Auston Matthews had a season for the ages and should earn Leafs first Calder in 51 years

Auston Matthews had a season for the ages

TORONTO — It took all of 14 minutes 18 seconds for Auston Matthews to set his first record this season.

On a mid-October night in Ottawa, Matthews became the first player picked first overall at the NHL draft to score two goals in his first period. He finished the evening as the only player in the league’s 100-year history to score four in a debut.

Before the 19-year-old plays his first playoff game for the Toronto Maple Leafs in Washington later this week, it’s worth pausing to consider how historic Matthews’ rookie season was, not just in the context of the Leafs franchise, but in the league itself.

Matthews truly had a season for the ages.

“You knew he had the talent,” Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews observed recently. “But sometimes it’s just a matter of time before it translates to the NHL and obviously he’s wasted no time. So you kind of wonder, if that’s how he comes out of the gate what’s he going to be like in a couple years from now?”

Matthews set franchise rookie records in scoring 40 goals and collecting 69 points, eclipsing marks by Wendel Clark and Peter Ihnacak which had stood for decades.

He’s the first rookie since Alex Ovechkin to score 40, one of only 19 in league history and one of only six teenagers. He’s only the fourth to hit the mark before his 20th birthday, also now the highest-scoring American rookie in league history.

Only Sidney Crosby scored more goals in the NHL (44) this season.

It goes deeper.

Matthews topped even Crosby, and all players for that matter, with 32 even-strength goals. That tied him for the sixth-highest total ever for a rookie, matching Eric Lindros,  Mario Lemieux and one-time Leaf Mike Gartner. He’s one of nine rookies to ever score that many and the first since 1993. 

Already six foot three and 216 pounds, Matthews did it with power, speed and electric skill.

“He scores goals different ways and I think that’s probably a big reason why he’s been so consistent is he’s got a great shot, but he can also score from in close and goes to the net hard too,” Crosby said.

The league’s best player, who managed 39 goals as a rookie for the Penguins, observed how lethal Matthews was with the wrist shot, different from Ovechkin or Steven Stamkos, both of whom rely on heavy one-time blasts.

Matthews finished with 19 wrist shot goals, 10 snap-shot markers, six via tip and another five on the backhand. 

The shots, more generally, are another matter for the history books.

Matthews set a new Leafs rookie record in firing 279 shots. The only rookies in NHL history with more? Teemu Selanne with 387, Ovechkin with 425, Wayne Gretzky with 284 and Dale Hawerchuk with 339.

Matthews led the NHL in scoring 14 game-opening goals, also equalling Dave Andreychuk’s franchise record.

Born in California, but raised in the shadows of the struggling Coyotes franchise, Matthews’ background is like almost no other. He learned the game not on the pond, but in chilly rinks across the desert where ice time and proper competition wasn’t always easy to find.

There was no junior hockey league domination like Crosby or Connor McDavid, but tenure with the United States national team program along with a year in Switzerland.

Toews, who hails from Manitoba, noted how differently Matthews learned his skills and skating from “say a guy like myself who was just on the backyard rink all those years growing up.”

What was so impressive to Crosby was how mature Matthews seemed already. There were nights of futility certainly, including against Crosby and Henrik Zetterberg, and he got hammered in the faceoff circle (46.8 per cent), but generally Matthews held his own while leading all Leaf forwards in garnering almost 18 minutes per night.

“I think that the biggest thing that stands out is probably just how complete he is,” Crosby said. 

It should earn him the Leafs first Calder trophy in 51 years, making him Toronto’s first rookie of the year since Brit Selby in 1966. Scan the home crowds at Air Canada Centre and his No. 34 jersey is almost ubiquitous, this despite efforts by the organization to shield him and the rest of the rookies from the spotlight by limiting TV interviews, promotion and marketing.

“Obviously (Matthews) is a special talent,” Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said. “More importantly, Matthews is a special person. That’s going to allow him to be a good leader because he does it right every day. In the end, that’ll allow him to drive a franchise and it’ll allow him to win. I think he’s a real good player and a real good man and has a chance to be a special player.”

Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press

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