Auston Matthews broke the confidence barrier, and good riddance

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Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY SPORTS

Auston Matthews was named to the Atlantic Division All-Star Team on Tuesday. That’s awesome, if not totally expected given his star status and his star performance throughout the season so far. Because of this, he had to do a conference call with our local media to talk about how excited he was about the honour. But in that, he showed some more flair than he usually does, and I think that’s a good tone setter for himself and the rest of his team moving forward.

Here was Matthews whether he was surprised with the success he’s had thus far, courtesy of a transcription by James Mirtle of The Athletic:

Q: I’m just wondering with the body of work that you had coming into the NHL you probably had a pretty good idea that you were going to be a successful player and that you were going to fit in and be able to play but I was just wondering if you look back at the first half of your first season and does it surprise you how successful you’ve been, how many points you put up, how well you fit in and what you’re accomplishing right now at the NHL level? Are you at all surprised at the amount of success that you’ve had? 

AM: Um, honestly not really. I think I know what I’m capable of. Going into the season, it’s just you want to soak it all in, learn as much as possible. I think that’s what I was trying to do so far. I think I’ve tried to get better each and every day, work at my weaker points of the game and try to apply it to all areas. So far this season, we’ve had eight rookies on the season so a lot of guys are going through similar things. We lean on each other quite a bit. To me, I think the season has gone really well so far. We’ve enjoyed it. We’re playing in the NHL. We’re living our dreams. So it’s definitely been a blast. 

Matthews was also asked about Mike Babcock’s “dominant centre by Christmas” comment, and if he feels he’s kept up with the prediction. 

Q: In November, the coach made a comment about you, I forget the exact wording, but he said something like you would be a dominant centre by Christmas, which is quite the short time table for a 19-year-old. But I think what he meant by that was kind of around that time he saw your trajectory he was going to start using you differently, giving you tougher minutes against tougher opponents. Are you kind of ready to take that next step and play against the other team’s top lines on a more regular basis? 

AM: Yeah I think so. I feel comfortable going out there against any line and obviously the first half of the season we were kind of sheltered as Babs kind of said we were playing more against second, third lines, especially at home. But no I feel comfortable, especially with the guys I play with. Zach Hyman, he’s obviously one of the hardest working guys on the team. And, lately it’s been Connor Brown, but him and Willie, all of us, this being our rookie year, we’ve all gotten better and learned the biggest part is especially in the defensive zone and positioning and away from the puck and all that stuff. I think it’s going really well for us. I think that’s why we’ve had more success of late. I definitely feel I’m ready for that challenge and it’s definitely motivation. 

Q: What did you think when you heard him say you’d be a dominant centre by Christmas? It’s both a compliment and it’s a bit daunting to hear those words at the same time, isn’t it? 

AM: Oh, I don’t know. I think he’s right. I feel I’m playing well. I feel like I can be a dominant centre. I think the biggest adjustment has just been playing without the puck and I think that’s been the most important thing for myself and all of us.  The first year and that, how tough it is to play in this league, nobody really makes mistakes out there and positioning is so key and you’ve got to have that down. Playing well without the puck, playing well in the D zone, it makes life a little bit easier when you are playing against those top lines and top players. 

Now, a lot of people were surprised by this today.  Matthews has been incredibly by-the-book just about every interview and scrum he’s ever done, and in a phone call from somewhere in Florida, he’s suddenly pumping the tires of the playoff push that the media he was talking to largely figured was impossible, and not downplaying his own success, rather saying that he deserved it.

That, for whatever dumb reason, is jarring to some in today’s hockey climate. We’ve conditioned our players to be “aw, shucks” humble to the point of misleading. We’ve created an environment where we demand constant access to robotic filler, where we want our players to be exciting but not show excitement, where we want our players to be great but not to know it.

An environment where media rely on their recordings to fill word count on their recaps, but shame those who’s words and actions drive the story that they’re the main characters in. It’s contradictory, it serves nobody well in the long run, and it stifles the entertainment value of an entertainment product. 

It’s amazing that not much has changed in this regard in the past few years. I think a moment I’ll never forget came as a response to an action, rather than a quote, but it still spoke volumes about the climate. It was 2010, the Oilers were coming off a brutal prior season, but they added a few rookies, including 1st overall pick Taylor Hall, 2008 1st rounder Jordan Eberle, 2009 1st round Magnus Paajarvi-Svenson, and Linus Omark, a 23-year old they had drafted out of Sweden years before.  

The climate in Edmonton was weird that season. The team won their first two games, lost 16 of their next 18, and then bounced back to win 6 of their next 9. This set up for a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, another rebuilding team climbing their way back up the ladder. The game went to a shootout, and Omark, playing his first NHL game, hyped up the crowd at Rexall Place by spinning into receiving the puck, faking a shot, a ripping one past Dan Ellis for the win.

The crowd in the stands loved it. Lightning star Steven Stamkos, known for not overstepping the line, didn’t.

“I didn’t think it showed a lot of respect in this game,” said Stamkos, as found in this post from the Edmonton Sun from that night. “I mean, you don’t see Crosby or Ovechkin doing that and they’re the two best players in the game. (Omark’s) a creative player, he’s got good skill. I’m not taking that away from him, but it didn’t really have any implication on his moves, so I don’t know why he did that.”

At the time, I felt that Stamkos quote was weird for a couple of reasons; it seemed to be anti-fun, it cited Alexander Ovechkin as an example of being by the book in an era where people were still complaining that Ovechkin and the Capitals were “too loose”, and well, Steven Stamkos took a full power slapshot at Nikolai Khabibulin not even 30 seconds before Omark got on the ice, which was probably more disrespectful.

That legitimately became the peak of the Oilers season, if not the peak of the next several years. From the looks of it, the roster and staff took a lot of the heat Omark took to heart, and toned down the team’s “excitement level” after that. Stoicism became as commonplace as losses and did so for years. In 2012/13, they seemed to get another spark of flair from Nail Yakupov’s emotional game-tying goal celebration, had him get ripped to high heaven across the hockey world, and went back in their shells again.

Omark and Yakupov turned out to not really be needle-shifting players, but you have to wonder how things could’ve turned out for them if they got to ride their own confidence in a more comfortable environment. You have to wonder how things would’ve turned out of their teammates could do the same; both their incident’s seemed to dull the entire roster in both seasons, and it’s taken years and an ultra-mega-star to finally get them on the right track. We’ll see how long it lasts, though McDavid is as generationally robotic as he is skilled, which, even if it doesn’t energize a boring room, keeps them from being deflated.

The Oilers story isn’t the only what if, of course. The aforementioned Ovechkin and the Capitals saw a few year void in their window when Ovechkin attempted to go cold to the media and reserved on the ice, and the team themselves decided to shy away from their high-offense system to become more well-rounded. Today, they aren’t the kids they used to be, but they’re back to being openly fun and, combined with the obvious roster rejuvenation and Barry Trotz’s system re-adjustment, they’ve become a threat again. Joe Thornton and Brent Bruns have done a great job of cultivating the open culture in San Jose, including Thornton’s “somewhere along the record” comments that pulled heat away from Tomas Hertl after his polarizing between-the-legs goal a few years ago. Even today, they’ve embraced the “quirky veteran” role so well that they’ve put Joe Pavelski in a position where he can be a captain without having the pressure of doing so. It’s a refreshing example of using a bias to keep a bias away, and seeing how perennially competitive the Sharks are, it clearly seems to work.

These Leafs, of course, are a young and fun team. They’re not your traditional NHL group, consisting of eight rookies who haven’t been broken down by the NHL yet, a barely not rookie class of players getting their first true shakes, and a veteran group that’s still in their mid to late 20’s themselves and can relate with this young, brazen group in the real world, pushing some of the once had energy back into them. Much of that had already been apparent to those who followed these players though their journeys through the league, or got a little attentive on social media, but the litmus test will always be the greater public eye.

Simply put, it’s a young group that, for all intents and purposes, seems focused on the end goal of the hockey game, but haven’t quite been corrupted into taking this too seriously. Which they shouldn’t; aspirations or not, jobs or not, this is ultimately a game that we grew up having fun playing and that those steering the hovering microscopes should theoretically be having fun watching.

Perhaps the wide-spread failure comes from what we expect an elite hockey player to be as a person. People are creatures of habit that project their own lives onto others; when they’re having too much fun with their job, it makes us jealous, when they seem to not care, it makes us frustrated as those fuelling their paycheques, and through all that, what we want to see from them is the company line, to show respect to their employees. We’re being bosses by proxy; we want results on the sales floor (ice), an unwavering smile at the performance review, and for them to do their job when the customer asks. On the surface, we want heroes, but subconsciously we want what the average employed person has to be during their shift, to make us feel better about us.

Is that overthinking Auston Matthews acknowledging that Auston Matthews is good? Absolutely. 100%. But it trickles down. Whether he likes it or not, and whether the team likes it or not, he’s the face of the team and the face of this movement. His words and his actions are going to raise and lower the bar for the rest of his peers along this journey, and in a dumb little conference call about being named to an All-Star Team, he calmly and unwaveringly made it okay for his team to believe in themselves, individually and as a group.

Obviously, there’s a line where personality becomes stupidity, but those situations are rarer in this game than the media will sell you. Whether he meant to or not, Matthews has set up a subconscious stage for this team to be themselves just a little more, and when you’ve got upside, that extra bit confidence is a great weapon to have on your side.