Auston Matthews is a Toronto Maple Leaf and had the privilege of being the first player to model the franchise’s new jersey design.
BUFFALO –– The moment was surreal. Especially considering where the Toronto Maple Leafs franchise was even two years ago. Lou Lamoriello and Mike Babcock, standing on the stage, handing a sweater to the first overall pick in the 2016 draft, representing the Blue and White? Did Leaf Nation dream this? Nope.
Toronto selected what it believes will be a franchise-defining player in center Auston Matthews. It was only fitting that, when Matthews donned his Leafs jersey, he became the first player to do so. The old getup, associated with too many years of failure, wouldn’t do. The “new” look includes the veined logo worn from 1938 to 1963, a period during which the Leafs won eight Stanley Cups. The rest of the design is understated, simple and classy: two horizontal stripes on each arm and some thicker piping along the bottom.
“It looks good,” Matthews said. “I like it. It felt unbelievable putting on the jersey. Such a storied franchise, so it was a big honor.”
Matthews’ articulation skills will never rival P.K. Subban’s. We know that. But, after Matthews’ sleepy late-night television interviews on draft lottery day in April drew some criticism on social media for a perceived lack of excitement about potentially going to Toronto, Matthews seemed rather euphoric Friday night, at least by his standards. He knows he’s going to the ultimate pressure-cooker market, but he seems more accepting of that than in the past. He felt his coach in Zurich of the Swiss League, Marc Crawford, prepared him for Toronto. Crawford insisted Matthews will grow to love it.
“It’s a great sports town with the Blue Jays, the Raptors,” Matthews said. “They’re very passionate. Everybody’s told me when they’re winning, it’s the best place in the league, so it’s definitely something I look forward to.”
Matthews singled out William Nylander and Mitch Marner, the Leafs’ first-rounders in 2014 and 2015, as players he’s excited to share ice with. But no matter how high Nylander’s and Marner’s ceilings project to be, it’s clear Matthews is perceived as the franchise’s potential messiah. He’s the Leafs’ first No. 1 overall pick since Wendel Clark in 1985. Expectations are astronomical for Matthews, perceived by many scouts as a generational talent on par with the Buffalo Sabres’ Jack Eichel. Not that Matthews sees himself as the center of the universe in his new home, of course.
“Hockey’s a team game, so there’s really no savior,” he said, chuckling at the mere idea. “I want to be an impact player. I believe I can be a franchise centerman, a No. 1 centerman in the NHL, so that’s my ultimate goal.”
Chances are, we’ll see him in the Leafs’ new threads on opening night of the 2016-17 season. And maybe, with a few more months to adjust to life in one of hockey’s most pressure-packed markets, Matthews will continue to look more relaxed. Some of the tension appeared to exit his body Friday night.
“My heart was beating when I was waling out there,” Matthews said. “Very nervewracking. But once they called my name, it was definitely a sigh of relief. A lot of excitement with my family there with me. So it was a pretty unbelievable feeing.”
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin