Auston Matthews is drawing comparisons to Mario Lemieux and getting noticed by Bryce Harper amid a hot start to his second NHL season.
Last season’s Calder Trophy winner as rookie of the year, Matthews went into training camp seeking to be more assertive on the ice. That has translated to five goals and three assists in his first five games and the kind of improved all-around play that makes the face of the Toronto Maple Leafs a superstar already at age 20.
“He’s got a skillset that ranges from just about everything,” Maple Leafs centre Nazem Kadri said Tuesday prior to his team’s game against the Washington Capitals. “The ceiling’s the limit for Matts, and he knows he can be a great player and he already is. It’s crazy to think he’s (still) at such a young age.”
Even though Matthews remains in the shadow of Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby on hockey’s pantheon of top players, he already has filled up the highlight reel thanks to some tweaks and adjustments. The Scottsdale, Ariz., native was the first rookie to score 40 goals since Alex Ovechkin in 2005-06 and is conscious of the pressure to keep up that pace.
“You’re always reinventing yourself,” Matthews said. “The league’s always adjusting and you’ve got to adjust right back to it.”
The league hasn’t adjusted yet. Matthews showed that by scoring goals so many different ways this season.
Matthews scored an overtime winner against Chicago by taking the puck off a carom off the back of Patrick Kane’s right skate and going down the ice. Against Montreal, he scored one goal by flipping the puck past a Canadiens defender and knocking it down at full speed before firing through a screen, and then another on the rush by shooting short side on 2015 Vezina Trophy winning goaltender Carey Price.
“For me, the first (Montreal goal) was probably a little more impressive just how he handled the pass and you see how much he changed the angle,” Toronto winger James van Riemsdyk said. “He’s really good at changing the angle, getting it off quick, things like that. He’s got a lot of different shots that he’ll try within his toolbox. It makes him pretty unpredictable when he’s going to shoot it.”
Matthews has only played 87 regular-season and six playoff games and yet has admirers far and wide.
Harper wore a brand new blue No. 34 Matthews jersey out of the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse after their season-ending Game 5 loss to the Chicago Cubs last week. Matthews said he doesn’t know Harper, who’s from Las Vegas, but called the honour “awesome.”
‘Young Mario Lemieux’
Capitals coach Barry Trotz has been watching Matthews’ growth and likened him — already — to a Hockey Hall of Famer and one of the best players in history.
“Auston Matthews, I’ve been saying it: He’s a young Mario Lemieux,” Trotz said. “He’s (big), he can skate, he’s ultra-skilled, he’s very, very competitive, he makes plays.”
Matthews’ rookie success earned him another believer: himself. He said last month he was aiming to trust his skills more and want the puck more. With the season under way he said “you just want to be the best player you can be,” and that’s evident with how much the line of Matthews, Zach Hyman and William Nylander have had the puck.
“We’ve been able to create offence, which is important, and that leads to chances,” Nylander said. “That’s always a positive.”
At even strength, Matthews has been on the ice for 80 Leafs shots and 64 by opponents, evidence of just how much his evolving defensive game benefits the Maple Leafs.
“When you play well defensively, you feel like you get the puck more,” Matthews said. “We’re offensive guys. We want to create offence so when you have the puck it feels good and you feel like you can create chances.”
Those chances are coming, and Matthews is cashing in on them. No wonder he has earned coach Mike Babcock’s trust.
“He’s a good player trying to get better each and every day,” Babcock said. “What I like about him is how hard he works and how competitive he is and how much he wants to get better. The best players in the league, the superstars, they love hockey more than everyone else, so they can work at it harder and longer than the next guy.”
Matthews downplays his own improvements but sounds like a perfect Babcock-type player when discussing his early-season success.
“I feel good,” Matthews said. “Just a couple weeks in, so you want to find that consistency individually, with your linemates, with everybody. You just want to continue to get better every day.”