Back in June, on the day that the Toronto Maple Leafs drafted Auston Matthews first overall, Mike Babcock told reporters that Matthews would start the year playing on the 3rd line, with Nazem Kadri and Tyler Bozak ahead of him on the depth chart. On Wednesday this week Babcock repeated that sentiment and said it would be up to Auston to determine how quickly he’s able to climb the depth chart.
Hearing Babcock say that Matthews, the Leafs franchise player, will play on the 3rd line behind Tyler Bozak may sound strange at first. Auston recently dazzled fans at the World Cup of Hockey while playing on Team North America’s first line with Connor McDavid. Matthews had three points in three games, and his two goals were tied for the team lead. How could a player so exciting be relegated to the third line of a team that just finished last in the NHL? But if we look a bit deeper at what the Leafs are trying to build, it makes perfect sense.
One of the first things that Mike Babcock said when he was hired by the Leafs is that “We have to create an environment that’s safe for the players.” It’s a theme he’s returned to a number of times over the past year. When describing what it means for players to be “safe”, Babcock has discussed the way they’re viewed in the community:
If you play real hard and you get prepared and stay determined and you
play with structure and play real hard you can walk around town, go for
breakfast, life’s good, people like you, it’s no problem. If you don’t
get prepared and you don’t play with determination and you don’t play
with structure it’s not as much fun being around town.
He’s also said that is about players feeling good about themselves, while also feeling driven to be better:
I think our players, you can tell it by talking to them right now, they
feel pretty good. And when you feel safe, that doesn’t mean it’s
friendly and cuddly. I never said that at all. It’s “do your job, do it
well, we’re gonna look after you,”. I think Lou’s real good at that, I
try to be good at that. I’m trying to create an environment that’s
demanding and yet supportive, and that pushes people to be better.
When you think about Babcock’s focus on making players feel “safe” in Toronto, saying that Matthews will start on the third line makes perfect sense. One thing Babcock wants is to push players to be better. Starting Auston on the third line lets him know that even as a first overall pick, he still has to earn his minutes. He’s got to show up every day and demonstrate that he’s one of the best players on the team if that’s how he wants to be treated.
But more importantly, it’s about supporting his development and protecting him from expectations. By starting Matthews on the third line, the Leafs letting him know that he doesn’t have to carry the burden of the entire team as a 19-year-old. He’s going to have help, he’s going to be surrounded by other players who take responsibility, and Auston can focus on becoming the best hockey player he can rather than trying to be the Leafs saviour on day one of the season.
There are enormous expectations being placed on Auston Matthews right now by fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs. He was the shining light at the end of the tunnel of a difficult season, the team’s first 1st overall draft pick since Wendel Clark was selected more than two decades ago. Matthews looks like he could be a star, the kind of top tier centre that helps bring home a Stanley Cup. He’s big, he’s strong, and he’s tremendously skilled.
But he’s also a teenager. He’s never played a game in a Leafs jersey. He’s never had the spotlight on him the way he’s going to starting in October. It’s a gift to have the opportunity to make so many people happy, but it’s also a huge burden, and asking a teenager to shoulder it may be too much. When I was 19 my biggest responsibility was occasionally driving my little sister to work. Matthews is being asked to end a Stanley Cup drought that began thirty years before he was born.
Given those enormous expectations that Auston Matthews has to live up to among Leafs fans, it makes sense to try to insulate him. Telling fans that he’s going to be eased into the NHL helps do that. If Auston gets off to a flying start and it’s apparent immediately that he’s the team’s best player, then great, he can start easing into that role. Everyone’s happy.
But imagine an alternate scenario. Imagine that Auston Matthews is named the first line centre right now. Now imagine that the Leafs lose 10 of their first 15 games this season. Imagine that Matthews only scores three points in those games. Is it going to be fun for Matthews to walk down the streets in Toronto? Is it going to be fun to talk to the media? Is it going to be fun seeing what the Toronto Sun says alongside a big picture of him on the front page?
While that isn’t the most likely outcome, it isn’t out of the realm of what’s plausible. The Leafs just came off a season where they finished 30th overall. They should be improved this year, but it could still be a rough season, and when we’re talking about a stretch of only 10 or 15 games, an awful lot of things can happen. And even the game’s most consistent scorers have slumps. Leafs fans likely remember the 2012-13 season, when Phil Kessel only scored one goal in the first 11 games. Or how about 2013-14, when Claude Giroux only scored 1 goal in the first 19 games of the season? Odds are that Matthews won’t run into that situation, but it’s far from impossible.
So imagine a slightly different scenario. Imagine the Leafs lose a bunch of games and Matthews isn’t scoring, but this time, he’s on the third line, with Kadri and Bozak taking the bulk of the minutes. Expectations will still be sky high for Matthews, but now it isn’t all on his shoulders. Now Nazem Kadri, given the starring role as the team’s 1st line centre, is the centre of attention. Now the veterans at the top of the lineup are taking a lot of the responsibility. And Babcock can take the heat too. In this scenario, it’s still tough to be Auston Matthews, but the team has protected him. It’s not his fault they’re losing. The team is losing together.
This is why it’s quite sensible to say that Matthews is the third line centre heading into the season. The exact number of minutes he gets isn’t really what’s important. The goal is to make sure that no matter what happens, the Leafs are putting Matthews in the best position to develop into the star they eventually need him to be. By trying to keep expectations in check – among fans, among the media, and even for Auston himself – Mike Babcock is putting Matthews in the best possible position to succeed. He’s keeping Auston safe. And that’s the best scenario for everyone.