Maple Leafs’ Matthews focused on improving game, not Marner’s contract

NHL analyst Anthony Stewart joins the Starting Lineup to explain why having a captain is so important, and why Maple Leafs should make Auston Matthews their captain, sooner than later.

CHICAGO — Auston Matthews says it’s none of his business.

That even though he’s spoken with Mitch Marner on a couple occasions recently he hasn’t delved into the most pressing issue hanging over the Toronto Maple Leafs a week out from training camp.

The dynamic forwards entered the NHL together three years ago, but only Matthews is currently under contract for a fourth season with the Leafs. And all he can really do is sit back and hope there’s a sudden breakthrough in negotiations that brings Marner back into the fold.

Sign up for NHL newsletters
Get the best of our NHL coverage and exclusives delivered directly to your inbox!

NHL Newsletter

*I understand that I may withdraw my consent at any time.

“I think you just leave him be. We’ve talked a bit throughout the summer and as of late, but nothing really about hockey or his contract,” Matthews told Sportsnet on Thursday. “He’s going through his process with his team and obviously everybody’s hoping for the best. We’d love to have him back in Toronto in training camp or back with the team as soon as possible.”

This is nothing new for the Leafs, of course, not after seeing restricted free agent William Nylander stay home in Stockholm until Dec. 1 last season.

It’s a situation Kyle Dubas and the team’s front office has no appetite to see repeated, but who knows how long this goes? That’s why Matthews believes the players have to be ready to potentially fill a void — just as they’re going to have to with Zach Hyman (knee) and Travis Dermott (shoulder) set to miss at least a month of the regular season while recovering from off-season surgeries.

“That’s just the way it goes,” Matthews said during the NHL/NHLPA player media tour. “Depending on what happens with [Marner], if he misses some time, I think that’s just more opportunity for other guys to step in and show what they’re capable of.”

Coming off a career-best 73-point season (in 68 games), he sees plenty of room for personal improvement, too.

Matthews has scored more even-strength goals than any NHL player the last three years, but identified his defensive work as the main area of focus now. Using words that must sound like music to Mike Babcock’s ears, the soon-to-be 22-year-old said he feels like he can find a heightened attention to detail in his own zone while battling the game’s other top centres.

“You play against some pretty good players out there, some pretty good lines, a lot of nights you’re going to be matched up against the other team’s top two lines, right?” said Matthews. “They’re eventually going to get some time in your zone and making sure that you’re in the right area so you can get the puck back is definitely important.

“I think it’s something that I still need to take another step with.”

This is coming off a season where the Leafs enjoyed healthy advantages in shot attempts (52.8 per cent), expected goals (51.55 per cent) and scoring chances (53.66 per cent) while he was on the ice, according to naturalstattrick.com.

And Matthews doesn’t believe a more complete 200-foot game necessarily has to come at the expense of his offensive production, either.

“When you take care of [defensive details], it goes the other way. You have the puck more,” he said. “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.”

There has clearly been some self-reflection since the Game 7 loss in Boston — the third straight first-round defeat Toronto suffered. Matthews also said he’s had some good dialogue with Babcock throughout the summer.

“Nobody liked how the season ended, us not being able to push through,” said Matthews. “There’s a lot of ‘what could have been,’ right?”

The Bruins team that erased three series deficits against them made it all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final before losing to St. Louis.

About the only positive for Matthews stemming from the early exit was that he was able to have a screw removed from his knee that had been causing some pain and discomfort. It was left over from a knee surgery he had in 2014.

Beyond that, the off-season also allowed him the chance to devote some time to another passion: Golf.

“I got a little bit better,” said Matthews. “I still haven’t beat my sister [Breyana] yet, but I didn’t play her too much at the end and I was kind of peaking then. So I kind of regret not taking that opportunity.

“Maybe next year.”

The highlight was breaking 80 for the first time a couple weeks back. Matthews said he found a groove with his driver on the back nine that day in Phoenix and wound up shooting a 77.

“I was so excited,” he said. “I was going crazy.”

Unlike many of the NHL’s other young stars — including Zach Werenski and Matthew Tkachuk, both good friends, plus Marner — he was treated to a stress-free summer.

There was no business to conduct because of the $58.17-million, five-year extension he signed with the Leafs on Feb. 5.

“I’m happy that I kind of got it over with and I can just focus on hockey and focus on this season and not really have anything on my mind,” said Matthews. “I could go into my summer and not really worry about ‘What’s the deal with my contract? What’s my status? Am I going to be at training camp or am I going to miss part of the season?’

“Everybody’s in their own situations and it’s really none of my business. With myself, I know I’m happy that everything got kind of taken care of and I can just focus on hockey.”

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.