Just a year ago, we at PPP eagerly watched the draft lottery—the Toronto Maple Leafs won it, in case you’ve forgotten—and then we very eagerly got to work speculating about the future Maple Leafs player Auston Matthews.
We had hopes and dreams and expectations. But we had only a little bit of knowledge to base them on. Matthews hadn’t yet played in the World Championships, and his pro season in Switzerland had gone mostly unseen since Swiss league games are nearly impossible to watch internationally. He had played in the WJC, and there were some highlight videos from Zurich, that was all.
I know I had watched a lot more of Patrik Laine than I had Matthews. But we bravely made guesses based on what we did know about how we thought he’d play and who he’d play with. Let’s have a look at how we did at speculating.
People have mentioned Matthews’ size and two-way play, and suggested that his comparable players are Toews and Kopitar. What makes him such a good prospect and hands-down first overall pick?
This was true at the time. In some sort of effort to differentiate Matthews from Laine, these were the comparisons for Matthews. Laine got a lot of likening to Ovechkin and Stamkos for his one-timer.
We didn’t much go for that comparison though.
Acha: Instead of comparing him to Kopitar and Toews, what I notice most about Auston Matthews is his amazing hockey sense married to his amazing skating ability, like the best purely offensive forwards.
Right away, Achariya was dismissing the idea that his goal scoring wasn’t his key trait. We didn’t really understand we were dealing with a “shoot first, celebrate in a subdued manner 40 times” kind of guy, but we didn’t think he was Toews either.
Katya: Two-way player to me means with and without the puck, not two zones of the ice. He's better with the puck, all guys his age are usually. But he's got the game going in his head, he controls the action.
Scott expanded on the idea of Auston’s brain being the thing about him that is special.
Scott: I think beyond his two way play, his ability to dictate the game with his skill as a puck carrier is what separates him from the rest of the crop in 2016. He’s an extremely heady player, and finds open ice for himself or his teammates better than most 17 or 18 year olds.
People say that his size and skill also mean he'd slot into an NHL lineup immediately, like Eichel did in Buffalo. Where would he fit in next year's Leafs lineup? Who would his best wingers be?
Acha: There's no question that with the youthfulness of the Leafs lineup that is projected for next season, Matthews could use his ability to slot into a second line center role right away. His best wingers would potentially be mature guys who help him ease into a role, someone like Leo Komarov (if he returns) would help him learn a bit of snarl and edge. If it's a purely "kid" line, I think he'd be excellent with faster wingers who can learn a good Babcock system and be exactly where Matthews needs them for making his plays.
Acha sets the tone for us again. We all seemed to think he’d be the number two—and in some senses he was for a time. He built up to top ice time (by a narrow margin) very quickly, and built up to a role that saw him face tougher opponents by the end of the season. I think he did the first part faster than any of us could have imagined.
Katya: For the Leafs, he is the 2C behind Kadri to start. Like Eichel, he would perhaps need to play some third line sometimes. That's about matchups more than his spot on the totem pole. Wingers are tough to guess at. He loves the puck more than Nylander even. He needs wingers that can support that. So shifting Nylander over to his wing might be a disaster. Weirdly, I want to say P.-A. Parenteau, who won't be there. Hyman, for the tough forecheck. Soshnikov for the net front presence.
So I called Zach Hyman as his winger, but grossly underestimated how fast Matthews would make the top centre spot on the Leafs his office. He doesn’t own the one spot on the ice; he owns all of the ice.
Scott: If the Leafs have all of Nylander, Bozak, Kadri and Matthews down the middle next year, I would argue that Matthews deserves to start at the 2C slot behind Kadri and ultimately transition into the No. 1 centre as the season progresses. He’s capable of being a 50-point rookie, so I don’t think it would take long before you see him alongside van Riemsdyk. I think Matthews would actually mesh well with Connor Brown though, frankly.
He managed 50 points okay. In fact, he managed 69 points.
What potential downside might Matthews have for the Leafs? Is his skill mature enough for the NHL game, given that he's mostly played in Europe and with the USNTDP?
This question is funny now in hindsight. I’ll let Brian Boyle speak to the reality of Matthews’ maturity.
Brian Boyle on Auston Matthews: "He should be going to his senior prom a week from now. He's mature beyond his years."— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) April 25, 2017
As for what we thought of him as a potential rookie:
Arvind: I see very little downside in Matthews. The media will probably crap on him if he has a slow start, but in terms of the on-ice portion, he's probably going to be great.
Seldo had a very good analysis of Matthews’ unusual career path and what it said about him. Note also the bit of Toronto pessimism at the end.
El Seldo: I think his maturity isn't an issue. He looked at all his options and had the mind to look away from the obvious and find a solution that worked best for him. He saw the CHL and didn't want to give away his talents and not play in the NHL/AHL post draft. He saw the NCAA and didn't want to make a commitment he knew he wouldn't keep. He found an option that would allow him to play in the NHL or AHL at worst right away, he got paid for his talent, and didn't end up letting down people who put their faith in him. He wants to control his destiny. That's maturity right there. (Though it worries me he may bolt as UFA first chance he gets, also most likely to pull a Lindros based on his desire to control his future.)
We talked about the advisability of taking someone else first-overall—remember when that was a thing? But we all thought that was silly.
Bonus: Mitch Marner? JvR? Nylander? Kadri? Matthews? Too many options!
We were trying to imagine the lineups, and thinking more about wingers here.
Katya: For the winger question, I want to talk about why not JVR. JVR is the best player on the Leafs right now. Unquestionably in my mind. But he's a very, very high shot rate player. I'm not sure that fits with Nylander, much less Matthews. So, I think JVR with Kadri is how it might have to go.
I think I was almost right here. I don’t think James van Riemsdyk with Tyler Bozak is fully successful, but there was no other option if Kadri was going to be busy as a shutdown centre. I was obviously wrong above when I said Nylander wouldn’t work with Matthews. It’s interesting that Nylander can play that winger role with a high-shooting centre so well. We’ve learned a lot about his versatility this year as well as who Matthews is.
Acha: Bozak might be a good choice on his wing, instead of JvR, then.
Katya: I mean, we're not even mentioning Marner here at all!
Acha: I always shipped Marner with Nylander on the 1st / 2nd / 3rd line.
Katya: Yeah, even without Matthews, I think Marner is destined for wingerdom.
El Seldo: Yeah, that's where Marner was played most of this year, I'd think there was some request from Toronto on that.
And then I rode off on my hobby horse about physical, tough wingers. I still think that’s a thing the Leafs need in a top nine sort of player, not just in defensive specialists like Komarov and Martin. Hyman worked with Matthews, better than we likely had a right to expect, but one guy who is JvR and Komarov in one package sure would be nice.
And then it’s like we were looking into a crystal ball to see the issue in front of us now a year later:
Arvind: I do agree that Nylander and Matthews might not be the best combination. I think a lot of people's instincts if we get Matthews would be to shift Willy to wing, and play him there. I'm not a fan of that. I think Nylander is better as a C than a W going forward. I feel the comp of Nylander to Backstrom is a decent one. If he turns out as good, I'm thrilled
Acha: I agree, I'm not sure why we'd displace Nylander and all his ability to the wing. They'd be 1C, 2C, 3C -- imagine the depth at that position, god.
Katya: God, this is a very current Tampa Bay lineup isn't it? All this interchangeable top nine talent?
Acha: Yeah, it's a whole box of chocolates!
One thing really stands out for me in this conversation: if we underestimated Matthews a little, we had no clue at all what Mitch Marner would bring to the Leafs in his first year.
Auston Matthews was everything that make the Leafs what they were this year. His skill, speed and work ethic set the tone for the team more than any veteran did. His nervous parents in the stands stood in for all of us sometimes, particularly as the Leafs struggled to clinch their playoff spot.
Auston Matthews is the Leafs. That’s what we didn’t see coming.
Auston Matthews scores the first goal of the season, from Hyman and Nylander:
Auston Matthews scores the last goal of the season, from Rielly and Hyman: