When Auston Matthews won the Calder Trophy after last season, it ended a drought of more than a half-century since a member of the franchise had been named rookie of the year. And when he inevitably wins the Hart Trophy, perhaps as early as this season, it will end a dry run that is even longer and more embarrassing when it comes to having the league’s most valuable player. Too bad the kid doesn’t play defense. That might give them a chance to have their first Norris winner ever in the 63 years the NHL has been awarding the trophy.
The caveat to all of this, of course, is that it’s early. But it’s the only measuring stick we have at the moment and there is no doubt that after five games, Matthews is putting together a Hart Trophy-like season. Only one player, Sidney Crosby, has scored more goals than Matthews since the start of last season. Matthews has played all of 83 seconds of 3-on-3 overtime and has two goals. He went head-to-head against Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook and proceeded to skate circles around them and post his best career possession numbers.
And his goal Saturday night to put the Maple Leafs ahead of the Montreal Canadiens – the one where he tracked back deep into his end, then flipped the puck over Charles Hudon’s stick and retrieved it, then stabbed it out of the air around Jordie Benn before scoring a laser on Carey Price – was the stuff of very, very special players. The greatest ones are those who keep outdoing themselves even after you think you’ve seen everything they can give.
Should Matthews maintain this kind of level of play, there’s no reason to believe he won’t be at the very least a finalist for the Hart Trophy. In fact, he should win it. That would give the Leafs just their third MVP ever and their first since 1954-55 when Ted Kennedy won the award. And anyone who knows hockey history is aware that Kennedy was not the league’s most valuable player that year, not even close. Rocket Richard, who tied for the league lead in goals with 38 and was fifth in penalty minutes with 125, was tops among a fairly lengthy line of players who were more worthy. Kennedy received the award essentially as a retirement gift for his Hall of Fame career.
The only other Hart winner the Leafs have ever had was in 1943-44 when defenseman Babe Pratt won it. (Presumably he would have won the Norris had it existed.) So we’re already going back 63 years to the last time the Maple Leafs had the MVP and 74 years to the time when it went to a player who won the award on merit.
But let’s go a step further here. Auston Matthews has the potential to be the first actual superstar the Toronto Maple Leafs have ever had. As great as Syl Apps, Kennedy, King Clancy, Frank Mahovlich, Mats Sundin, Darryl Sittler, Doug Gilmour, Dave Keon and Borje Salming were for this team, it has never had true superstar. Ever. Which is really remarkable when you think about it.
Now I’m willing to acknowledge that my definition of superstar is probably a lot more restrictive than most. To me, superstardom is reserved only for those very special franchise players and there usually aren’t any more than four to six playing in the league at any time. A superstar, to these eyes, is a player who puts himself in that group for an extended period of time, at least three to five years.
Gilmour, and perhaps Mahovlich, were in that group, but not for a long enough period. The rest were very good players, but not in the Wayne Gretzky/Gordie Howe/Mario Lemieux ilk of players. The reality for the Maple Leafs is that this franchise, going back to the days of Conn Smythe, has always valued the collective over the individual. And that might be one of the reasons it has won so few Stanley Cups over the years. The collective effort is something that is necessary, but nothing wins Stanley Cups like top-tier talent and lots of it.
So it’s no coincidence that the Maple Leafs seem to be closer to achieving that goal than they’ve been in 40 years. Much of that is due to Matthews. If he can stay healthy and productive, he could take this franchise to places it has never been before and when all the dust clears and settles, could very well find himself leading the way when it comes to the list of all-time greats.