Maple Leafs’ Management and Matthews Not at Odds

Let’s move back in Toronto Maple Leafs’ history a couple of months to Wednesday, June 2, 2021. The Maple Leafs had just been eliminated from the playoffs, and star center Auston Matthews was meeting with the Toronto media in a postseason wrap-up interview.

That interview turned into a very civil gunfight, where the media and Matthews (representing the team) paced off. Obviously, the use of the term gunfight is a metaphor; but, during that interview, the questioner asked Matthews what his views were on trading his line-mate Mitch Marner. And, from his reaction, Matthews clearly saw those comments as adversarial.

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When Matthews was asked to weigh in on the questions, he quickly shook his head, pausing for only a second. Then, his body language implied that he couldn’t believe what the interviewer had just asked. Specifically, as you can watch on the short video below, Matthews was asked to comment about the redundant suggestions that “some people” were making that “the big four on offence may need to be split up.”

Matthews’ Response Showed His Relationship to the Outside Media

Specifically, the media questioner offered two suggestions. First, perhaps Marner should be traded. Second, perhaps Marner should be moved away from Matthews to achieve a “better balance based on what happened again this year.”

First, Matthews quickly dismissed the validity of the entire idea of a trade by suggesting, “I don’t make much of that to be honest.” 

Matthews was, as I noted, civil. He took the opportunity to stick up for Marner by saying “Mitch is an unbelievable player and an unbelievable teammate.”

Toronto Maple Leafs Mitch Marner Toronto Maple Leafs Auston Matthews
Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Mitchell Marner and Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews
(THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

Third, and most interesting, Matthews demarcated that the questioner’s “geography” and his own personal geography were different. During that interview, within seconds Matthews shared his construction of a world where the Maple Leafs’ team was on one side and the Maple Leafs’ media (and perhaps fans) were on another. To do so, he used the concept of an “inside” and an “outside.” In that construction, he placed the questioner (and others) “outside;” and, he placed himself, Marner, his teammates and the organization “inside.”

Matthews Suggested that Outsiders Don’t Understand the Team

During the short interview, Matthews went further. His specific words were, “That’s just – you know – something I don’t think anybody really thinks about here or focuses on.” (I highlighted here.)

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Matthews added, “I know in this room – you know – everybody loves Mitch and everybody loves everybody in this room.” He went on to add that “We really have a tight bond.” (I highlighted in this room.)

Then, Matthews put the writer “in his place.” By that, I mean his geography. Matthews added, “So, I think all the stuff on the outside – noise coming from the outside – it’s you guys.” (Again, I highlighted noise, which is defined as “sound that makes no recognizable sense,” and outside and you guys.) There’s no mistaking Matthews’ seeing the interviewer as an outsider.

Finally, Matthews’ last response to the questioner was “Have fun with that.” With that comment, Matthews put an exclamation point on the fact that he and his teammates believed outsiders could actually be “having fun” as a result of his team’s and his teammates’ personal disappointment? As they say in the old Westerns, those “are fighting words.”

Fast Forward to Matthews’ ESPN Interview on August 21, 2021

During an interview with ESPN last week, Matthews showed that his June interview was far from forgotten. In fact, he was not only still tight with his team but, more interestingly, the entire organization – including management. While he didn’t quite predict a Stanley Cup victory, he clearly stated that he believed this iteration of the Maple Leafs was “Going to Get It Done.”

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

He clearly believed the team was improved and that this season’s Maple Leafs would be able to overcome last season’s disappointing seven-game playoff loss to the Montreal Canadiens.

Matthews Hasn’t Forgotten the Playoff Loss

First, Matthews showed he’s still burning from the loss when he remembered “It’s obviously really frustrating.”

Second, he shared, “It [stinks] right now. People have opinions and they can say what they want, and rightfully so; but, I really believe in the team, and I really believe in all of the players on the team — the core group especially.” [Note the implied sense of “people” as other than team.]

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Third, Matthews noted, “I truly believe that we’re going to get it done. We’re going to be better from our losses, and from the adversity that we faced.”

Fourth, in what for me was a bit of surprise (but a good one), Matthews spoke about Kyle Dubas “bet” that the Maple Leafs would win. As Matthews explained, “When [Dubas] reiterates [“he would ‘bet everything’ on the core of the Leafs being able to figure out how to win a championship.”], it gives us confidence moving forward. That’s all you can ask for: that your general manager and all your teammates truly believe in one another.”

Matthews Is On-Board with the Organization’s Direction

For me, that agreement with the organization’s plans might have been the most revealing comment Matthews made during his interview. It suggests that Matthews’ relationship with the organization is tight and that he believes the entire “team,” including the management team, is on the same page moving forward.

Reading between the lines, the ESPN interview suggests that Matthews is on board with the direction head coach Sheldon Keefe and Dubas are taking the team and that he’s tight with the organization. The interview also suggests that the “us-vs.-them” mentality we saw during the early June postseason interview in response to the interviewer’s suggestion that line-mate Marner should be traded remains.

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What we see instead is that there’s a connection between Dubas’ comment and the confidence it inspires in the team. To me, right or wrong, it suggests that the team and its management are close-knit and far from at odds.

Matthews Is All-In, But Is That Enough?

Whether this closeness leads to success is the question that will be worked out during the 2021-22 regular season and postseason. Still, the fact that Matthews predicts it will motivate his own internal drive to make it so.

An internally-driven Matthews has to be good news for everyone cheering for the Maple Leafs.

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