How Auston Matthews is finding his voice and 'taking charge' of Maple Leafs

Toronto Maple Leafs' William Nylander (88) celebrates his goal against the Anaheim Ducks with teammates John Tavares (91), Auston Matthews (34) and Morgan Rielly (44) during first period NHL hockey action, (Frank Gunn/CP)

Auston Matthews, that preternatural pounder of hockey goals, had always spoken softly and carried a slick stick.

From his storybook four-goal NHL debut through to his recent franchise-record-setting 10-game run of red lamps on the road, the pace-setting scorer’s actions have always screamed: “Come, follow me. Try to catch up.”

That was how the Toronto Maple Leafs’ youngest forward earned the letter on his sweater — by producing in games and pouring extra effort into sharpening his already-elite skills between them.

His coach, Sheldon Keefe, had noticed, however, that as loud as Matthews’ highlights hollered, the young man himself was usually quiet when he returned to the bench. Seldom was the Leafs’ best player the one to rile (or chastise) the troops during intermissions.

The 24-year-old was challenged by the Leafs staff to, quite literally, find his voice this season.

Forget the statistical ladder. Engaging the group between whistles needed to be Matthews’ next step in his evolution as a team leader — and he has responded loud and clear.

“As he's gotten older here, for sure, we’ve seen him stepping up vocally,” Keefe explained. “Whether it's talking to the team on the bench or talking in the dressing room or just pulling guys aside and communicating with them. Whether it's encouragement or correction or just strategizing, he's taking a lot more initiative that way.

“He's taken a lot of it on himself, knowing that that's a big part of being a great player is to lead the way and make others better and set the standard and have a level of accountability that goes with the leadership. And I think he's done a tremendous job in that way. And I think it has been a natural step for him.”

Certainly, we can’t blame Matthews for deferring early in his career.

The Maple Leafs room has recently been stepped heavily in captains, natural speakers, some Cup winners, some all-time record-holders and future Hall of Famers. Joe Thornton. Patrick Marleau. Jake Muzzin. Jason Spezza. John Tavares. Grown-ass men with long resumes, assured in who they are.

As large as Matthews’ frame is, as outsized as his list of accomplishments, one could easily forget that the only Leafs regulars younger than him are Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren.

Spezza – arguably the sagest player and most thoughtful quote in the room — has witnessed a torch-passing of sorts. Captain Tavares and Morgan Rielly, the longest-tenured Leaf, have been consistent tone-setters. But it’s the maturation of Mitch Marner, William Nylander and, particularly, Matthews that has been critical to the club’s consistency over its 30-12-2 start.

“Some of our young leaders have really found their voices and are really taking control and driving this team,” said Spezza, encouraged by the topic.

“Auston, he's really transformed into a leader in this locker room. His daily habits have always been exceptional, but I think he's having conversations with guys away from the group. He's having conversations at the right time in the dressing room. And he's also pushed us, at times, to do better.

“He's just got a great mind for the game, and I think we're starting to see it now in the dressing room. I think you always got it one-on-one, but I think he's got a great pulse. And he also knows when maybe it just wasn't our night, and you have to move on quickly. So, it's good to have a fresh take on thing sometimes. He's been able to give that. He's been great.”

Nylander agreed: “He's always led on the ice. But in the locker room, (he’s now) speaking up when he feels like something needs to change.”

Matthews said “absolutely” he’s made a conscious effort to lean on more experienced Leafs during his tenure, pick their brains and glean leadership skills.

“I'm in my sixth year now, so I definitely think it's a good time for me to take another step in that regard,” Matthews said. “But just be myself every day and come to the locker room and set an example for everybody.”

We’ll give you a few examples.

During the Maple Leafs’ most important win this season — October’s skid-stopping, comeback victory in Chicago — Matthews ripped into a less-than-dialed-in Justin Holl for putting him offside:

Then there was Matthews’ designed O-zone faceoff play versus Selke winner Ryan O’Reilly in St. Louis, where Matthews correctly predicted O’Reilly’s motion and instructed winger Michael Bunting to drive the net. Matthews whacked the puck forward and set Bunting up for a quick strike.

There have also been subtler choices, like not dwelling on losses to hot goalies (Igor Shesterkin, Karel Vejmelka). Or exhibiting more enthusiasm for the successes of his teammates (see: Sandin’s first goal) than his own. Or taking Jack Campbell, a guy six years older, under his wing during All-Star weekend.

“(I was) kinda following his lead, he’s been there so many times,” Campbell said, smiling. “It was great to have him there and make me feel more comfortable.”

Or not sulking over Keefe’s decision to split the Rocket Richard champ from elite setup artist Marner.

“He just shrugged it off as no big deal and whatever we need to do,” Keefe said. “Each time I've come to Auston with something like that, let him know what I'm thinking, he's been fully on board, and he just goes out and plays and competes no matter who he's playing with. That's what he did the other night, and that's what I love to see.”

Ditto Matthews’ elevated commitment to hunting the puck back in the defensive zone and charging through contact with the puck on his blade.

“You get in Auston Matthews’ way these days, and he's not stopping. He's driving right through you. He will keep his feet moving. He’s going to push you off the puck. That's just a great sign,” Keefe raved.

“You just hear a lot more chatter from him and his linemates. And you see him on the ice before shifts, before faceoffs, grabbing guys and taking charge at different times. You know, not a lot of the coaches’ rooms are within earshot of the dressing room ... but there are times you can just hear his voice in there. You just hear more from him.

“He's just taking on that increased leadership role. I think he recognizes where he's at, within our team and where he's at in the league, and what he wants our team to accomplish. And he's taking charge with it.”

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