Why time is right for Maple Leafs to expand Matthews' defensive role

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe spoke about what he's liked from captain John Tavares so far in training camp and his expectations for Tavares' line with William Nylander and Jimmy Vesey.

TORONTO -- After watching Auston Mathews become the NHL’s most dangerous 5-on-5 goal-scorer, the Toronto Maple Leafs are committed to creating new opportunities for him to expand his overall impact on the game.

That will include part-time penalty killing duties this upcoming season, head coach Sheldon Keefe revealed Thursday, which is a first for Matthews. To this point he’s spent fewer than nine total minutes on the ice in short-handed situations throughout his entire NHL career.

Matthews took big defensive strides last season and was dominant in the faceoff dot, which is a key part of his new responsibility. Expect him to be sent out to win strong-side faceoffs so that the Leafs can get a defensive zone clear when down a man — at least initially — but don’t rule out the possibility of his penalty-killing role eventually expanding into something bigger if injuries or performance necessitate it.

“I don’t think you can put any sort of ceiling on a player like that because of his ability and his drive,” said Keefe. “That’s why we just continue to add layers to his responsibilities.”

This is an evolution that started before Keefe stepped behind the Leafs bench.

Mike Babcock, his predecessor, said in October 2019 that he thought Matthews had “the chance to be the best two-way centre in hockey.” That was before a season in which he produced an expected goals rate of 55.5 per cent — the best during his tenure with the Leafs.

Days before coronavirus paused the season in March, Leafs president Brendan Shanahan set the bar even higher by telling reporters that Matthews was “one of those rare players that has the ability to lead a league in scoring and also be its best defensive player.”

“I mean there’s very few guys that do that in hockey. I can remember [Sergei] Fedorov, in basketball Michael Jordan,” added Shanahan. “That’s putting him in some elite company, and I don’t want to put that on him today. … I think that Auston is dynamic and explosive offensively, but I think that he also has the ability with his size and his strength and his awareness, and his commitment, to be a Selke Trophy winner.”

Matthews finished 16th last season in voting for the award that recognizes the forward who demonstrates the most skill in the defensive component of the game, earning one first-place vote and two fifth-place votes.

Being entrusted with penalty-killing duties will shine a brighter light on his defensive abilities.

Of course, the Leafs aren’t making this move with any individual awards in mind — they’re doing it out of necessity. Toronto tied for 24th in faceoff winning percentage while short-handed last season, which meant they spent a lot more time having to defend in their own zone at 4-on-5 than they felt necessary.

Zach Hyman stood in for 35 per cent of the team’s total short-handed faceoffs and won just 43.1 per cent of them. The since-departed Frederik Gauthier was the only other player on the team to take more than 100 faceoffs in that game state and he was successful on 47 per cent of his attempts.

While Hyman and Mitch Marner will continue to be Toronto’s primary penalty-killing forwards this year, followed by Alexander Kerfoot and Ilya Mikheyev on the second unit, there will be a specialist faceoff role carved out for Matthews (left) and Jason Spezza (right) depending which side of the ice a draw is on.

It’s yet one more sign of the deep trust Keefe has in his best player. The fact Matthews received a healthy amount of offensive zone starts last season should not be confused with him being sheltered.

He was dominant on both sides of the puck during the five-game play-in series loss to Columbus in August. In fact, Keefe told Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun that when he compiled clips of Leafs players properly establishing position away from the puck during that series, he had to remove a “bunch” featuring Matthews so that he included some variety.

The 23-year-old felt he took a step during those games against Columbus.

“Not the result we wanted, but individually I felt really good in that series,” said Matthews. “I thought there was definitely some positive things that I could take out of that and kind of move forward with that.”

At six-foot-three and 220 pounds, he is a load for opposing players to handle.

While Matthews doesn’t play in a way where he’s looking to finish every check, he does use his body to establish position in dangerous offensive areas. And he doesn’t back down when physically challenged by opponents.

He’s rightfully earned a lot of attention since entering the NHL for the unique release on his deadly shot, which has propelled him to scoring 13 more goals than any other player across the last four seasons at 5-on-5.

But with the Leafs setting their sights on higher goals as a team, and with Matthews coming into his own entering his fifth NHL season, the next frontier is finding mastery in areas less likely to land him on the highlight reel.

“I know he’s very committed to being great in all regards and we believe he has the tools to do that,” said Keefe. “He’s shown the ability and the willingness to put in the work. So, as I’m saying, we’ve got to continue to add layers to [his role] and give him opportunities to affect the game in more ways than just scoring goals.”

Camp Notes

• Thursday morning was reserved for special teams meetings as players were given a chance to rest their bodies following three hard days of skating to open camp. A practice with an emphasis on the power play and penalty kill is scheduled for Friday.

• The Leafs will simulate a game day on Saturday, complete with a morning skate at Scotiabank Arena and 7 p.m. puck drop for the intra-squad matchup. With no exhibition games being held across the NHL this year and the regular season due to open Wednesday against Montreal, Keefe views it as an important preparation tool.

“We’re going to try to replicate that as close as possible with our meeting times and all of the procedures we would typically go through in our preparations for any game,” he said.

• The coach had strong praise for captain John Tavares, who has benefitted physically from the long off-season. Tavares dealt with an oblique injury before last season and then broke a finger in October and that made for a challenging start to the campaign.

“What I like about John is it’s very clear that he has prepared for the season in a big way,” said Keefe. “To me he looks in incredible shape and strong. We had a very challenging day here — on Day 1, especially — with the skating and the way we started the training camp, with a conditioning skate, and he was as strong as anybody right to the very end.”

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