The Auston Matthews-Patrik Laine debate may rage on for years.
But while Laine may hold a slight edge now in the who’s better, who’s best debate, the Toronto Maple Leafs are thrilled with their prized centre.
Matthews, who made his NHL debut scoring four goals in a stunning 5-4 overtime loss to the Ottawa Senators on Oct. 12, has been everything the Maple Leafs hoped for when they made him the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL draft.
Asked to describe Matthews, Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock said: “Elite hockey sense, elite drive, smart guy, comes from a good hockey family. He’s a special player.”
Babcock has entrusted the team’s No. 1 centre spot to the 19-year-old Matthews, who has responded with 16 goals and 26 points in 33 games. His average of 17:42 in ice time per game leads all Toronto forwards.
While that has not translated into a sharp rise up the standings for the Maple Leafs – who sit 23rd overall with a 14-12-7 record for 35 points – Matthews play, along with the solid performances of fellow freshmen Mitch Marner and William Nylander, has long suffering fans of the organization licking their chops at the thought of the future.
Marner, a shrimp at 5-foot-11 and 162 pounds, is also 19-years-old and is tied with Matthews for the team lead in points with 26 (eight goals), and has arguably been Toronto’s best player. He is creative and courageous and possesses a big-time NHL shot. Some thought that because of his size, the Maple Leafs would play him in nine games, send him to Team Canada for the world junior championship, and then return him to the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League. But Marner has proven to be much too valuable for that scenario to play out.
Nylander, 20, had a brief stint with the Maple Leafs last season, scoring six goals and 13 points in 22 games. This season he is fourth in team scoring with seven goals and 22 points in 32 games.
Matthews grabs the headlines
All three youngsters have quietly gone about their business, but it is the Arizona-born Matthews who has garnered most of the headlines. From kicking off his career with a four-goal effort, to scoring against his beloved Coyotes the first time he faced them, to setting up a goal in Arizona, Matthews has been superb.
Look at how Auston Matthews barely keeps this takeaway on-side. What a player. 26 points in 33 games now for the 19-year-old. pic.twitter.com/LfdPnSI91M
In fact his transition from playing pro hockey in Switzerland last season at 18 to being an impact player in the NHL has been so smooth, so steady, there is now speculation Matthews might be the logical choice to be the team’s next captain, replacing Dion Phaneuf, who was traded to the Senators last season.
Matthews was right at home playing with Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey, and has the kind of unflappable personality that suggests he would not be fazed by the day-to-day responsibility of facing the hordes of Toronto media that comes with being captain of the Maple Leafs. In that regard Matthews is very much like Connor McDavid, who became the NHL’s youngest captain ever this season with the Edmonton Oilers.
Matthews’ quick transition to the NHL did not surprise Senators assistant coach Marc Crawford, who coached the Leafs rookie in Switzerland last season.
“He is the real deal,” Crawford said. “He reminds me a lot of [Kings centre] Anze Kopitar with how he carries his speed and drives to the net and the overall game that he has. He has an NHL shot and the quickness and agility in the offensive zone of a [Flames winger] Johnny Gaudreau.
Honestly, he stops and turns and comes out of the corner with 1-on-1 moves where he protects the puck by pivoting so well. He is really explosive and is a really dynamic offensive player. The thing that separates great players from the pack is their vision and he’s got that. He sees the ice so well.”