Maple Leafs Commentary: Auston Matthews By the Eye Test

Stan Smith and I (The Old Prof) have been collaborating on articles for over a year. Both of us thoroughly enjoy the collaboration and we hope we can continue to do so for a long time. 

Although we usually write in one voice, we do have different focuses as we study the players and review them. In our posts, we try to employ these different perspectives in our collaboration.

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Our plan is to – prior to the start of the Maple Leafs’ training camp – engage in a short series of posts that review what we know about each player on the Maple Leafs roster. This is our first such post, and together we’ll both look at Auston Matthews and his contributions to the team.

Studying Film of the Maple Leafs Players

Anyone who has read our posts knows that Stan likes to look at the numbers to see if they can add to what fans see when they do the old-fashioned eye test. However, Stan is also a student of the game and especially the Maple Leafs. He has a unique way of watching each game.

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Gerry Angus/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

First, he watches each Maple Leafs game as any fan would. However, he also records the games and then rewatches each of them. As he reviews them, he takes notes that focus on different players in key moments of each game. He looks for both good and bad in their game and keeps notebooks.

The Purpose of Our Upcoming Set of Posts

The purpose of our upcoming series of posts is to review and discuss Maple Leafs’ players based on Stan’s studies of their gameplay. Most of the information compiled for these posts comes from Stan’s extensive video review and notes about what each player does with the puck, without the puck, where they are, and what they are doing while not directly involved in the play, etc. 

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Our goal is to be both thorough and balanced, sharing both the positives and the negatives we see for each player. Today, we will review Auston Matthews. Our next review will be of Mitch Marner.

Player Review One: Auston Matthews

Although Jim Sr. began covering the Maple Leafs in 2018, Stan has been watching the Maple Leafs for over 50 years. He watched them win the cup in 1967. In his time, he’s seen hundreds of players come and go from this team. 

His assessment of Auston Matthews is direct. He’s never seen a better player wearing the blue Maple Leafs’ uniform than Matthews.  

Matthews as an Impactful Offensive Player

While Matthews is not a speedster, he can skate well for a big man. He can carry the puck and, to that ability, he adds not only one of the best but also one of the most deceptive shots in the game. His deceptiveness is what makes him such a prolific scorer. He’s not a one-trick pony like a number of other goal-scorers in the league. He can score in many ways. 

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs Elvis Merzlikins Columbus Blue Jackets
Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrates after scoring a game winning goal.
(Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

You would think that a player everyone on the opposing team knows is the most dangerous player on the ice would be covered in the opposition zone 100 percent of the time. And, we think the opponent’s defense is really trying. Yet, Matthews is a master at separating himself and finding open ice. 

One move Matthews makes quite often is to leave the zone with his teammates in possession of the puck, thus losing his checker, who’s either unwilling to exit the zone with him or thinks he’s finished his shift and leaving the ice. Matthews then reenters the zone wide open and uncovered.

Matthews as a Growing Defensive Player?

As for weaknesses, we really can’t say Matthews has one. In his earlier seasons, he wasn’t that defensively aware. That in itself is not uncommon for a young player. But he’s learned the defensive aspects of the game and has overcome any deficiencies he had in his first few seasons. He’s now one of the best 200-foot players in the game.

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It would not surprise us if Matthews eventually added a Selke Trophy to his trophy case at some point in his career. Mike Babcock predicted Matthews would eventually win the Selke, and was laughed at. [from “Forget Hart Trophy, Babcock eyes Matthews as Selke winner,” Michael Traikos, Toronto Sun, 06/10/2019).

Might Matthews Be Fragile?

Matthews was not very physical for a big player until the last couple of seasons. For the longest time, we worried about his fragility. In the past, he’s suffered injuries to both of his shoulders. The one injury came on a play where he didn’t appear to be hit very hard and was not knocked off his feet or into the boards. 

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs Andrei Vasilevskiy Tampa Bay Lightning
Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning makes a save on Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs
(Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

He seemingly has recovered from those injuries, has added physicality to his game, and gives more than he receives in the corners. There seems to have been a change in Matthews’ attitude over the past season and a half, and we believe it’s improved his overall game.

If we had to pick any existing weakness, and we are not really sure we would call this a weakness, it would have to be his skating.  While Matthews skates well for a big man, he’s not fleet of foot. If he gets caught up ice, it takes him a few strides to recover. However, his long reach helps him bother players who have gotten by him though. 

Matthews and the Bottom Line

Both of us can honestly say, without a doubt, Matthews is the best Maple Leafs’ player we’ve ever watched play the game. Is Matthews even approaching the apex of his game? There’s a chance that he’s not.  

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Should he remain big-injury-free, it will be interesting to see where or even if his play levels off. For right now, we’re sure we’ve not yet seen everything this young Maple Leafs can do.

[Note: I want to thank long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith for collaborating with me on this post. Stan’s Facebook profile can be found here.]