Toronto Maple Leafs Ramp up Auston Matthews’ Responsibilities — and the Rookie Begins to Thrive
TORONTO — Auston Matthews was dealt one of the toughest match-ups of his young NHL career, and he came out on top.
The 19-year-old scored his team-leading 15th goal, fired a career-best eight shots and played a career-high 21:22 while squaring off primarily against three-time all-star Ryan Getzlaf and former MVP Corey Perry on Monday night. The Maple Leafs also won the puck possession battle when their Calder Trophy contender was on the ice against the Ducks’ No. 1 line.
Leafs coach Mike Babcock said Matthews was “fantastic” afterward, describing him as the team’s best player.
Babcock wouldn’t say why he chose to match Matthews against Getzlaf, but regardless, the Leafs appear to be increasing the competition level for their emerging American centre. Two nights before the Ducks match-up, Babcock lined Matthews up against Penguins all-world pivot Evgeni Malkin, now the NHL’s third-leading scorer.
Matthews managed to win that battle, too, finishing at nearly 60 per cent puck possession in about nine even-strength minutes against Malkin and former Leaf Phil Kessel, also top-10 in the NHL scoring race.
“I feel comfortable going up against anybody,” Matthews said this week. “It’s not really up to me who I play against.”
But it is up to Babcock, and he has typically sheltered Matthews through the first third of the season. Matthews has gotten the Leafs’ majority of offensive zone start opportunities (still over 60 per cent), often against lesser lines and defensive pairings. He’s better positioned to score that way, and time in the defensive zone is limited.
The Matthews-led line got the toughest minutes against the Ducks, though. They were last on the team in offensive zone start percentage (29 per cent) with only two of 12 face-offs coming in the “fun zone,” as Babcock often calls it.
“I thought our line really did well against them,” Matthews said. “I thought we really kind of controlled the play for the most part and generated a lot of scoring chances.”
His goal was a remarkable effort, in which he redirected a point shot with one hand on the stick.
Former Leafs coach Randy Carlyle came away impressed.
“The thing that I noticed about him is the strength that he has around the puck,” Carlyle, now the Ducks coach, said. “Nobody seems to be able to pull the puck away from him.
“He’s very comfortable in a lot of situations at a very early age and that usually bodes well for a long career,” he added.
It’s possible that Babcock was steering Matthews away from Ryan Kesler, a former Selke Trophy winner and six-foot-two, 200-pound nuisance, by playing him against Getzlaf. The Leafs were short veteran centre Tyler Bozak (lower body injury), meaning Babcock ultimately had to choose between lining Matthews up against Kesler or Getzlaf. He opted for the more offensively inclined Ducks centre.
That doesn’t explain why Babcock chose to match Matthews against Malkin, though, and hints at growing trust in the young centre’s ability to handle tougher match-ups.
Babcock noted Matthews’ growth in the defensive zone while also pointing to a need for improvement in the face-off circle. Matthews is sitting at a lowly 46.6 per cent (71st among 89 eligible NHL centres) after dropping eight of 13 draws against the Ducks.
“He gets the puck way more than he used to because he knows how to play and I think he’s pretty comfortable understanding that now,” Babcock said.
The Leafs want Matthews playing offence as much as possible, but with his size and strength, tremendous skill and ability to process the game, he’s almost certain to become the type of centre Babcock confidently matches against any line or superstar. Matthews has been compared to Los Angeles captain and Selke winner Anze Kopitar and is a noted admirer of Chicago captain Jonathan Toews, who has also captured the NHL’s top defensive forward award.
Babcock said he expected Matthews to become a “dominant” centre by Christmas, a realization the player seems to be meeting with nine goals and 11 points in his last 12 games.
He leads all NHL rookies with 12 even-strength tallies, trailing only Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine in total goals and points among first-year players while playing four fewer games.
Whether the Leafs will start handing Matthews those kind of duties this soon is the question, though recent tests suggest he’s ready. Toronto plays eight of the next 10 games on the road, where Babcock won’t get his choice of match-ups, so an answer isn’t likely until after the New Year.