Auston Matthews Is Better Than I Ever Expected

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Photo Credit: Marc DesRosiers/USA TODAY SPORTS

Auston Matthews is really good. Like really, really good. Like “I thought he’d be this good in five years good.” Like he’s already better than pretty much every other centre in the league good. Like I’m already picturing what his banner would look like in the ACC rafters good. He’s good. 

That last line is the classic hyperbolic peak in a list of things that I like to do sometimes to emphasize a point, but I’d be lying if I said it was untrue. 

I’ve had the privilege of sitting in the press box at a number of Leafs games this season courtesy of The Hockey News and I’m grateful every day for that opportunity. My dream since I was a kid that finally realized he wasn’t good enough to be on the ice was to at least be above the ice and watch for a living and I’m living that right now. It’s still really surreal to me.

I sat there during last night’s Buffalo game, Matthews 42nd career game, and looked at the rest of the banners on display and pictured that crazy thing I mentioned above. I recognize it’s crazy. I know it. It’s still early. But then I look down and watch him play and I don’t think it’s so crazy anymore. The kid is special and will go down as one of the greatest Leafs in history.

When I’m in the press box, I put my Impartial Objective Journalist Hat on, as one does when they’re a credentialed media member, and I just watch both teams try to do their best at playing defence. Rarely does it go well for either side. The Objective Journalist Hat may be a tough sell if you knew I loved hockey growing up and lived in Toronto and can put two and two together, but it’s not too difficult to pull off, especially if the way you approach the game is quantitatively as I do. In my eyes, using data first and foremost, should absolve any bias that may creep in. If I say something like the Leafs are actually good, it’s not because I want it to be true, but because there’s empirical evidence of it being true. There’s ways to skew data to fit your own beliefs and wishes obviously, but I like to think I view this team in the same way as the other 30 teams (having a statistical model helps this as well).

I hope that’s the case at least, but I see plenty of other Computer Boys/Girls who do great objective work while prominently displaying what team they cheer for that I don’t really even think it’s a big deal, as long as the Objective Journalist Hat is on, of course. (Not to mention there’s plenty of unbiased reporters out there that like to pretend the hat is on even when it’s not).

That’s basically just a long-winded way of saying that I keep things strictly professional up there. I even wear a shirt with buttons which is not something I’m very fond of doing.

But then Matthews steps on the ice and it becomes tougher, because he’s just so incredibly amazing that it’s hard not to get a little giddy. This isn’t even a “Matthews is a Leaf” thing, this is a “Matthews is unreal and I would sign myself up to watch him anytime he comes to town if he was on any other team” thing. He is appointment viewing and I have an even bigger appreciation of him from sitting above the ice and seeing how plays develop in front of him.

At least once per game Matthews does something so absurd that I just start laughing and say “what” a lot. Usually it’s a puck battle he has no business winning. For any other player there’s maybe a 10 percent chance. For Matthews it’s almost 50/50 and he finds a way to pull it off. Players will be casually skating the puck up and Matthews will just come in and take it back, sometimes just as casually. There was a perfect example of this in last night’s game, where Jack Eichel was skating with the puck in the neutral zone and Matthews just went about his business, picked his pocket clean, and brought it back in to the offensive zone. A couple seconds later he gets the puck back in front of the net and roofs one home. 

We all remember the goal, and some of us remember the steal, but the entire combination of plays is just already turning into a Classic Matthews play. He literally does it every game and I just start laughing. I don’t know why that’s my go-to, but that’s what it is, just laughter because the things he does really just don’t make any sense to me and laughter is apparently my coping mechanism for witnessing supernatural forces at hand. That’s when I’m at home and have my Fan Hat on, when I’m at games it’s more of a stifled mouth agape expression when he does these things. 

In those cases it feels even more special because you see the act before the crime. You see Matthews silently stalk his prey, and then swoop in at the perfect time. Or you see his long reach go around players and somehow end up with the puck going the other way before the other dude even knows what direction he’s going. And it’s just hilarious that this 19-year-old kid from Arizona can do these things already. It’s insane.

And it’s those things that contribute to his complete game. The kid can score, we all know that, but he dominates both ends of the ice too. He’s an above average player by shot attempts already and he’s on a 75 point pace. When people say he’s already a top five centre in the league that’s exactly why. How many other players can you mention that are that good right now at scoring and that good at puck possession? Crosby? McDavid? Malkin? Bergeron? Seguin? Kopitar? That might be the whole list, and even some of those guys haven’t been at that level this season (looking at you Anze).

The best part about this all, for me at least, is the title of this post: I didn’t see this coming at all. Not yet at least. I didn’t think he would be this dominant right away. I didn’t think he would score this much right away. I didn’t think he would control the game so quickly. Every player entering the league goes through a learning curve to start. Some players are special and hit the ground running. Matthews has been in the latter camp. I mean, he scored four goals in his first damn game – he didn’t hit the ground running, he hit the ground and took off in a fighter jet.

When the Leafs won the draft lottery I didn’t know what to expect other than he was drafted first overall and would be comparable to Eichel, the other American kid from a year ago. In Eichel’s first year he was fine. He scored a decent number of points, but was a negative shot rate guy. He was still learning to be a complete player and that’s where I figured Matthews would land.

A week after it went down, my editor at THN asked me to write something that would forecast Matthews impact for the Leafs. You can read that piece here because it’s pretty funny considering what he’s doing right now.

In it, I looked at comparables to Matthews to get projections of his point scoring and WAR rate over the next five seasons. The comparables were great players, guys like John Tavares, Tyler Seguin, Patrick Kane, Eric Staal, and Phil Kessel. The picture they painted was a guy who would likely be good, but not great in his first year, and eventually settle into elite status.

Here’s a direct quote:

“What’s important to note here is he won’t get there right away. Matthews likely won’t be an elite difference-maker the minute he hits NHL ice, but in time he’ll get there. Tavares and Stamkos weren’t there right away either, now look at them. Matthews is a potential superstar in the making, just not next season.”

Can I get a mulligan on that one? 

That looks like a brutal take now, but at the time, those were actually pretty high expectations for the kid. I said that he would probably be in the Tavares, Stamkos, Hall tier of first overall picks rather than the Crosby and McDavid tier and that was apparently too much to some people for a kid who hadn’t played a single NHL game yet. 

Now that he has, I’m starting to think he’s a lot closer to that tier with Crosby and McDavid than he is to the other one. Not to get too ahead of ourselves, and nothing against those other three, but none of them were doing what Matthews was doing in Year One. And they all turned into elite superstars eventually. Matthews already is one, and his career has only started. It’s probable he gets even better going forward which is a scary thought for the rest of the league.

That’s a lot of adulation thrown at one player, but I believe every word. Matthews and the rest of the kids have brought a new found excitement to Toronto. You can hear it in the building every night. It’s LOUD now. This city is starting to believe in this team and what it can do. And it’s all because of the way some ping pong balls fell in place. 

For the last couple years, I didn’t care to watch every Leafs game. Not the way I did during the Sundin era where I would be visibly upset if I missed any. The team was bad and they were frustrating to watch. In my head I thought that this would make putting the Objective Journalist Hat on a lot easier. And it was. 

Until they got Matthews.

Now, every game is pretty much a can’t miss event. This is one of if not the most exciting teams in the league and he’s at the forefront of it all. It’s hard not to root for the team you grew up watching now that they’ve added all this talent, after all the years of pain and hardship. All of a sudden, thanks to him, the team is actually good.

Going through those Wilson and Carlyle years was tough. Seeing the team trade my favourite player for scraps was tough. It made me apathetic to this team. I didn’t care. You may have noticed this is my second stint here at TLN, and wondered what happened the first time around, and it’s just I wasn’t writing enough to warrant a spot here. I didn’t really want to because I didn’t really care about the team anymore.

But – and let me put my Fan Hat back on for a second – I do now. And I’m sure a lot of people feel the same way. Matthews is better than most people expected and his presence has rejuvenated the fan base. 

I’m not sure what to call myself anymore with regards to this team, and I guess it depends what hat I have on that day. Most of the time it’ll be Objective Journalist, but sometimes there’ll be fan moments that are hard to contain underneath the hat. Usually, those moments will be because of Matthews. Watching him play hockey is currently one of my favourite things in the world, no matter what hat is on.

  • Harte of a Lion

    Hey Dom, there is always room on the band wagon, welcome back. Austin Matthews is scary good. As a 55+ fan of the Leafs, I’ve seen great players come and go but I’ve never cheered for a superstar wearing the blue and white, now we might have 2. (3?)
    Thanks for the great read!

  • LukeDaDrifter

    I appreciate your honesty in this article. Normally I would question the integrity of a person who hops back on the band wagon as soon as the Leafs start to win a few games, In your case I am making an exception. Patience really is a virtue.

  • Pete Smith

    He’s so much better than I was expecting. I was hoping for 20+ goals and 50+ points. What’s even crazier to me, is that Marner is ALSO so much better than I was expecting right now. Nylander feels a bit disappointing because he is only doing exactly what I was hoping he’d be able to do. The Leafs have never had three prospects this hyped. Our prospects are always over hyped. I’ve never seen any of our kids be better than the hype, and right now we’ve got two of them doing exactly that. Crazy. Crazy awesome.

    • LukeDaDrifter

      I think we also need to give Babcock’s coaching staff some credit for teaching our rookies how to reach their potential so quickly..There is no salary cap on management. The Leafs have not gone cheap when hiring assistant coaches. The hired the best guys available.

      Jim Hiller Assistant Coach – Powerplay

      D.J. Smith Assistant Coach – ?

      Andrew Brewer Assistant Coach – ?

      Steve Briere Goaltending Coach

      Matthew Herring Srength and Conditioning

      Jacques Lemaire Special Assignment Coach

      Adam Jancelewicz Video and Technical Services Analyst

      Jordan Bean Video Analyst

      • DukesRocks

        All aspects of the front office has been upgraded, including scouting and development. Mark Hunter leads this group. If there is a guy that can find those diamonds in the ruff, Hunter is the man. I’m crazy over the potential of Bracco. I call him a poor mans Marner and that’s me saying he’ll be really good. It’s great knowing the Leaf moving forward don’t need top draft picks to find success in the draft.

        • Pete Smith

          In fairness, we don’t know that yet. I like Hunter, and believe he’ll be as good at evaluating NHL talent as he has been at junior, but we’ll see. Morison was actually pretty underrated in that regard. The Leafs have actually drafted pretty well. Connor Brown was a great late pick. The bigger problem for them was not having many picks at all because they traded them all away. But I certainly like the direction of the team. And ya, Bracco looks good.

          • DukesRocks

            Yeah for sure Pete, there’re many unknowns in the 2015 and 2016 draft but I can’t help being giddy by the overall direction of the franchise. The strategy and how you go about acquiring draft picks is something never ever seen in Leaf Nation. Sorta reminds me of Alex Anthopoulos when he took over the Jays. I remember thinking to myself, so that’s how you build a franchise. I remember during the 2016 draft (second round) wondering, what is Hunter doing? The names like Korchkov and Grundstom over guys like Benson, Katchouk and Raddish had me scratching my head. But i soon warmed up the crop drafted by the Leafs. Anyway, you are right, many unknown factor and it will be a while before we starting seeing the results payoff.

          • Pete Smith

            Oh. I’m excited too. But Hunter has made some questionable calls that we’re going to have to wait and see how they turn out. Trading back instead of drafting Konecny. Drafting all those overagers. Dermott over Carlo. Korshkov over a whole bunch of well known guys like Debrincat. We really won’t know for at least five years. Matthews and Marner my eight year old son could have drafted.

          • DukesRocks

            LOL, Yeah Matthews is a no brainer. However Marner vs some really good D like Hanifin, Provorov and Werenski could be a toss up. I feel when all is said and done in their careers, McDavid, Marner Werenski and Eichel will be the stand outs with McDavid and Marner reaching superstar status. In reference to trading back. I’m not exactly losing sleep over Konecny due to his size. He will be a good dime a dozen player in the league and the trade did yield 3 pretty good prospects in Bracco, Dermott and (Dzierkals no so much). In reference to Carlo. I love his size but the jury is out until we see more of his O/D side of the game.

            Getting back to the 2016 draft. Sure we left some serious skill on the board. However, before the draft, many in Leaf Nations were crying about how small the Leafs were. I’m happy Hunter addressed the issue and drafted size and skill. Moving forward, I can see more well rounded guys like Korchkov, Bobylev and Grundstom fit in for their toughness size and skill vs player like Debrincat or Konecny.

      • Pete Smith

        Ya. Not sure he’s “much better” than Joe Sakic. But I get the comp. For me he’s a bit Sundin and a bit Lindros. He uses his size more like Sundin, but his skill down low in traffic is kinda like Lindros. But ya. He shoots it kinda like Sakic. Great young player.

        • Pete Smith

          But then I remember that play on Karlson in his very first game where he slipped past him on the boards, walked in and scored, and I don’t remember ever seeing a big guy make a play like that. I’m sure others maybe have, but nobody really comes to mind.

    • Breakin 2 Electric Boogaloo

      I don’t know that there is a hockey player that exists that is ‘much better’ than Joe Sakic. Top 10 all time points list.

      Not to say Matthews isn’t better, but ‘much better’ is kinda crazy

      • Pete Smith

        I think you could make the argument that Matthews is better than Sakic was at the same age, but beyond that? Let’s have this conversation again in ten years.

  • Alan Wood

    Matthews is not just having a “honeymoon period”. We’re halfway through the season. The only thing that will stop him is injury (heaven forbid). Marner is another. Not yet scoring at Matthews level more of a playmaker but he might need the second year to reach Matthews scoring rate. I like Babcock using them both at centre on different lines. And there are others. Such a young team.

    • Babsock

      I agree. marner is so elite skating and hockey sense wise he doesnt really have much else to work on besides his shot. He’s got plenty of time to work on his release while he dominates the league as a playmaking rookie. I wonder where he would rank for all time primary assists as a rookie

  • Ron K

    Thank god for Brenden Shanahan who’s rebuilt this entire organization that made it possible to be where the Leafs are today with the likes of Mathews, Marner and Nylander to name a few. And, with Mark Hunter at the helm there will be many more fabulous picks that make their way to the ACC where Babs will whip them into great players while Lou will be at the ready to fill in the gaps.
    I haven’t been this excited about the Leafs since the 60’s……….