and remained that way at practice Thursday. Patrick Marleau skated on Matthews’ left side, with Kasperi Kapanen to their right, and Nylander — mired in a career-worst six-game point drought — rejoined Nazem Kadri and Connor Brown on the third line…. Toronto gets back in action Friday in Columbus for a showdown between the NHL’s two hottest clubs at the break. Both the Maple Leafs and Blue Jackets toasted four-game win streaks Christmas Eve, and the Leafs have the advantage of watching Columbus play the Rangers Thursday in New York and will catch them on a back-to-back. “It works to our advantage to have our practice today and game tomorrow,” Rielly says.