The first overall pick in last year’s draft will play among the stars in Los Angeles at the end of the month.
Auston Matthews, the 19-year-old superstar who has emerged as the most dynamic prospect in modern Maple Leafs’ history, was selected as Toronto’s representative for the Atlantic Division in the 2017 NHL All-Star Game.
(For comparison, last season’s team leader in scoring was Nazem Kadri with 45 points in 76 games.)
Go even further, you’ll see Mats Sundin, the last franchise centre to play in Toronto. Averaging a point-per-game through his time with the Maple Leafs, Matthews appears to be cut from the same cloth as the retired Swede.
Conservative predictions ramp up with time
The weeks leading up to Matthews’ first appearance on the ice in the newly designed blue and white sweaters were spent tempering expectations for the 2016 first overall pick.
Fifty points would be within reason. Heck, 60 seemed possible after you watched his highlights playing professionally in Switzerland or representing the United States in international competition. Men that big don’t move that fast.
But after four goals in his first regular season game and a clear comfort with playing top line minutes at the highest level, or unquestionably elevating the play of his teammates: is Matthews already a top centre in the National Hockey League?
Take this highlight, for example:
It’s one thing if Matthews saw the puck going wide and accidentally tipped it in. One of those ‘Oh sh*t!’ highlights. But he’s not trying to do that — he’s making the conscious effort to, with one hand on his stick, deflect the puck behind him and through the Anaheim goaltender.
That’s not a teachable skill, and it goes beyond ‘He’s just got it,’ because even the most talented player wouldn’t think of doing that. That’s a rare combination of ability, hockey sense and confidence.
Lots of people associate Anze Kopitar for his incredible two-way game, with mentions of Evgeni Malkin for their comparable stick-handling abilities in tight areas.
I thought this comment from user PieEatingJabroni was spot on:
First off: LOL at the 67 points the comment earned. Second: we don’t know how or who to compare Auston Matthews to because there’s never been a player like him. The franchise centre with size and skill and speed is what every team in hockey wants, but we haven’t seen someone who is that well put together.
Even the first overall pick before Matthews, Connor McDavid, lacks size and can find himself on the wrong side of a puck battle. Matthews can initiate contact and use nearly flawless technique in puck retrieval, whether he’s clearing it out of his own end or finding a loose puck in the attacking zone.
Let’s look at the tape
I think back to the 5-4 shootout loss against the Chicago Blackhawks on Oct. 22, a game that highlighted how good Matthews already was.
Watch this cross-ice pass on a power play midway through the second period.
Matthews puts the puck through Jonathan Toews’ legs – a player many compared the top pick to in pre-draft scouting – and finds William Nylander, who wrists it past the goaltender for the successful man-advantage.
To be able to make that pass on an NHL power play is hard enough, let alone making it in your fifth NHL game.
Now watch how strong Matthews is on the puck when being chased by five time All-Star Marian Hossa (who turned 38 on Jan. 12, but he’s still stronger defensively that two-thirds of your favourite team).
He lures in three Chicago defenders, gets off a quality shot that leads to Nylander burying a rebound. Everything about that play screams ‘I generate offense and make everyone I play with better.’
Re-watching the game, you see Matthews win nearly every shift he plays. Hossa, Toews, Patrick Kane: #34 came away as the best player on the ice.
Yes – Matthews is a number one centre
Number one centre’s are judged on how they play against the best competition in high-minute usage. That Chicago game was less than a month into Matthews’ NHL career, and nothing in his performance suggested less than a top centre.
Months later, Matthews is unquestionably the team’s best player and well on his way to league stardom. 39 games into the year, Matthews leads all forwards in ice time with nearly 700 minutes. Matthews also leads forwards in even strength corsi at 52.5 per cent (via Corsica).
Auston Matthews #34 of the Toronto Maple Leafs takes part in warm-up prior to an NHL preseason game against the Montreal Canadiens at Air Canada Centre on October 2, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
To say he’s a special player is an understatement. The treat to Matthews is seeing just how good he’ll become.
Follow Hunter Crowther (@HunterCrowther) for more on the Maple Leafs and what’s going in the world of hockey.
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