TORONTO – On the surface, there was nothing spectacular about the extra effort.
"It’s just what you do, I guess," Auston Matthews said of his 100-foot sprint to chase down Anze Kopitar earlier this week. "You backcheck."
It’s what every coach asks for. But, truth be told, there are star players in the NHL who would have peeled off to the bench and left a teammate to deal with Kopitar rather than exerting all that energy at the end of a shift.
The fact Matthews dug in speaks to an evolving reality for the Toronto Maple Leafs: He and linemates Zach Hyman and William Nylander are becoming just as reliable in the defensive zone as the one where they create all those gifs and highlights.
Unlike a year ago, Mike Babcock is making no discernible effort to shelter his top line.
Matthews has started just 42 per cent of his shifts in the offensive zone through nine games after clocking in at more than 63 per cent last season. He’s also become the focal point for opposing coaches who now recognize him as one of the game’s elite.
"I mean they get the hardest matchup each night because the other coach decides with their ‘D’ and that," said Babcock. "They don’t get the hardest forward matchup at home, but they do on the road as far as checking goes. We usually give that to [Kadri] at home."
What’s key for the Leafs is they’re no longer forced to.
Babcock has slowly started extending more leash to the 20-year-old centre and hasn’t seen anything that suggests Matthews is unable to handle the added minutes and responsibility. If anything, he’s found another gear – frequently stripping pucks and feeding the transition game while helping the Leafs control more than 54 per cent of even-strength shot attempts.
"It was a really big adjustment last year just because it’s your first year and (defensive play) is pretty much the main focus from the coaching staff for all of us young guys," said Matthews. "It’s so hard to play against some of these top guys in the league now. It gets easier and you get more comfortable with it as the season goes along in Year 2. You’re definitely more comfortable and you just want to continue to improve."
Matthews has only been on the ice for one goal against in 128 minutes at 5-on-5 this season. That came on opening night in Winnipeg when he lost track of Mark Scheifele just before the Jets centre cut Toronto’s lead to 6-1 in the third period.
While he’s riding a PDO wave with a .986 on-ice save percentage, the Leafs are generating more offence with Matthews on the ice this season (his CF/60 jumped from 62.27 to 67.58) and giving up fewer attempts against (his CA/60 dropped from 58.91 to 57.29) – this, despite the tougher matchups and minutes.
"When you have the puck more they don’t have as many chances," Hyman said of his line’s philosophy. "I think that we’ve had the puck a little bit more this year than last year. I think defensively we’ve been playing better and I think Freddie [Andersen’s] been making some big saves as well.
"That all adds up."
As a player, he is not easily quantified because of a unique set of attributes.
His quick release prompted former Swiss League coach Marc Crawford to compare him to Joe Sakic prior to the 2016 draft. The skillful way he handles the puck in traffic and around the net reminds Jonathan Toews of Patrick Kane. And yet Matthews is six-foot-three, 216 pounds – similar in build to Kopitar, a diligent heavy centre and perennial Selke Trophy candidate.
Perhaps he will one day gain enough bonafides to be considered one of the game’s best two-way forwards. Not yet 100 games into his NHL career, Matthews certainly doesn’t cheat for offence or punt on his defensive responsibilities.
When the Leafs coaching staff brings his line into the video room, it’s often to discuss how best to strike the right balance.
"We meet with them on a regular basis to try to help them with that process," said Babcock. "They want to be good offensive players. In order to have the puck all the time, though, you’ve got to be real good without it and they’re getting better at that."
Matthews has taken his skating to another level after spending the summer focusing on exercises designed to improve explosiveness. That’s beneficial on both sides of the puck.
There is also more overall comfort with he, Hyman and Nylander now in their second season as NHL players. They’ve spent a good chunk of that time playing together and feel as though they’ve taken strides as a unit.
"I think we have more D-zone starts and we’re matching up against different lines," said Hyman. "There’s definitely more trust."
So far, they’ve rewarded Babcock’s faith.