Hockey player? Nope. As Auston Matthews lounges on a couch in a Las Vegas hotel suite, the tattoo sleeve on his right arm exposed, he looks more like an NFL wide receiver or VIP nightclub bouncer or action-movie henchman. He’s listed at 6-foot-3 and 223 pounds on NHL.com, and the height looks right, but he has to be 235 pounds. He’s huge.
And why not? Without trying to kick the young man while he’s down: he’s had plenty of time to pump iron and crush protein shakes. It’s late June, and the last time he played a hockey game was two months prior, April 23, at Boston’s TD Garden. It was there that Matthews’ Toronto Maple Leafs carried out what has become an annual tradition: light it up in the regular season, generate considerable hope among the team’s rabid fan base, put up a spirited fight in Round 1, lose a close series and complete the dressing-room cleanout before the calendar reaches May. It’s happened that way in each of Matthews’ three NHL seasons since Toronto drafted him first overall in 2016.
Technically, the Leafs are coming “closer” to finally triumphing and amassing some crucial multi-round playoff experience. They fell to the Washington Capitals in six games in 2017; choked away a third-period lead in Game 7 against Boston in 2018; and played a much more even series territorially against the Bruins in 2019 before falling flat in the winner-take-all decider. Matthews, however, couldn’t see the silver lining two months after the fact. “I’m not sure it’s really encouraging,” he said. “I’d say it’s probably more frustrating, because you’re one win away, and then you never know what could happen. The team you lose to in seven games ends up in the Cup final, and it’s almost a what-could’ve-been situation. It leaves a sour taste in your mouth because it’s been the same result three years in a row. We believe in our team, we believe in our core, we have all the tools. It’s just a matter of putting that together and getting to that next level as individuals and as a team.”
Matthews’ NHL career as a player has been a microcosm of Toronto’s fate as a team: teasing with amazing raw potential but held back by a variety of forces.
Matthews has mostly lived up to his draft-day billing. “Generational talent” gets thrown around too often these days, and that distinction for the current generation belongs to Connor McDavid, but Matthews has quietly produced at a similar rate on a per-hour, minute and shift basis since debuting with an incredible four-goal game in 2016. Per naturalstattrick.com, across Matthews’ three seasons, a total of 414 NHL forwards have logged at least 1,000 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey. Among that group, Matthews’ 1.52 goals per 60 minutes rank first, well ahead of second-place Viktor Arvidsson’s 1.33. Matthews’ 2.59 points per 60 minutes trail only four players: McDavid, Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and Brad Marchand. When Matthews is on the ice, he performs at a superstar level. That makes his career highs of 40 goals and 73 points seem disappointingly modest.
An array of barriers has stymied Matthews’ rise. The most noteworthy, of course, is his inability to stay healthy. After he played every game as a rookie, he missed 20 games in 2017-18 and 14 more in 2018-19. The culprits, in order: upper-body injury, concussion, right shoulder, left shoulder. So why can’t Matthews avoid getting nicked up? He doesn’t play a physical style despite his big frame, as he ranks tied for 393rd in the 414-forward sample in hits per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 since he joined the league. He checks with his stick and does it as well as any player in the league, tied for seventh out of 414 in takeaways per 60 since debuting. Over that same span, however, Matthews sits roughly in the upper third of forwards in hits taken per 60 minutes. It’s the price he pays for being a perpetual puck hound and a star who attracts opposing checkers’ attention. It’s not something Matthews can really control, as he’s not going to stop pursuing the puck doggedly.
Individual awards are amazing, as they should be, but we grow up dreaming about winning the Stanley Cup.
– Auston Matthews
An element of Matthews’ game that someone can control, however, is ice time. The No. 1 difference between Matthews and his superstar peers is deployment. Over the past three seasons, among forwards with at least 50 games played, he ranks tied for 78th in minutes per game at 18:04. By contrast, McDavid is first at 21:49. Matthews’ power-play time has ramped up, peaking at 2:34 per game last season, but he was still only tied for 90th in the league among forwards with 50 or more games. It’s partially explainable by the fact Toronto had the fewest power plays of any team, but it’s clear Matthews’ lack of ice time relative to other big-name forwards has become a controversial topic in Toronto, especially after coach Mike Babcock infamously gave 39-year-old Patrick Marleau more minutes than Matthews in the third period of last season’s Game 7 defeat.
But is “Play Matthews more” as imperative a strategy as it seems? An alternative theory suggests Matthews’ busy style, laden with shots and takeaways, works better as a sprint than a marathon, that he’s better off playing fewer minutes because it keeps him fast and furious. “I’m not the one deploying myself on the ice,” Matthews said. “It’s up to the coaches and what they feel is best for the team. Every guy, if you ask him, he’ll want to play more. As a forward or even a D-man, there is such a thing as playing too much, but that’s all dependent on what type of player it is, how they feel. It’s a long season, right? So it depends on the situation.”
Babcock knows Matthews plays less than most stars, but that’s also a product of Toronto’s depth. There are only so many minutes to go around for a team that features Matthews and John Tavares up the middle and generally rolls four lines. “Each guy should manage his team the best way he can, but there’s no question, I think he and John, to be as good as they’re capable of being, should be right around the 19-minute mark,” Babcock said. “Some nights they’re going to be 18, some nights they’re going to be 20, but I think that’s where (Auston’s) the best, for sure. He’s an important part. He’s earned the right over time as he’s gotten better and better to earn more and more. A big part of the game is earning what you get. Your teammates respect that, and I think Auston’s done a real good job in that area.”
Babcock calls Matthews a “miles better player” today compared to his rookie year, citing skating, fitness, off-season commitment and leadership as his most improved facets. The next step is to become “one of the best 200-foot players in the game,” something Babcock believes Matthews wants to accomplish. There’s still some work to do there. Matthews hiked his faceoff percentage north of 50 percent in each of his past two seasons, but he still ranks near the bottom of the league in team shot attempts against when he’s on the ice. Like so many of the Leafs, he’s entertainment incarnate, generating lots of chances but surrendering too many the other way, though he ranks better than many of his teammates in relative Corsi.
Still, even if his game isn’t perfected, it’s clear Matthews has earned more trust from Babcock and that, even if Matthews never ends up being a 21-minute guy, he’ll see an increase in usage this season. Might such a change, combined with better injury luck, finally vault Matthews into the race for major trophies, such as the Hart, Rocket Richard and Art Ross? “Individual awards are awesome, and you don’t take that away from anybody,” Matthews said. “They deserve them, and I’d love to earn those at some point and have a good season injury-free and just break out. But in the end, everybody says it, you’re measured on championships.
“I remember, a while ago, when (Sidney Crosby) won the Cup pretty young, and I think (Alex) Ovechkin won every single award that year, and my dad was like, ‘Yeah, but he would trade all the awards to be in the position Sid was, which is winning the Cup or playing in the final.’ All those individual awards are amazing, as they should be, but we grow up dreaming about winning the Stanley Cup. I’m not sure your main goal growing up is to win the Art Ross, even though it’s an amazing accomplishment and something I want to strive for.”
The great players are the great players all the time. They’re every day, and they’re all-in. And that’s what Auston’s working towards.
– Mike Babcock
Now 22, Matthews enters the window when most of the game’s superstars have done their biggest damage, from Ovechkin to Mario Lemieux. If Matthews is going to reach that stratosphere, it should happen in the next couple seasons. The expectations are higher than ever, but not just for what he hopes to do on the stat sheet. Whether he, Tavares, or defenseman Morgan Rielly earns Toronto’s captaincy, Matthews is morphing into a leader and the face of the franchise. His on-camera interviews as a rookie were often flat and robotic, but he’s much more comfortable showing his personality today. “It’s just happened naturally,” he said. “You come in from Arizona, 18, 19 years old, walking into Toronto, the Maple Leafs, right? It’s the biggest hockey market in the world, so you’re a bit thrown back by it. You’re guarded. But as three years go by, you get more comfortable in your position, in your situation. I always just try to be myself. In the end, everybody has their opinion about you, and you can’t let that affect how you live your life.”
So, today, we see more Instagram posts of Matthews adventuring to exotic places, having fun, living it up on boats and beaches. And we see a lot more of his unique fashion sense, not only when he’s arriving at the rink on game days, but in photo shoots for publications like GQ. If an icon like P.K. Subban sets the tone with his flashy suits, Matthews wears stuff even Subban wouldn’t dream of trying out – long avant-garde coats and out-there hats that don’t resemble anything else worn by hockey players, attire that would keep Don Cherry awake at night. Matthews rocks a Euro-runway look, which he picked up in his draft year playing pro in Switzerland, and he considers NBA star Russell Westbrook his No. 1 fashion influence.
Babcock likes the idea of Matthews being more comfortable in his skin, as it’s characteristic of a player ready to lead his teammates on and off the ice. “Well, I don’t know nothing about his fashion sense, to be honest with you,” said Babcock with a hearty laugh, “as every guy in the NHL seems to have nice clothes. But what I would tell you is that you’ve got to become comfortable in the league. It’s a good league, and it’s a hard league, and I think he’s really done that. When we need a goal, when we need a big moment, he believes he’s the guy who can deliver. The other thing he’s learned is that it’s every day, all the time. The great players are great all the time. When you look around the league, at Patrice Bergeron, at Sidney Crosby, at Jonathan Toews, you look at guys that drive franchises and have won, they’re every day, and they’re all-in. And that’s what Auston’s working towards.”
If Matthews peaks, can Toronto finally progress in the post-season? Leafs GM Kyle Dubas swept several pieces off his chessboard this summer, trading away mercurial center Nazem Kadri, depth winger Connor Brown and penalty-killing defensemen Ron Hainsey and Nikita Zaitsev. The new-look Leafs count puck-moving blueliner Tyson Barrie as their biggest off-season catch, while centers Alexander Kerfoot and Jason Spezza will handle bottom-six duty. Instead of going grittier, Dubas has committed further to finesse, perhaps believing scoring even more can finally vault Toronto ahead of Boston in the Atlantic Division standings, meaning home-ice advantage in Round 1, which could help the Leafs slay their Minotaur.
And, hey, the Bruins were a win away from the Cup, and the Leafs pushed them to the brink, so perhaps they were a lot closer to a championship than anyone realized. It’s certainly something Matthews thought about, especially as he watched his city’s sports neighbors, the Toronto Raptors, win their first NBA title. As Raptors fever seized the city in May and June, Matthews couldn’t help but picture himself up on a stage, staring down at happy fans after a championship parade. Was the feeling jealousy, envy or mere fantasy? “I don’t like to use ‘jealous,’ but it serves as motivation,” Matthews said. “I was pumped to see that, to see the city and how crazy it was. The excitement, the parade, the streets after the night they won, it was just madness. You saw that sea of red, and you picture it as a sea of blue and white. It serves as a big motivation for us as players to accomplish that goal. It’s an amazing city, an amazing sports city, and hockey is at the top of that list.”
If we get a proper 82-game dose of Matthews in 2019-20, maybe he ends up atop a bunch of other lists – and packs his trophy case like never before.