Auston Matthews an early contender for ‘Selke, Hart, Rocket’

Alexander Kerfoot scored the winner in the third period as the Toronto Maple Leafs edged the Ottawa Senators 2-1.

TORONTO – Yes, it may be a tad “silly,” as Sheldon Keefe says, to start engraving theoretical trophies 17 games into the season.

But the performance Auston Matthews is delivering night in, night out for the Toronto Maple Leafs has caused at least one future Hall of Famer to throw his name in the conversation for some serious hardware.

The sun rose, the sidewalks got salted, and Matthews scored again Wednesday.

So, following the Leafs’ tightly contested 2-1 redemption victory over the Ottawa Senators, we asked Joe Thornton — whose NHL career began the same autumn his centreman was born — if he’s ever had a teammate who fills the net with such consistency.

“Oh, boy, there’s probably two or three guys that I’ve played with that does what he does. But he’s on a different level,” replied Thornton, expanding the conversation by 200 feet.

“He just competes so hard, I think he should be up for — 18 games in or whatever — the Selke, Hart, Rocket. He does so many things. He just plays the game the right way, and I really enjoy watching him play and playing alongside him. He’s a complete package.”

We in the business of commentating from the sidelines can be too casual with claims that a strong player has elevated his game to a new level. But there is enough evidence here — visual, numerical, verbal — to believe that Matthews has unlocked another gear. And hammered the pedal.

“It’s fun to watch him play, when I’m not on the ice with him,” rival Carey Price admitted last week.

Matthews’ one-timed blast from Justin Holl to open Wednesday’s scoring has given him 13 goals in his past 12 outings and a league-leading 14 in total.

He’s on a 14-game heater in which he’s piled up 20 points. He’s been held pointless in just one of 16 games played. He leads the NHL in game-winners, even-strength goals, even-strength points, and even-strength shots. He’s third overall in both takeaways and average ice time among forwards. Matthews wins most of his faceoffs. He’s blocking shots and throwing hits with more frequency than ever, and he’s been given a taste of the penalty kill.

“It’s pretty obvious if you’re watching the game and paying attention that Auston has been dominant in all regards offensively, defensively,” Keefe said.

This is no accident.

In addition to pumping reps on his one-timer, Matthews made a concerted effort over the off-season to shed weight and increase his speed. Perhaps more importantly, the 23-year-old superstar has embraced a stronger team-first commitment.

Coaches and teammates alike have pointed out how Matthews has become more vocal on the bench and in the room. His humble body language after his own goals strikes a contrast to his giddy exuberance when a linemate scores.

Matthews now backchecks with the same determination he relies on to find open ice in the O-zone.

“For a young guy, you’re obviously going to focus on yourself,” says Travis Dermott. “You’re not going to be the most outspoken guy right off the bat. He’s filling the shoes as he goes. He has respect around the room. When he does speak up now, it’s someone you’re obviously going to listen to.”

Used to be, Matthews’ quick release did all the talking. Now his voice and his 6-foot-3 frame are chiming in.

When GM Kyle Dubas vowed to make his roster harder to play against, yes, that meant adding pieces like Wayne Simmonds and Zach Bogosian. But, perhaps more critically, it meant coaxing a three-zone commitment from the exec’s young highlight-makers.

“I’ve made a point in my game to be more physical,” says Matthews, who began taking that step in the Columbus series. “I don’t think it’s over the top, but when I have opportunities to use my size and strength, whether it’s with the puck or without the puck, just trying to utilize that to my advantage.

“In my head, I think when we went back into the bubble, it was definitely a lot more physical, and I think it worked to my advantage.”

There is a common we-before-me realization that often runs through a great Cup-hoisting narrative. Ask Alex Ovechkin. Or Steve Yzerman.

In individual and group conversations, Keefe has demanded his group compete fiercer, to make their opponents earn every battle, each goal.

“Auston has just taken it upon himself and done it,” Keefe explains.

The coach points to an empty net and the waning moments of Feb. 10’s win over Montreal, which ended an eight-game Matthews goal streak, as an example of an evolved mindset:

“It’s just a matter of him growing as a player and as a man, really. He feels a lot more comfortable in the league and among his teammates. He also has a level of confidence that he’s taking care of things on the ice, not just on the offensive side but all the other areas,” Keefe says.

“When you do that, it gives you a lot more confidence to be able to speak and push your teammates and challenge them.”

Even with 30 per cent of Matthews and the Leafs’ campaign (12-3-2) already in the books, it is premature to start handing out hardware.

The unique nature of 2021’s schedule makes it challenging to compare what Matthews and Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are doing in the North to what Brad Marchand is accomplishing in the East, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Huberdeau in the Central, or Nathan MacKinnon in the West.

We do feel confident in saying Matthews has never jumped out the gate with a multi-category “for your consideration” bid like this one. His responsible, aggressive approach is complementing his skill.

Equally fitting as Matthews’ timely goal Wednesday — which arrived mere seconds after a Thornton goal was disallowed due to his high stick — were the star’s comments afterward.

“Once we scored there right after the high stick, the boys were saying ‘The puck don’t lie,’ ” Matthews said, smiling.

That would be we scored, not I scored.

The puck don’t lie.

And this season, Matthews is all over that thing like he’s the truth.

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