The top pick from 2016 was a force for the Maple Leafs against San Jose, though his team couldn’t get the win. But this is all good experience for the young squad
Auston Matthews had himself another excellent game last night, but his Toronto Maple Leafs still lost. Consider this a grand metaphor for the squad’s 2016-17 campaign.
The top pick in the 2016 draft set up Zach Hyman’s opening goal, then scored one of his own to push the lead to 2-0. But as in so many other games this season, the Maple Leafs folded in the third period and eventually lost to San Jose in the shootout.
“It’s definitely frustrating,” Matthews said. “But at the same time it has to be a message to the room that it can’t happen. We have to figure out a way to close out these games. We can’t sit back and think defense. We have to keep playing like we did in the first 40 minutes, which got us into that position.”
Matthews has come as advertised to Toronto. His line with fellow rookies Hyman and William Nylander has been the best possession combo up front for the team and their ability to cycle the puck in the offensive zone is impressive, given their scant NHL experience. But what really excites about Matthews and Nylander is the creativity they bring to the table. Both are dazzling with the puck and one of Matthews’ most deadly weapons has been his knack for disguising his shot (Jack Eichel showed that skill against L.A. last night, too). On his 2-0 goal, Matthews found himself on goalie Martin Jones’ doorstep and the rookie thought back to an earlier play to fool the netminder.
“The first time,” Matthews said, “I went across to Bozie (Tyler Bozak), so I wanted to change it up on him, catch him with the one pad up, cheating. I don’t think he was expecting it and I was able to sneak it in.”
It’s fun to see what Matthews and contemporaries such as Eichel and Connor McDavid come up with – and I only exclude Patrik Laine here because goalies know where he’s shooting, they just can’t catch it – but it’s also intriguing because they’re so young and have so much to learn. Last night, Matthews got to face Joe Thornton for the first time in the NHL. Thornton is the kind of big, dominant center Matthews can strive to be, even if stylistically Matthews may hew closer to an Anze Kopitar or Jonathan Toews when all is said and done. And the kid was ready to learn.
“He’s obviously one of the best players out there,” Matthews said. “He’s so big and strong, he can make plays out of nothing. He’s hard to knock off the puck and has such great vision. Anytime you go up against those top players you watch what they do and pick apart pieces of their game to see if it can translate to your own.”
Bringing this narrative back to the Maple Leafs as a whole, I’m not too concerned with the blown leads this season because I never saw this squad as a 2017 playoff team. With so many young players – and a veteran group that is uneven at best – this campaign should be about learning and growing. Opponents have already begun to finish every check possible on lithe rookie Mitch Marner and that’s something the puck wizard will have to adapt to if he wants to be a top NHL scoring threat. Frederik Andersen took his early lumps, but now looks like the No. 1 goalie Toronto traded for in the first place. And maybe it’s just the prospect nut in me, but would another lottery pick in the draft be such a bad thing? Toronto has plenty of firepower up front for the future, but the back end looks more threadbare. Timothy Liljegren, Cal Foote or Nic Hague would all be nice options for the coming years.
The season is far from over and with the weakness of the Atlantic Division, anything is possible. But priority No. 1 in Toronto should be to continue giving Matthews and his fellow rookies time and space to shine – because the early returns are solid, even if the final score is sometimes painful.