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Auston Matthews, Through the Eyes of the Maple Leafs

Toronto Maple Leafs fans have been in awe of Auston Matthews this season. But his biggest supporters? His teammates.
Auston Matthews

Michael Bunting was asked to use one word to describe Auston Matthews shortly after the Toronto Maple Leafs topped the Seattle Kraken at home on Tuesday night: 

"Machine"

Jack Campbell sauntered into the press room shortly after and was greeted with the same question. His answer, fittingly, conveyed the same message. 

"Just a machine," gushed the netminder. 

"He's amazing"

Matthews could realistically pass for a character out of a science fiction novel this season, perhaps as a stunningly life-like robot built in a lab by a mad scientist to eradicate humanity through non-stop goalscoring. 

If that's the case, then, humans are doomed. 

The Matthews Machine™ rolled on ahead at full steam last night, accounting for 44 percent of his team's total expected goals versus a hungry Kraken team while actually scoring three of Toronto's six tangible ones. 

Matthews was simply the best player on the ice every single time he stepped on it. He never took a bad shift, rarely exited the Kraken zone, and was trusted to defend a one-goal lead in the dying seconds of the game which, unsurprisingly, led to Matthews nailing Seattle's coffin shut with an empty-net tally to complete the hat trick. 

It was a superstar performance from a superstar player. One who looks to only be getting better. 

Fans have made no secret about how thrilling it is to watch perhaps the best individual season from any Maple Leaf in franchise history unfold before their eyes. And, frankly, neither have his teammates. 

"He's the best player in the league," stated Bunting, who happens to get the best seat in the house skating alongside Matthews on a searingly hot Leafs' first line. 

"He's so good defensively. He's so good offensively. He's the all-around package in my opinion"

Now, Bunting did admit to being a tad biased given his relationship with Matthews, but his assessment is frankly not far off. Matthews has improved his all-around game by leaps and bounds this season, somehow evolving into one of the better defensive centers in hockey while simultaneously not only maintaining his typical offensive production but surpassing it. 

Goals are, of course, hockey's most valuable currency. Some might even say you need them to win games. But for a player of Matthews' stature to work so diligently on the unsexy aspects of his game -- the off-puck positioning, awareness of opposing shooting lanes, defensive zone support, etc. -- that's what endears him to his teammates.  

And, frankly, to his coach, too. 

"I think we're at the point where it's hard to be surprised by what Auston does," explained Keefe following Tuesday's victory. 

"He puts high expectations on himself to be a difference-maker. Clearly, he's been that"

It hasn't just been Matthews' dedication to the on-ice duties of superstardom that have ascended him to the title of this year's consensus Hart Trophy favorite. Those have always been his forte. Rather, if you ask his fellow Maple Leafs, one of the more notable differences in Matthews they'll tell you is his evolution as a leader and teammate, recognizing off-ice bonds as a crucial element to on-ice success. 

It's about making his teammates better, not just himself. 

"I think Auston's grown a lot in his off-ice demeanor," explained Morgan Rielly. 

"I think he takes that role very seriously. Like, when a guy comes into a new team, and there's an opportunity that he might play on his line" 

No one has been a better poster child for Matthews' insistence on relationship-building than Bunting, who arrived at Leafs training camp in September with 14 career NHL points and now, 57 games into the season, has his first-ever 20-goal campaign as a member of perhaps the league's most potent line. 

That doesn't just happen overnight. Bunting's meteoric rise is something Matthews did as much as he could to put in motion. 

"He took a lot of time in training camp to just spend time with Michael," continued Rielly. 

"I think they had a bond right away. And I give Auston some credit there. He took that upon himself to make that happen and it's certainly paid off" 

That would be something of an understatement. Bunting is creeping up on a point-per-game pace while Matthews zeroes in on the 60-goal plateau. And despite the Arizona connection between the two, with Matthews living there in the offseason while Bunting spent the past six years with the Coyotes, Bunting admits the pair's friendship only started to form when he signed with the Leafs. 

"We didn't really know each other before I came here, we just had mutual friends," explained Bunting. 

"From day one, once we met at training camp, we just talked about mutual friends and built a connection, and built chemistry on the ice"

According to Bunting, that chemistry wasn't hard to find. 

"We have a great relationship off the ice. We joke around a lot, we're always chirping one another, and we hang out a lot," laughed the Scarborough native. 

"He's a great guy off the ice. A very humble guy. That's the thing. He's such a good hockey player but you wouldn't know it. He's just very humble, down-to-earth, and he's just a great guy to be around."

"And, obviously, on the ice he's exceptional"

Bunting's words ring deafeningly true, his bias be damned. 

And with 25 games to go and the Maple Leafs in the thick of a heated divisional race, the best is seemingly yet to come. 

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