Leafs May Finally Have Their New Centrepiece in Matthews
BUFFALO — The man from Toronto, old enough to remember the last Stanley Cup, made the drive to the First Niagara Center on Friday night, because he didn’t want to miss out on history.
Because he just had to be here for a night like this one.
The night the Maple Leafs fortunes changed: Maybe, forever.
There have been four great Leafs centremen in my lifetime: Dave Keon, Darryl Sittler, Doug Gilmour and Mats Sundin. All in the Hall of Fame. And now a new day. A new name. A new possibility to build around.
Auston Matthews, the teenager from Arizona, the fresh-faced blue and white saviour. For a franchise that once upon a time won championships, once upon a time contended, but has never been blessed with an abundance of high-end talent, now has a player who could possibly eclipse Keon and Sittler, the short run of Gilmour and the long run of Sundin. He won’t win, can’t win, the four Cups Keon brought home. That isn’t possible anymore. Sittler, Gilmour, Sundin never played for a Stanley Cup as a Leaf. Matthews has an opportunity to be that special player.
An NHL scout yesterday repeated what he’d told me before: “He’s Anze Kopitar with better offence.” Two years ago, Wayne Gretzky called Kopitar the third best centre in the world behind Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews. If this is who Matthews is and what he will become, then the Leafs have a piece they have so rarely owned before.
Who wins Stanley Cups? Teams with overwhelming first-line centremen: Crosby, Toews, Kopitar. Before that Mark Messier, Wayne Gretzky, Brian Trottier. Before that, Jean Beliveau, Keon, Phil Esposito.
The Leafs believe they have one of those cornerstones. That kind of player. It is all part of the plan Brendan Shanahan and Lou Lamoriello and Mike Babcock talk about.
They have some young players to build around. They have some talent. But before Friday night, they had no centrepiece. No difference-making centre. No one to bring out chants of his name before the Leafs went to the podium and made the call. Lamoriello went to the microphone first, then passed it over to scouting guru Mark Hunter, who nervously made his way through the announcement of Matthews’ name. As Hunter made his way through his introduction, a group of fans wearing Auston 20:16 T-shirts — a clever take-off on the Austin 3:16 T-shirts of pro wrestling fame — stood and chanted his name.
And as Auston made what, for him, will be a memorable walk to the stage to greet the 11 Leafs executives, owners, scouts and coaches on the stage, the fans chanted: “Go Leafs Go!”
And more “Go Leafs Go!” Another Buffalo home game. The power of the Maple Leafs.
There are only a few franchises in professional sport around the world like this one. There are the Dallas Cowboys, maybe the Green Bay Packers, maybe the New York Yankees, maybe the Chicago Cubs, maybe Manchester United. Franchises bigger than wins or losses. Franchises not necessarily defined by championships but by an unwieldy fan base.
The Leafs are the hockey version of the unexplainable. The more they’ve lost the past decade, the bigger they’ve become.
But this was a night of history and the road no longer has a fork in it. This is the beginning of a straight line. There is now a direction in which to proceed. There is a president who has won, a general manager who has won, a coach who has won.
Now come the winning players and the centre who didn’t come from nowhere — although, as a hockey market, Arizona is close to that — to lead the Leafs somewhere.
Sundin came from a trade. Keon came before there was a draft. Gilmour was here, then gone, all too quickly following a blockbuster deal. Sittler was homegrown, brilliant, until it ended badly with him and Harold Ballard and Punch Imlach and the ‘C’ torn from his jersey.
The homegrown star is not really much of a narrative in Leafs history. Only Keon, Borje Salming, Sittler, were giants of the past half-century. After that, not much else but a lot of heartache, a lot of hope, a lot of waiting for next year.
The wait continues. It took Kopitar and the Los Angeles Kings four years to make the playoffs after drafting him. It took Toews just two years to make the playoffs.
The Leafs would probably settle for something in between. But consider this: It’s been more than half a century since a Leaf won a major award in the NHL and that was Brit Selby’s rookie-of-the-year season, when he won the award more because he was the league’s only freshman forward of consequence, not because he was a great player. Selby went on to play 105 more games for the Leafs, scoring 13 more goals.
Matthews has a shot to contend for a Calder Trophy this coming season. The most recent Leaf to do that was Wendel Clark, the only Leaf prior to Matthews to be drafted first overall.
Matthews has a shot to be so many things. The Leafs unveiled a new jersey, a new logo, a new centreman on Friday night. A night of firsts, a night of hope, a great new beginning for a very old franchise forever in need of change.