For years and years, the Toronto Maple Leafs have plodded their way through NHL season after season. They’ve had top-tier talent – Curtis Joseph, Mats Sundin, Alex Mogilny – but they never have had a singular talent who merits mention as one of the very best of his era.
That is, until Auston Matthew showed up. The superstar center came into the league in 2016 with all sorts of hype, and he hasn’t only validated that hype, he’s surpassed it, and now is a legitimate contender for the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player. In this writer’s near half-century of watching Leafs hockey, it can be said that Toronto has not had a competitor of his caliber in decades – and at age 24, he’s only getting better.
This is no disrespect to Leafs stars like Darryl Sittler and Borje Salming; it’s just the reality that icons like Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy were a measure above them. That’s now the reality for Matthews: he is separating himself from the rest of the pack, improving his defensive game while allowing his offensive instincts to blossom. Toronto fans should know better than anyone what a rare talent looks like, and Matthews is that guy.
Usually, the Leafs are famous for picking up big-name players at the end of excellent careers with other teams. Joe Nieuwendyk is one example. Eric Lindros is another. Jason Spezza is the latest example. As a Leafs fan, you’re happy to welcome such talents aboard, but the caveat has always been you don’t get them at their peak.
Clearly, this isn’t the case with Matthews. His peak is still to come.
Now, is Matthews better than Edmonton Oilers superstar Connor McDavid? If he’s not, he’s approaching being as much of an impact performer as McDavid. Matthews doesn’t have McDavid’s astonishing speed, but McDavid isn’t the defensive threat Matthews has become. There’s a legitimate debate to be had about the two players, and that’s primarily because Matthews has rounded out his game, and made his offensive impact even greater than it was before.
Matthews currently leads the league in goals, with 37 in 50 games. McDavid has 28 goals in 53 games. Edmonton’s struggles have affected McDavid’s production, but Matthews has shown he can score at any time, from just about any part of the offensive zone. His shot’s pinpoint accuracy is stupendous. Sure, he gets help from fellow star and linemate Mitch Marner, but you also have to consider Matthews is the prime target for every opponent’s defensive plans, and he manages to thrive in spite of it.
Like the rest of the Leafs, Matthews ultimately is going to be judged by Toronto’s performance in the post-season. Thus far, playoff success has eluded Matthews, but something is different about him this season. He looks determined to put the team on his shoulders. When he’s not scoring the first goal of a game (which is often), Matthews is making things happen on offense to make up for the Leafs’ defensive lackings. In the three games prior to Toronto’s 5-3 win over Washington Monday, Matthews generated four goals and nine points. Calling it brilliance just doesn’t seem like it aptly covers the genuine impact he’s having on the league.
Nobody has ever questioned Matthews’ $11.6 million salary. In the occasionally fickle world of Leafs Nation, that’s a minor miracle. Marner has been criticized. Fellow star John Tavares has been criticized. Winger William Nylander has been criticized. But never Matthews, and that’s for very good reason. He is not a flawless player – and really, who is? – but Matthews is, hands down, the most talented player the Leafs employ. He doesn’t let the pressure of Toronto affect him. When he’s held off the scoresheet for a game or two, he doesn’t get down on himself or his teammates.
In sum, Matthews has been everything the Leafs envisioned him to be, and more. In hockey’s mecca, he has proven himself worthy of every laurel and all the adulation. After what feels like forever, Toronto has a genuine superstar any team in the league would kill to have.
And it feels like the party for him is just beginning.