I started out my Auston Matthews video series on a whim. With the palpable excitement surrounding his debut, I recorded the first few games with plans to go back and rewatch his shifts.
Then, he scored four times on opening night in the first game of his career. This had never happened before in the 100-year history of the National Hockey League.
As momentous of an achievement as it was, it was just one game. As I watched through each of his shifts, while I noticed a ton of good things, there was a lot to work on still. (A player with a lot to work on after his first career NHL game? Big surprise, I know.)
I continued to watch the games, look up Auston’s game log, and go through each of his shifts.
From the very first shift to the very last, there was one thing that stood out to me more than anything else: Matthews is elite already at winning puck battles – not just stick lifts off of other rookies drifting through the slot, but full-on battles with the biggest and best players in the world.
A couple of games in, I decided to make a pros and cons highlight reel for his first 10 games. I posted my first highlights instalment and then another for each 10-game segment. Now, after finishing the eleventh and final video, I can offer a look back on all of the content from Games 1-10 up to the playoff video and establish the main takeaways in what would shape up to be a momentous rookie season culminating in a runaway Calder Trophy victory.
Game by Game Highlights
On the “con” side, the first video showed that Auston started the season with a propensity to turn the puck over and he struggled to break out of his own end. It was as if he didn’t yet trust himself or his size on the ice. Time after time, a teammate would work hard to free the puck, only for Auston to turn it right back over onto an opponent’s stick. There were a few defensive lapses as well, such as not picking up his man or a lack of physicality.
On the “pro” side, however, there were plenty of good signs in those first 10 games. As mentioned, he not only came into the NHL with an uncanny ability to retrieve pucks and win battles, he also possessed great vision, speed, and an ability to find the open space on the ice. These areas would all improve as the season went on, but it was interesting to see, in retrospect, just how far he has come both in his own end and in his confidence on the ice.
Games 11-20 showed definite improvement over the first block, but the breakouts continued to be an issue and Auston slipped into his first scoring drought, the effects of which could be seen in Auston’s puck-handling and patience. In moments where we would, later in the season, see him wait for a split-second to evade a defender or pull off a slick move to create more space, we were instead seeing flubbed shots, missed open nets, panic plays, and the typical lack of confidence that seeps into a rookie’s game.
Still, his game continued to mature. Not only was Auston still picking pockets, his overall hockey IQ had really started to emerge in his puck possession time, positioning, passing, and defensive coverage. His goal drought ended and the confidence started to pick up. One area in which this was especially prevalent was his ability to gain entry into the offensive zone – often after carrying the puck out of his own end. Bottom line: He really started to become a “generator” in this second 10-game stretch.
From there, his early weaknesses became few and far between. By the third video, there wasn’t enough substantial footage to even make a legitimate “cons” portion of the video.
Think about that: Just 20 games into his rookie season, Auston had nearly eliminated all of the significant flaws from his game.
Of course, he would continue to make mistakes, turn the puck over occasionally and have defensive lapses, but they were much less frequent and almost always came from a good place. Instead of making a bad decision that would lead to a mistake, the mistakes were now stemming from the right ideas that just didn’t pan out. That’s a big difference.
To accommodate his accelerated development, it made less sense to stratify plays into pros and cons, and more sense to highlight the differences between those made with the puck and those without.
The zone entry and puck carrying became more prevalent as both Auston’s confidence and the team’s faith in his ability increased. Frequently, on both power plays and 5-on-5, the Leafs employed a play in which they would either have Auston swing back into the zone and receive the puck in stride, or start with Auston low in his own end, give him the puck, and let him do his thing.
With that increased role and time with the puck, his puck protection skills started to become even more apparent. His puck battles and retrieval were obvious already, but adding a honed ability to protect the puck — in tandem with his size — creates a formidable combination. Auston also began receiving more time on the power play and some time in the quarterback role. With that, there came an increased look at his passing acumen – something that would prove highly beneficial as other teams started shifting their focus more to #34.
From there, the fourth to 10th highlight videos (plus the playoffs video) were, for lack of a better term, essentially Hockey Porn for Leafs fans. The leaps and bounds made this season were beyond impressive.
toggle through the playlist for parts 4-11
Throughout the series, I intentionally left out Auston’s goals and assists until the end of each video. Anyone that followed the league this year knows that Auston scores a lot of goals and has a significant on-ice presence. What I really wanted to showcase, though, were the little plays that truly separate him from the rest — his less appreciated highlights. In the process, it drove home just how important those things are. There are countless examples in each video of Auston setting up teammates for missed chances, or Auston keeping a play alive that leads to a goal, breaking up a chance in his defensive zone, or settling the play down and gaining entry into the opposition zone. All of these things are important plays but never make it onto a traditional highlight reel.
The start of something special
It’s really impressive that Auston scored 40 goals in his rookie year, but what I want anyone who reads this or watched any one of the videos to take away is that Auston is a 19-year-old rookie who is already doing things seasoned veterans of the game are not. Furthermore, almost every facet of his game not only impressed but improved markedly. How many rookies would receive such praise for things like puck retrieval, puck battles, power play leadership, defensive ability, and his ability to make teammates better (the list goes on and on)?
The season was pretty much the stuff of fantasy for a rookie player in the NHL: four goals opening night, his OT heroics in the Centennial Classic, breaking Wendel Clark’s record for most goals in a season by a Leaf rookie (34), the franchise record for most rookie points in a season, most goals by an American-born rookie, notching 40 goals (second in the league, most scored by any Leaf since Mats Sundin in 2001-02). Matthews finished the season with 69 points, good for 20th in the league and won the Calder Trophy by the landslide. In the playoffs, Auston scored a goal in four consecutive games and was an integral part of a Leafs team that nearly pushed the President’s Trophy winners to a Game 7, with all six games decided by a single goal, including five in OT. Auston’s stat line read: four goals, one assist, five points (the goal and point totals were both team leaders).
Leafs fans have watched a lot of bad hockey over the years, withstood a lot of bad managerial decisions, poor ownership, new ownership, turnover on the ice and in the press boxes, and a playoff drought that — if not for a half-season appearance — would have lasted from 2003-04 until just a few months ago. There were waffles thrown, fans with bags on their heads, 18-wheelers falling off of cliffs, 4-1 as “the new worst lead in hockey,” Salute-Gate, Peter Horachek, David Clarkson, and players sparring with the media. You name it, it happened in Toronto the last decade.
Leafs fans have come out the other side and finally have a nice thing going for them. Auston Matthews is a Toronto Maple Leaf, and he’s just getting started. Add William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Connor Brown, Morgan Reilly, Nikita Zaitsev and now Timothy Liljegren to the nucleus of young talent, and it’s a good time to be a Leafs fan.