On the day he was named a finalist for the Hart Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player, Toronto Maple Leafs superstar center Auston Matthews had bigger fish to fry: namely, helping lead his team to a Game 6 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning, and eliminating the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions to make their first appearance in the second round of the post-season since 2003-04.
Don’t get it wrong – Matthews should enjoy the compliment, courtesy of hockey writers voting on the Hart. But I think we’d be fooling ourselves as a profession to believe Matthews (or virtually any other NHLer) would be heartsick if he wasn’t nominated. The NHL Players’ Association’s Ted Lindsay Award – the league’s most outstanding player, as voted on by his NHLPA peers – probably means much more to him. But even then, he’d likely tell you he’d trade all of his individual accolades in return for playoff success. That’s as it should be. That’s what you want to hear from all your team’s players.
But what you also want from your team’s players is the ability to rise to the occasion, and the ability to impose their will on games. That has happened to an increasing degree over Matthews’ six seasons as a Leaf. Those of us who’ve watched him game-in and game-out since he came into the league recognize the improvement in his defensive game, and the rise in confidence he shows in just about every shift as he finds new ways to demoralize opposing goaltenders. He is able to shake off the pressure that comes with playing in Toronto, and thrive in spite of it. At age 24, his best years are still to come, and that should terrorize other teams.
That said, we’ve also seen Matthews (and his teammates) stumble through the playoffs. Last season, he managed only one goal and five points in Toronto’s first-round collapse against the Montreal Canadiens. But he wasn’t the reason the Leafs lost that series. It was a true team effort to fall apart the way they did, and they have to own it.
But if you look at the whole of Matthews’ career, you have to acknowledge he often has come through when it would’ve been easy to pull the chute and glide his way through games: in his very first NHL game, he scored four goals against the Ottawa Senators. More recently, as he drew closer and closer to matching and beating Leafs legend Rick Vaive’s franchise record for goals in a single season, Matthews’ bumped up his totals by leaps and bounds: he tied Vaive’s mark of 54 goals by scoring a hat trick against the Lightning, then set a new record with a pair of goals against Dallas. Finally, in his final game of the regular season, Matthews scored a pair of goals to reach the 60-goal plateau.
And now, in this post-season, Matthews has generated three goals and seven points in five games. His latest goal was the game-winner that put Toronto ahead 3-2 in the series against the Bolts. He has been a bulldozer on skates, and he’s the most dynamic Leafs star in the modern history of the franchise. It’s been said before, but it’s true – all the pain Toronto went through before the hockey draft gods smiled on them in the lottery was completely worth it, because it ended with Matthews in Blue and White. You don’t acquire a talent of his magnitude in a trade, or in free agency. That’s just not how the NHL, and hockey culture, almost always works. You take your lumps and hope the draft brings you a gift.
Matthews now has the next two games to help his teammates take the next step as a Cup contender. He doesn’t have to be the sole stick that stirs the drink for Toronto, but another game like he had in Game 5, and Leafs fans will be overjoyed.
We still have to remember it’s a process for NHL stars to elevate to Cup champions. It’s not a given every year that circumstances line up for one or two players to boost their team’s Cup odds. But Matthews, linemate Mitch Marner, center John Tavares and winger William Nylander have a golden opportunity Thursday night. If they let it slip away, it will haunt them for the summer, and probably lead to significant change of some sort.
If they make the most of it, though, they’ll have earned a new place in Leafs history. It’s up to them, but Matthews very easily could be the one to stand out above anyone else on either the Leafs or Lightning. He’s that good, and that compliment would apply if he was playing for Toronto, the Columbus Blue Jackets, or the Arizona Coyotes.
It’s not about where he plays. It’s about how he plays. Hart Trophy or not, he’s one of the planet’s most skilled players, and now he has a chance to take the next step as a competitor.