TORONTO – The way last season ended did not sit well with Auston Matthews.
There was the seven-game series loss to Boston in the opening round, but also an uncharacteristic dry spell in the spring. For the first time as an NHLer – perhaps the first time in his life – Matthews saw his play come under intense question and scrutiny. He had a terse exchange or two in front of the cameras.
In the big picture, it was no big deal. All of it was perfectly understandable in the context of professional sports. But for Matthews it was a reminder that there was still room for growth; still steps to be taken in his pursuit of becoming the best in the game.
It has only been a month since Matthews returned to work with the Toronto Maple Leafs and instead it looks he’s taken a quantum leap. The team’s best player has gotten significantly better.
“Just the most in control. Just completely in control,” said goaltender Garret Sparks, when asked what stands out about his teammate.
Matthews has at least two points in all seven games the Leafs have played, becoming the fifth player to accomplish that feat after Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky, Mike Bossy and Kevin Stevens.
Following a two-assist performance in Monday’s 4-1 victory over the Los Angeles Kings, he led the NHL in both goals and points. Matthews is the first NHLer to amass 16 points in seven games to open a season since the dawning of the Salary Cap Era in 2005, and only Lemieux, Gretzky, Stevens, Joe Sakic, Pat LaFontaine and Sergei Makarov have produced at least that many that quickly in the last 30 years.
But more than just numbers we are seeing a young man ascend to another plane. He’s acknowledged feeling more comfortable being himself when asked about the recent fashion shoots in GQ and Sharp Magazine. Part of that is learning not to care about what others think.
Those that get much closer to him than the media see this in him, too.
After scoring 40 goals as a rookie and being on pace for 45 in an injury-interrupted second season, Matthews looks even better in these early days of Year 3 despite not having played one minute with usual linemate William Nylander because of a contract dispute.
“It’s not one specific area,” said teammate Kasperi Kapanen. “I think he’s just raised his level in everything really. He’s defending well and he’s taking care of the puck, but at the same time I feel like his shot’s even harder and he’s making those plays that kind of blow your mind.
“He’s really dangerous right now.”
Those two have been dynamic since getting united Oct. 10 in Chicago. Kapanen had 18 points in his first 57 NHL games and now has eight in the five games since he started playing with Matthews and Patrick Marleau.
Matthews is drawing tough assignments and producing at 5-on-5. He’s the most dangerous trigger-man on one of the top power plays in hockey.
“Well, what I liked about Auston tonight is he played head-to-head with [Anze] Kopitar and he was really good. We’re blessed to have a guy that can play with and without it and that size and, now, his skating the way it is,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. “He’s a real player. He’s just growing, he’s just a kid and he’s going to get better. He’s dangerous when he’s on the ice and that line is a good line right now.”
It’s been telling how often Matthews has mentioned in recent interviews that he’s just a kid. He’s probably had to remind himself a little bit after the single-minded push he made to become a No. 1 overall draft pick.
This has been the best stretch of his career by far and he can’t place a finger on precisely why everything has come together so nicely out of the chute.
“I don’t know. I’m just trying to play hockey, have fun and get those opportunities and try to cash in on them,” said Matthews. “We’ve been fortunate they’ve been going in, we’ve been able to jell as a line and continue to get better. Obviously the most important thing is we’re winning games so we just want that to continue.”
Everything is moving in the right direction.