TAMPA, Fla. – This was Auston Matthews, relaxed and in his element. This is a young man who seems to be growing more comfortable with his place in the game.
We saw a different side of the Toronto Maple Leafs centre throughout the NHL’s all-star weekend – yukking it up on the ice with the best players in the world and lowering his guard with reporters during quip-filled interviews.
There was a playfulness to the way Matthews spoke after Sunday’s light-hearted, three-on-three tournament wrapped up at Amalie Arena. He entertained on a range of topics.
• On the time he spent lobbying other all-stars to come join him in Toronto: “Drew Doughty, I was recruiting him a little bit. But, yeah, he didn’t bite. … He just said, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ And I said, ‘Good’ and then I said, ‘Are you coming to Toronto?’ He just laughed and skated away.”
• On he and Jack Eichel breaking out his much-gif’d “good goal” celebration during the all-star game: “We were in panic mode trying to score because we wanted to do that celly so bad.”
• On Brock Boeser being the one young American all-star who didn’t join him at the U.S. national development program: “Actually Brock didn’t play there. He was too good for us.”
It’s a continuation of a trend we’ve observed throughout his second NHL campaign.
Matthews is speaking more forcefully in the daily conversation around the Leafs. You can detect it in small ways, like when a questioner tried to let the team off the hook after it blew a late lead in a game against St. Louis earlier this month and he replied: “I don’t know if it’s really like a learning experience. We had enough of that last year.”
Already at a second all-star game before his 21st birthday, it’s little wonder why he felt at home in Tampa. He was among peers here – skating alongside Eichel and Zach Werenski and Noah Hanifin, each a former U.S. world junior teammate.
They posed for a picture that Matthews shared with his 387,000 followers on Instagram.
He’s also played internationally with Boeser in the past, and those two were part of a group that went to dinner together after Saturday’s skills competition.
When Matthews was asked at media day about NHLers not being allowed to go to the Pyeongchang Olympics, he thought immediately about the opportunity missed to play with that group of friends.
“It’s pretty disappointing, obviously,” said Matthews. “To play in an Olympics is a huge honour. I know for myself and a lot of young guys coming up through the USA program and USA Hockey, there’s a lot of young Americans in the NHL now.
“It would have been nice to play with them. I hope we have a chance at that.”
He also discussed some of the differences about his second tour around the NHL. He’s had to adapt to tougher matchups from opponents and the changing tenor around the team.
“Last year we were a bunch of young guys, eight rookies,” said Matthews. “The year before obviously wasn’t very good. Not a lot of teams expected us to be as good as we were, and I think we snuck up on a couple teams. And then Year 2, we expect to win every night, the expectations changed. There’s a lot of hype from the outside on our team. We’ve got expectations for ourselves so every night we expect to win and we want to give ourselves a chance to win.
“That’s definitely been a big change for us.”
We got a pretty good indication of the growing influence Matthews and Connor McDavid have on the sport this last week after each was involved in a controversial review that overturned a goal.
The NHL convened an emergency meeting on Saturday to discuss goaltender interference reviews and wound up sending a memo to officials urging them to loosen the standard: “Take a quick look, but don’t search it to death,” said commissioner Gary Bettman.
That probably wouldn’t have happened if Matthews didn’t score on the shift immediately after losing a goal against the Colorado Avalanche last Monday and celebrate by mimicking a referee’s goal gesture. McDavid’s silent form of protest came a couple nights later when he pointed upstairs following a shootout goal after his Edmonton Oilers had previously lost an apparent winner to review.
It’s not a good look when your young stars are mocking the rulebook. They propelled the league into action.
By Sunday afternoon, it turned to fun and games when Matthews and Eichel dusted off that celebration again. It had officially become a thing. You can bet kids will be doing it in driveways across the country, but Matthews indicated that he’s moving on.
“It’s just a one-time thing probably,” he said. “You see the all-star game, it’s pretty light. Obviously, there’s been a lot of talk about the goalie interference calls and everything.
“I’m just kind of keeping it light out there.”