Confident Matthews to represent Maple Leafs at NHL All-Star Game
Maple Leafs rookie Auston Matthews is headed to the all-star game. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/PHOTO)
TORONTO — Auston Matthews may be the youngest Maple Leaf invited to the NHL All-Star Game in more than three decades, but don’t let his age fool you.
Basically from his first shift in the league, the Leafs rookie has made his birth certificate seem like a lie, and that maturity is a big reason why he’s off to such a roaring start with the Original Six franchise.
“I’m not surprised he’s being named (to the all-star festivities) and I think it’s tremendous for him,” Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello said in an interview on Tuesday.
“With the maturity he has at the age he’s at, it’s outstanding. And he will handle all of this and keep it all in perspective, soak it all up and be a better player when he comes back.
“That’s what is so nice about most of the young players that we have. Sometimes it’s difficult to express in words until you are around them. I’ve had players over the years that are 30 going on 15.”
Matthews was one of 40 players that the NHL named to the showcase event and became the youngest Leaf invited to participate since Wendel Clark in 1985-86. The fab freshman will be part of the Atlantic Division team taking part in the skills competition and all-star game itself on Jan. 28-29 in Los Angeles.
The nomination is yet another accomplishment for Matthews, who already has 21 goals in 39 games, has been named the NHL’s rookie of the month and has cemented his spot as the Leafs No. 1 centre.
If he’s exceeded the expectations of some, that hasn’t been the case for Matthews himself.
“Honestly, not really,” Matthews said on a conference call, when asked if he was surprised at the immediate impact he’s made. “I know what I’m capable of.
“So far this season we have a lot of rookies on this team a lot of guys are going through the same thing and we lean on each other quite a bit.
“To me the season has gone really well so far. We’re all really enjoying it. We’re playing in the NHL and living our dream, so it’s definitely been a blast.”
While the Leafs can’t take credit for Matthews' natural ability Matthews — and the team had to win the lottery for a chance to select the Arizona product first in the 2016 NHL draft — they’ve certainly helped him adjust to the NHL.
Toronto coach Mike Babcock has worked diligently on Matthews’ defensive game to the point that, less than half a season into his NHL career, he’s already being matched up against some of the top centres in the game. In terms of managing the expectations of playing in one of the hottest hockey markets going, Matthews has been expertly steered by the Leafs director of media relations, Steve Keogh and his staff.
“We’ve done the same thing with all our young players,” Lamoriello said. “They’ve all been handled consistently, the same way. They’ve been made available but it’s also knowing when enough is enough. The players are allowed to grow and go step-by-step.”
Fair to say that those steps have been accelerated as it relates to Matthews. When Babcock said in November that Matthews could be a dominant NHL centre by Christmas, eyebrows were raised. Not so much now.
“I think he’s right,” Matthews said when asked about those comments on Tuesday.
“I feel like I’m playing well. I feel like I can be a dominant centre. The biggest adjustment has been playing without that puck. That’s been the most important thing for my growth in the first year.”
Matthews learned of his latest honour while chilling with a number of teammates in the sunny south. The super rookie caused an internet stir on Monday when he posted a picture on his Instagram account of himself and teammate Josh Leivo topless on a boat.
But, unlike the drama that followed New York Giants receiver Odell Beckham and his teammates last week, there is nothing controversial about this mini vacation. The Leafs have four full days off before reporting to practice in the New York area on Thursday.
Matthews said the break has helped “rejuvenate and re-energize” for what the teams hope will become a serious push for a playoff spot.
“As a team, I think we’re capable of a lot,” Matthews said. “We’ve got a lot of talent, a lot of skill. These last couple of weeks, we’ve been able to put together a win streak. There’s still things we want to work on, but we’re a very talented team.
“I think we’ve gotten better as the season has gone on and going into the second half, we want to make a push, we want to stay in a playoff spot. I think we’re definitely capable of doing that.”
ANOTHER BONUS FOR AUSTON
He’s still only 19-years-old and in theory getting his feet wet in the NHL, but Leafs rookie Auston Matthews is also officially an NHL bonus baby.
By being named on Tuesday to participate in this season’s NHL All-Star Game in Los Angeles, Matthews is eligible to collect a bonus of US$212,500 on his entry-level contract.
It’s the second such bonus for the first overall pick in the 2016 draft. The centre collected the same amount when he reached 20 goals in the Centennial Classic win over the Detroit Red Wings.
"It means a lot with some of the best players in the league,” Matthews said of his all-star designation. “To represent the Leafs is special.
“It definitely ranks up there close to the top. Going into the season, you don’t really think about too much of that stuff, you just let your play dictate (what happens.)”