Maple Leafs’ Babcock lauds Matthews’ growth on defensive side of puck

NHL insider Chris Johnston joins Shawn McKenzie to get you set for Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets, where Mike Babcock's squad will have 3 lineup changes from their season opener, including Jason Spezza making his Leafs debut.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Auston Matthews has already earned plenty of accolades for his unique shooting talents and unmatched ability to create goals.

But as the Toronto Maple Leafs centre embarks on his fourth NHL season, his coach is lauding the growth he’s showing on the defensive side of the puck. 

"I think he has the chance to be the best two-way centre in hockey," Mike Babcock said before Friday’s game against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Matthews identified defensive positioning as an area of focus over the summer. The 22-year-old felt that showing a little more attention to detail in his own zone could produce longer stretches where his line could be on the attack.

"When you take care of (defensive details), it goes the other way. You have the puck more," Matthews told Sportsnet at last month’s NHL media tour. "When good players have the puck a lot of times good things happen. Of course, I want to score more goals, more assists, more points and create more offence, but I think a lot of that kind of starts in my own zone as well."

Where Babcock sees growth in the centre is the speed at which he plays the game through the middle of the rink. He believes an "ability to play defence fast" will lead to more transition opportunities.

It’s an edict he’s delivered to all of the Leafs players throughout training camp: The need to produce better 5-on-5 scoring chance differentials and time spent in the offensive zone. That was an area where Babcock determined his team had ground to gain on the opponents who played deep into the playoffs last spring.

"If you’re playing in their zone, they’re not getting any chances and it’s way more fun," he said. "Rather than defending, staying on the inside, defending, staying on the inside. Why not play in their zone, check it back and spend a lot of time in there?"

The Leafs have already been enjoying a healthy advantage with Matthews on the ice. Last season they held an edge in even-strength shot attempts (52.8 per cent), expected goals (51.55 per cent) and scoring chances (53.66 per cent) during his shifts, according to naturalstattrick.com.

He’s looked downright dominant these last few weeks — scoring a goal in each of the four pre-season games he’s dressed for before kicking off the regular season with two more against the Ottawa Senators on Wednesday night.

"No one can shoot the puck like that," teammate John Tavares said of Matthews. "It’s so rare and unique and he continues just to kind of tweak and change it up just enough. Just to keep everyone guessing and continue to improve.

"His second one the other night was really impressive, just taking it clean right off the pass, one-timed it. You know, no one’s stopping that."

The Leafs already pose a huge matchup challenge to opponents with Tavares and Mitch Marner on one forward line and Matthews and William Nylander on another. But Babcock believes they can become even more formidable if Matthews continues to boost his defensive acumen.

Playing in the Atlantic Division, he has a chance to regularly measure himself against some of the league’s best 200-foot players: the Boston Bruins’ Patrice Bergeron, the Florida Panther’s Aleksander Barkov and the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Brayden Point, among them.

"What you’re trying to do is you’re trying to build out your program so you’re an absolute complete player," said Babcock. "To me, that’s our focus. In the end, you win championships like that and that’s what (Matthews) wants to do."

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