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Maple Leafs' Top 25 Under 25: Auston Matthews unanimously named No. 1

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It wasn't even close. Auston Matthews becomes the first player since Phil Kessel to be unanimously selected as the top player in PPP's annual Maple Leafs' Top 25 Under 25 series.

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While there may not have been unanimity in 2016 NHL Draft rankings that ought to have had Auston Matthews as their top-ranked player, the staff at PPP didn't cast any doubt on his status within the organization.

Unanimously ranked at No. 1 by all 14 panelists in this year's Maple Leafs' Top 25 Under 25 series, Matthews has almost certainly added some predictability to this ranking for years to come -- or at least until he turns 25 or he's traded (gasp).

Ultimately, what the 2016 ranking came down to was a battle for second place between William Nylander and Mitch Marner, with the former narrowly edging out the latter.

With World Cup of Hockey pre-tournament exhibition games already well underway, Matthews' much-anticipated rookie season as the first Leafs no. 1 selection since Wendel Clark is already in motion. And it will be an unorthodox campaign, one that sees the 18-year-old miss the better part of his first training camp to instead compete against his future teammates and head coach but alongside Morgan Rielly with Team North America.

The hulking centre, who played in his first tuneup game against Team Europe in Quebec City last night -- going scoreless in a little more than 13 minutes of ice time -- will participate in at least five more games (two pre-tournament games against Team Europe and Team Czech Republic and three round-robin games against Team Finland, Team Russia and Team Sweden on September 11, 14, 18, 19 and 21 respectively). If Team North America is successful in finishing in the top half of their group, Matthews could participate in as many as four more games (a semifinal on September 24 or 25 and a best-of-three final that could run as late as October first.

For the Leafs, whose regular season starts in earnest on October 12, this could limit their top rookie and soon-to-be top centre to just one or two preseason games (the Leafs' preseason ends with an away game in Detroit on October 8, just a week after the end of the World Cup).

For Matthews, who was selected to Team North America at the World Cup over the likes of 30-goal scorer Alex Galchenyuk, expectations will be higher than perhaps ever before on a Leafs rookie. No matter how coach Mike Babcock attempts to temper expectations by insisting that Matthews will "start on the third line," Matthews will be placed with franchise-burdening responsibility from the outset and will (already has) become synonymous with the success of the team moving forward no matter how prolific he becomes as an individual.

After Buffalo Sabres rookie Jack Eichel registered 56 points in his rookie season in 2015-2016, the bar has already been set for his fellow National Training Development Program-bred compatriot.

As far as wrapping up the series goes, ultimately it's the voters and writers who make this series so great, providing insight and debate along the way. Proof of that lies in that this year, the 2016 instalment of the T25U25 was read by more people than ever before -- and it wasn't even close. As such, we thought it would be a fitting way to end the series by having our panelists put into perspective just what Matthews means to the organization.

Burtch believes Matthews will be thrust into a position among all-time greats.

In Matthews the Leafs hope they have finally found the heir to the mantle that was worn so well by the likes of Sundin, Gilmour, Sittler and Keon before him.

Wandering through the wilderness seem like tradition for the franchise, but in reality, it is a sad state of affairs the once proud organization is in the process of reversing, and Matthews is a large part of that metamorphosis.

True generational talent doesn't take multiple years to make an impact in the NHL. The Leafs hope Matthews can hit the ground running. The future begins now. - Burtch

Achariya is confident Matthews will be able to step in and be a top player immediately.

We have already been able to see how Matthews stacks up to NHL-caliber players at the IIHF World Championships this past May. He played for the U.S., and stood out despite the fact that the team did poorly. (IS THERE A HOCKEY CRISIS IN THE US?) Matthews played a well-rounded game with excellent hockey sense, completely unafraid to use his size and ability to back-check when necessary, and used his passing ability to stretch-pass to spring the puck. In the game against Belarus, Matthews was trusted with the second-highest ice time among forwards by the U.S. coach, and ended up scoring twice (once on the PP and once at 5x5), for a three-point game. His size, agility, and maturity on the ice will continue to allow him to play well for the U.S. (oh and the Maple Leafs) next season. - Achariya

Fulemin has no doubts about Matthews' ability so long as he can stay healthy.

If he remains healthy, Auston Matthews is going to be a 1C in the NHL. Simple as that. - Fulemin

While Seldo argues the team belongs to Matthews already, even before he has played a game.

This season Auston Matthews will take over the Toronto Maple Leafs.  He'll be the focus of TV, marketing, giveaways, everything will be Matthews. Which is a plus for the other players like Nylander, Kadri, Rielly, etc.. as the pressure will be off them for the start to the season.  He'll be one of the Leafs top players, and will wow people every night. Not that I thnk this means they're contenders, I wouldn't put any money on them making the playoffs, but this team will be a much better onbe to watch than last year. - Elseldo

Fifty believe Matthews' experience will help him quickly transition to the NHL game, and that could go down as one of the all-time homegrown players in an organization that has often acquired its top talent via trade or free agency.

Auston Matthews will be in a transition from rookie to future team leader, and I suspect it may take less time than some might think. Matthews has a year of professional hockey under his belt already; he has faced NHLers on the international stage and prevailed. He will do so again at the World Cup of Hockey.

Off the ice, Matthews seems like an ideal candidate to handle the relentless Toronto media fishbowl. Yes, he does seem boring, dry, almost robotic in his interviews, but in this market, that might be an asset.

Unlike some who have criticized Babcock’s expected decision to start Matthews in third-line minutes, I welcome the idea of easing him in. Prior to drafting Matthews, the Leafs already had a capable 1C in Kadri, and Bozak in a 2C role is fine. I suspect he will flourish in his easy minutes and work his way up before the season is over.

Matthews won’t set the world on fire, at least right away. Short of generational talents like Crosby and Ovechkin, no rookie can be expected to be a top scorer in the league. John Tavares had 54 points; Steven Stamkos had 46 (albeit with early season struggles due to a bad coach mismanaging him). I’d likely peg Matthews around those numbers. I’d probably hedge my bets on anywhere from 15-20 goals and 45-50 points.

What Matthews means to this organization, though, is hope. Name the last elite homegrown talent the Leafs have had. Phil Kessel was acquired via trade. Mats Sundin was acquired via trade. Doug Gilmour was acquired via comically lopsided trade. You would have to go back to Wendel Clark to find the last face of the franchise developed from within. I think Matthews will be far and beyond better than Clark, or even any of those players. The sky’s the limit. - Mike

Katya thinks Matthews is boring, and she's right (as always).

Auston Matthews is really rather boring. In interviews he's dull, almost lifeless at times, and he never says anything incendiary.  He does light up occasionally when he hits a topic he enjoys talking about.  He smiles suddenly, and it's shocking to see, but it works to draw you in.

He is also a little boring on the ice.

He does not have Patrik Laine's big, booming shot.  He does not have Jack Eichel's turbo boost breakaway speed.  He does not have Connor McDavid's total domination of the game, like he can see into the future ten moves ahead of everyone else.

He's more like McDavid than the other two, but with Matthews it is a different kind of dominance.  He commands space, not time.  He runs the play.  He makes the other guys on the ice do what he wants them to do, and not just his own team either.  He forces the opposition into the space he wants them to be in so he can do what he wants.

He wants the puck, he wants to own the ice, and he can and will appear at will in the slot in scoring position, and you won't always be sure how he got there.  Maybe he teleports.

He seems smaller on the ice than he is.  He is smooth and agile in the offensive zone like a winger, not a big, bruiser of a centre.  He likes the sweet spot at the goalie's left hand, a classic left-shooting winger location, and he can slide into place there for a pass like he's been playing wing his whole life.

Winger is just a role he plays sometimes to make the other team forget about him until it's time to score, a trick he managed for ZSC while wearing the fancy gold jersey of the top scorer.  So, maybe he is psychic.

He is one thing for sure: the next star of the Toronto Maple Leafs. - Katya Knappe

Species puts it more simply.

He makes me feel tingly in my special area. - Species 1967

And 67 Sound is confident Matthews has already put himself in a historic position.

Auston Matthews is, quite simply, the best prospect that the Leafs have had in the expansion era. Wendel Clark, their only other #1 pick, was a debatable first overall, not a consensus elite centre. This year, I expect that with 2nd line minutes and PP time Matthews should manage 50 points. Long term, he is the heir to Mats Sundin. A big, skilled (if not physical) 1C with legitimate 40-40 potential able to match up with just about anyone short of Connor McDavid. - 67 Sounds

Regardless of what anyone thinks, it's time to put aside offseason rankings and get the show started.

He'll be okay. Just okay. - Katyaknappe

Kid's good at hockey. - Arvind