BUFFALO, N.Y. — Auston Matthews is a Toronto Maple Leaf.
The American centre became the first No. 1 overall pick of the franchise in 31 years and instantly the most significant piece of an ascending rebuild in Toronto.
Hailing from the unlikely hockey outpost of Scottsdale, Ariz., Matthews is viewed as a potential answer to the Leafs top line centre needs, an area of much consternation in the city since the departure of long-time captain and hall of famer Mats Sundin.
Matthews spoke in such terms after becoming the first Leaf to wear the team’s new sweater, which was revealed upon his selection.
“I believe I can be a franchise centreman, a No. 1 centreman in the NHL,” Matthews said. “That’s my ultimate goal.”
Leafs coach Mike Babcock has been tracking Matthews closely for years, becoming personally familiar with him while serving as the Detroit Red Wings’ coach.
Matthews and Matthew Tkachuk, the Calgary Flames top pick, would occasionally stop by Babcock’s office at Joe Louis Arena with their U.S. National Development Team Program head coach Don Granato, the brother of then-Wings assistant Tony Granato.
Babcock described Matthews’ potential as that of a “dominant centre for the Leafs” and someone who could become a “championship-type centre.” Babcock didn’t think Matthews would struggle adjusting to the pressure of the Toronto spotlight, having seen him dominate recently for the United States at the world championship in Russia.
“I think when you’ve been good for as long as he’s been, you get used to the spotlight and you’re used to delivering under pressure,” Babcock said. “He’s going to be under that, but it’s our job to insulate him too and surround him with good players and veteran guys who help him become a good pro.”
Babcock said the Leafs might need to add a veteran player or two this summer to support that process. He was intrigued by the speed, skill and potential of the club moving forward.
Forgoing junior hockey, Matthews spent his draft year in Switzerland, scoring 24 goals and 46 points in 36 games for Zurich SC, the Swiss league’s top regular season team.
He boasts perhaps the highest upside of any Maple Leafs draft pick. Toronto hasn’t had a Calder Trophy winner – awarded to the league’s top rookie – in 50 years. That may become a possibility for the 18 year old, who became the first Leaf picked No. 1 since Wendel Clark in 1985.
“Obviously we got a lot better,” Babcock said. “He’s an elite player with an elite drive-train, big body guy, makes players better.
“He’ll develop into a top, top centre in the National Hockey League.”
Matthews is the seventh American to go first overall and first since Patrick Kane in 2007. He’s expected to step immediately into the Toronto lineup next season, though the Maple Leafs have cautioned that expectations shouldn’t jump too high too fast.
A product of the Arizona minor hockey system and a fan of the Phoenix Coyotes growing up, Matthews is thought to have the size (six foot two, over 200 pounds), speed, skills and smarts to perform as a top centre, a prerequisite for most Stanley Cup-winning teams.
Sundin, a former No. 1 overall pick himself who was traded to Toronto for Clark in 1994, gracefully held that mantle for 14 years before leaving the franchise following the 2007-08 season.
“In our opinion he was the best player available, but not only being the best player he satisfies a need at centre and is a complete player, one who can play 200 feet,” Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello said.
Lamoriello said it was a “no-brainer” to pick a player like that, though he wouldn’t say how much deliberating the club required in opting for Matthews, long the presumed top pick.
Since winning the draft lottery on April 30, the Leafs have insisted that their top pick would be just one piece of a much larger puzzle. Toronto has filled its organization over the past two years with a number of high-upside prospects, including William Nylander and Mitch Marner, who finished third in OHL scoring with 116 points in 57 games this past season.
The club also lured Babcock, one of the league’s top coaching talents last summer, and may attempt to sign Toronto-area native and high-end scorer Steven Stamkos when unrestricted free agency kicks off on July 1.
Lamoriello said the team would continue following what he called the “Shanny-plan” in approaching free agency, a nod to team president Brendan Shanahan’s slow, steady approach to building the club from the point of his hiring in 2014.
Shanahan said he was most impressed by Matthews’ rise from an unlikely background in Arizona where rinks are sparse and ice-time hard to find.
“He’s impressive on a lot of fronts,” Shanahan said.
A group of Maple Leafs fans, evidently making the trek south from Toronto, wore T-shirts emblazoned with “Auston 2016” in support of their newest talent.
Matthews, for his part, was ready to start his journey.
“Once they called my name it was definitely a sigh of relief,” he said. “It was a pretty unbelievable feeling.”