TORONTO – A year ago, no one knew quite what to expect.
This was before the four-goal debut and the 40-goal rookie season. Before the playoffs and the Calder Trophy presentation.
Heck, a year ago Auston Matthews was playing for Team North America at the World Cup rather than breaking camp with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He was a curiosity, naturally, as the first No. 1 pick to arrive in the city since Wendel Clark, but even the optimists didn’t fully anticipate what was to come next.
“I mean I didn’t know he was getting 40 last year,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock on Thursday.
Now on the precipice of Year 2, fresh off a summer of rest and flexibility-boosting Pilates workouts back home in Arizona, the circumstances have changed dramatically.
Matthews expects more of himself, and the Leafs expect more from him. How much more?
“The sky’s the limit for him,” said teammate Nazem Kadri. “That’s the honest truth. He’s a great talent and obviously a special player that you don’t see every generation.”
At least not in Toronto.
Consider that Matthews led the entire NHL last season with 30 goals at 5-on-5 and finished second to San Jose bomber Brent Burns in shots on goal at even strength. Playing alongside other rookies – Zach Hyman on the left, and either William Nylander or Connor Brown on the right – he was a serious difference-maker at age 19.
And yet, as Matthews reflected on how things went over the summer, he identified a few areas for potential improvement.
He hopes a year’s worth of NHL experience will lend itself to staying more even-keeled through the inevitable ups and downs of the season. There’s also an opportunity, he feels, to take even greater control of games.
“I think I can just be a little bit more assertive at times,” said Matthews. “Wanting the puck a little bit more, trusting my skills and everything.”
It’s a tantalizing thought for the Leafs in these early days of training camp – a time of hope and excitement and endless possibility. For as much as the organization believes it improved by adding veteran depth this summer, and as much it boasts an enviable amount of emerging talent across the board, Matthews is the No. 1 reason there’s so much optimism here this fall.
He’s shown himself to be the kind of tide capable of raising all boats.
Numbers-wise, it will be a challenge to top Year 1. He’s certainly a candidate to see his 14.3 per cent shooting percentage regress somewhat this season, although that may be offset by producing an even greater volume of shots.
Matthews had 29 assists as a rookie and is likely to make an improvement there, especially if he gets a longer stint with the sharp-shooting Nylander.
But his success will be determined by more than just sheer production because of the ripple effect he’ll likely have on the Leafs lineup. With opponents devoting more time to nullifying Matthews, it should create better opportunities for a Toronto team with plenty of other goal-scoring options.
It will also present Hyman-Matthews-Nylander with the nightly challenge of besting the other team’s best.
“I thought their line was a real good line for us (last year),” said Babcock. “I thought it was a good line at playoff time, too. The growth of all those guys is immense, to say the least. Their confidence and their swagger now compared to a year ago is much different as well.”
They have arrived at training camp already sure of their place in the dressing room hierarchy. Barring injuries, the competition for jobs up front is basically non-existent around the Leafs with Babcock acknowledging that contract and waiver status will play a big role in determining the opening night lineup.
Indeed, this camp is about fine-tuning and building on the considerable progress made last year.
As the Leafs reported to their suburban practice facility for medical testing on Thursday morning, Babcock and general manager Lou Lamoriello both stated unequivocally that the team wouldn’t name a captain this season. That had become a contrived and oddly persistent storyline in recent weeks – even by Toronto standards – for it’s already clear where this situation is headed.
Matthews will almost certainly be the next man to wear the “C” for this team. Those in a position of power simply believe he stands to benefit from a little more time to grow into the role.
Just days before his 20th birthday, it’s clear he’s already being counted on to a higher degree than every other young NHLer not named Connor McDavid.
“He’s a humble kid, he works hard,” Kadri said of Matthews. “He’s liked by his teammates, he likes his teammates. I think everything with that – with good surroundings in the locker-room, good people, good staff – he can really take it to the next level.”