TORONTO – With the Blue Jays tumbling nine games out of the wild-card race, the Raptors yet to touch the court, and the Argos still playing in the CFL, a question has arisen in this city this September.
Is it too early to start talking (read: breathlessly obsessing over) the Maple Leafs?
As a news — not sports news but news news — cameraman zipped across town upon getting word that Auston Matthews’ flu had subsided to the point where he was scrimmaging four-on-four in Etobicoke, Ont., with his teammates, we feel safe in saying no.
No. It’s not too early to start discussing the potential, the expectations, or the nitty-gritty such as line combos, D pairings, and goaltending start balances.
Once the Duke of Tank and Lady Luck conspired to land this city its first Calder Trophy champ in 51 years, once a playoff team too young to grow playoff beards proved they could compete in games that matter, there was a distinct hunger for more.
Let’s see where these guys, helmed by a 40-goal-scoring teenager, can go next.
That anxiousness seeps both from and into a dressing room already packed several days in advance of training camp.
Morgan Rielly gave us a resounding “Yes,” the air tastes different this fall. Matthews agrees.
“Everybody’s come into Toronto, into camp in good shape and we’re anxious to get this year going,” the star said Friday after chatting with pal William Nylander after an hour-plus on-ice workout.
“Everyone wants to take a step forward — myself personally, the team. We obviously had a decent season last year, but we haven’t really accomplished anything.”
Matthews assures he feels much better after a case of the flu forced him to rest for a couple of days instead of appearing at an NHL-NHLPA media event in New York City (James van Riemsdyk filled his spot in front of the flashbulbs for him Thursday), and we can confirm after seeing him set up Zach Hyman and burst past defenders in scrimmage that, indeed, AM34 is still good at hockey.
The league’s best rookie and soon-to-be most-scrutinized sophomore — that’s what the third-highest 2018 Hart Trophy odds (17/2, according to Bodog) gets you — spent the bulk of the summer at home in Scottsdale, Ariz., where he could relax, spend quality time with friends and family, and have fun.
Save for a boys’ night at Fenway Park in July and a couple weekend flights to dodge the desert heat and visit friend and Leafs No. 1 goalie Frederik Andersen in California, travel was kept to a minimum after a 2016-17 gauntlet that included the combine, the draft, the World Cup, 82 NHL games, the playoffs, and the awards.
Matthews did sit for a rather large and detailed tattoo of a crown-adorned lion on his right arm that holds “family significance,” and a photo of the art made the rounds on social media.
“I’m not going to get too much into it. I don’t think it’s a big deal,” he said. “You guys make it a big deal, but to me, it’s got family significance.”
Matthews strived to jack up his “explosiveness” and incorporated Pilates into his off-season routine upon suggestion from the Leafs’ trainers. The idea is to have the centreman stride more open and upright, as better skating posture helps prevent injuries.
“I’m really happy I did it. I found a pretty big improvement in flexibility,” explained the 19-year-old. “It’s a lot of core work; it’s a lot harder than I expected. I think it really paid off for me.”
Literally paying off for Matthews, at least according to us amateur salary-cap prognosticators?
The record-setting, eight-year, $100-million contract extension Connor McDavid inked with the Edmonton Oilers. NHLPA chief Donald Fehr said he’s sure other players will hit the nine-digit mark in the future, and Matthews — who can negotiate his next deal as early as July 1 — has positioned himself as the most bankable star of hockey’s future. It doesn’t hurt that he plays in a hockey-mad city for a cash-flush franchise.
Matthews’ reaction to McDavid raising the financial bar for young, stud centremen?
“It’s very well deserved,” Matthews said. “Last year he was the best player in the league. He took home all the trophies, individually.”
No. 1 pick to No. 1 pick, McDavid has already publicly endorsed Matthews to inherit a Leafs captaincy that has been vacant since Dion Phaneuf was traded to Ottawa in February 2016.
Head coach Mike Babcock said he felt no urgency to name a captain for 2017-18, and Matthews says he’s not had any conversation with Leafs brass about the responsibility.
But does Matthews want the C?
“It’s not really my decision. If it’s brought upon me, obviously that would be a big honour. If not, I’m not going to change my personality or how I am at the rink,” Matthews said.
“I’m still going to work hard and be myself every day. Whether I have a letter or not, it doesn’t make a difference.”
Like Patrick Marleau before him, Matthews demurred on any analysis of a potential top-line left-winger switch from Zach Hyman to the veteran sniper hired in free agency. It says here that Matthews’ assist total of 29 would jump significantly were he to anchor Nylander and Marleau.
Matthews did call Marleau once the 500-goal triggerman signed with Toronto on July 2, and the two have been getting to know each other during informal Etobicoke training sessions. The enthusiasm is mutual.
“Nobody’s told me anything; I don’t think anybody’s told him anything [about line combos]. He’s a really good addition to our team as well as Dominic Moore and Ron Hainsey, so we’re excited to have some veteran guys here,” Matthews said.
“Hainsey just won a Stanley Cup. Marleau [and Moore] have been to the final. These guys know how to win. They’ve been in the league a long time. They know what it takes. It’s going to be a really good example for us young guys to see their habits and daily routines. They know how to win, and that’s what we want to do.”
Since Matthews hit us with the four in his NHL debut, the Toronto kids have made a splash on the ice. Management matched by making waves in free agency.
Now a fan base and a glut of skilled forwards waits feverishly for what’s next.
“We’re a motivated group,” Matthews said.
“Everybody’s telling us how good we are and everything, but we haven’t done anything yet.”
Is it October yet?