Introducing The Hockey Writers’ Countdown to Puck Drop series. From now until the puck drops on the 2019-20 NHL’s regular season on Oct. 2 when the Toronto Maple Leafs host the Ottawa Senators, we’ll be producing content that’s connected to the number of days remaining on that particular day. Some posts may be associated with a player’s number, while others will be connected to a year or length of time. We’re really excited about this series as we take you through the remainder of summer in anticipation of the return of NHL hockey.
Maple Leafs fans watched with bated breath on April 30, 2016, as NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly revealed the winner of the 2016 NHL Draft Lottery. The lottery winners had been narrowed down to the Columbus Blue Jackets, Winnipeg Jets and Maple Leafs and the ultimate prize was highly-touted prospect, Auston Matthews. The Blue Jackets received the third overall pick, the Jets would pick second, and the coveted first overall pick would belong to the last-place Maple Leafs.
The previous season had been a long and painful one for Toronto’s fans. Neck deep in a scorched-earth rebuild, the team finished dead last in the NHL. The only meaningful thing the team won that season was the draft lottery. While no prospect is ever a guarantee, when Matthews stood on the stage at the NHL Draft it was a beacon of hope for the downtrodden franchise. With just days remaining before the start of the 2018-19 season, we will take a look back at Matthew’s historic NHL debut.
Expectations for Matthews were very high prior to the 2016-17 season. He was being looked at as the potential cornerstone of a franchise that had seen minimal success in the previous 13 seasons. The pressure is always high in sports, but Toronto has a reputation for being a demanding market to play in. Despite all the pressure and excitement of his first NHL game, Matthews produced a truly unforgettable game.
Just a four-hour drive from Toronto, the season kicked off in Ottawa. As Maple Leafs fans showed up in droves to watch the team take on the Senators, Matthews was ready to take the ice for the first time. Just over eight minutes into the first period, Matthews scored his first NHL goal. William Nylander fed a behind-the-net pass to Zach Hyman who then made the pass to the slot where Matthews was waiting. He put the puck past Senators’ goalie Craig Anderson and celebrated as his parents watched from the stands.
It is no easy feat to score your first NHL goal. It often takes rookies a few games to find their place on their team and make an impact. Matthews wasted no time scoring his first but he was far from finished. Just under six minutes later, he scored his second goal of the game and this one was even more impressive. He stripped Mark Stone of the puck, worked it through Mike Hoffman’s legs, then recovered the puck from the stick of Erik Karlsson and went five-hole on Anderson. A highlight-reel play if there ever was one. It showed that while Matthews greatest strength may be his shot, he is also an incredible puck-handler as he totally out-maneuvered the Senators best players.
Two goals in your first period as an NHL player would be an incredible accomplishment for any player. However with the score tied at 2-2, Matthews emerged in the second period ready to keep moving. Just 1:25 into the frame, he fired a wrist shot past Anderson, securing his first career hat trick. His mother Ema explained in an interview with Sportsnet that she initially did not know it was her son who scored the third goal. When it became clear her son had scored a hat trick she could not hold back her tears of joy.
Matthews became one of few to score a hat trick in their debut, but he set his sights on history. With three seconds remaining in the second period, Nylander fed him a pass on a two-on-one break and he buried it for his fourth goal of the game. To score four goals in a game is a tremendous moment for a player, to score four goals in a debut was unprecedented to date, he is the only player to ever score four goals in his NHL debut.
While people may only remember this game for Matthews’ performance, that night the team did not get the final result they wanted. The Maple Leafs had a plethora of rookies on their team in 2016-17 and the lack of experience led to mistakes being made. Frederik Andersen also got off to a slow start to the season as could be seen in this game. The Senators would tie the game 4-4 in the third period before winning it in overtime. It was not an ideal ending but the game was a case of the process being more important than the result.
Matthews’ performance left Maple Leafs fans with something they had been afraid to feel for years, hope. Hype was generated after the draft for sure, but games were now being played and he was living up to it. He went on to score 40 goals and win the Calder Trophy that season as the NHL’s rookie of the year. He has had many highlights in his young career but his first game will always be remembered as one of the greatest NHL debuts of all time.