Forged in off-season, McDavid-Matthews bond pushing stars to new heights

Chris Johnston and Shawn McKenzie discuss the first matchup of the season between the Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs and the excitement surrounding two young stars being able to play against each other more than twice for the year.

TORONTO — If there was a game to be played, Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews played it.

Golf. Tennis. Pickleball. Roller hockey. Spike ball.

And of course, the one that brought them together in the first place.

During an off-season unlike any other in NHL history, two of the league’s crown jewels pushed each other on the ice and just about everywhere else the Arizona heat allowed over a couple weeks in November and December.

Consider it a sign of their mutual respect and shared drive for greatness, but also of a deepening personal relationship. They were briefly linemates with Team North America at the 2016 World Cup and now share something even more unique in common as superstar players shouldering massive expectations in Canadian markets dying for a winner.

Among their peers, who better to understand what McDavid goes through as Edmonton Oilers captain than Matthews? And who would have better insight into Matthews’ experiences with the Toronto Maple Leafs than McDavid?

“I mean it’s no secret he’s a special player. He’s the best player in the league for a reason,” said Matthews. “I thought it was great spending some time with him, being on the ice, just being around him. He’s a great guy.

“We really enjoyed ourselves.”

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Adding an extra layer of intrigue to the hours they logged together preparing for this season is how often they’re about to line up across from one another during it.

They’ve been on the same ice for an NHL game just seven times in their lives. That number could reach 16 by the first week of May as Wednesday’s Oilers/Leafs meeting at Scotiabank Arena is the first of nine scheduled inside the North Division, including four over the next 10 days.

It promises to be an excellent test of the skills they sharpened since the summer bubble.

Matthews dropped weight in a bid to increase his explosiveness and has come firing out of the gate. His line with Mitch Marner and Joe Thornton is tilting the ice as well as any other in the league, and Matthews has noticeably used his six-foot-three frame to angle off opponents and win puck battles while firing an NHL-high 21 shots on goal so far.

That’s a guaranteed recipe for success for a guy with the most deceptive release on the planet and a career shooting percentage that hovers north of 15 per cent.

McDavid is the sport’s pre-eminent point producer, playing at a speed that suggests he’s in possession of a cheat code. His off-season included a deep dive into the art of the faceoff and some specialized strength training, but also made room for growth in the areas where he’s always excelled.

“This is a smart man’s league,” McDavid told reporters during training camp. “You’re never going to beat a guy the same way twice and if you are you have to figure out a different way to start it off, I guess. Everyone’s a good player, you’ve got to be always kind of growing your own game and thinking of different ways.

“So, yeah, I definitely worked on my shot. Being able to spend some time around other players as well in Arizona was something I valued a lot. You can definitely learn from those guys as well.”

Perhaps it should be no surprise that he’s scored three times in four games to start the campaign, while generating 17 shots on net.

McDavid’s decision to spend time with Matthews in his off-season base of Scottsdale, Ariz., was orchestrated through their shared representation by Wasserman Hockey. McDavid is repped by Jeff Jackson while Matthews by Judd Moldaver and the wheels starting turning there.

“It all came together fast,” Moldaver said Tuesday. “Yet in saying that, we had lots of discussions and were exploring different options for our players when games weren’t being played. In this case, there happened to be other good players and good skates going on in Arizona and it presented a great environment.”

McDavid and Matthews skated with a group that included Jonathan Toews, Matt Dumba, Anthony Duclair and Alex Galchenyuk, among others.

The on-ice sessions were run by Shane Doan.

Away from the rink, there was plenty of time for leisurely pursuits and meals together. Here you had two of the NHL’s brightest stars — aged 24 (McDavid) and 23 (Matthews) — bonding in the run-up to a season where they each plan on being major factors.

And with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing the creation of an all-Canadian division they will have to go through each other. Nos. 97 and 34 are among the NHL’s highest-minute forwards, all-but guaranteeing head-to-head matchups galore starting Wednesday night.

Each will be armed with some new intel since the last Oilers/Leafs game in January 2019 — the night McDavid casually beat Morgan Rielly and scored a goal so ridiculous that it pulled Wayne Gretzky out of his seat.

“I’m not sure I can say that I figured this guy out because I don’t think anybody has or will,” said Matthews. “But it’s always fun to get down there and just be around good players and just kind of pick their brains and just try to learn new stuff.”

That’s how the best get even better.

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