Is Matthews the Best Maple Leafs’ Center Ever?

On March 14, 2017, on the 35th anniversary of Darryl Sittler becoming the all-time leading goal scorer in Toronto Maple Leafs history, The Hockey Writers’ Andrew Forbes wrote a thoughtful post titled “Then and Now: The Maple Leafs All-Time Centres.” In this post, Forbes reviewed his choices for the greatest Toronto Maple Leafs centers of all time. He named Mats Sundin No. 1, Darryl Sittler No. 2, Dave Keon No. 3, and even-before-my-time Ted ‘Teeder’ Kennedy (who played from 1942-1957) No. 4.

Related – Then and Now: The Maple Leafs All-Time Centres

What About Auston Matthews?

I want to throw Auston Matthews’ name into the mix. Sure he’s young and sure it’s early, but assuming he has a lengthy career with the Maple Leafs (neither stopped by injury – which might become an issue – nor moving to another team), I think Matthews has a chance to become the best center in Maple Leafs history.

When Matthews came to the Maple Leafs in his teens, it couldn’t have been easy. He was the future. But, could he ever score. As a rookie in 2016-17, he scored 40 goals and won the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year. In last year’s injury-shortened second season, he averaged more than a point-a-game (63 points in 62 games).

Auston Matthews, NHL, Toronto Maple Leafs
Matthews notched 40 goals in his rookie season with the Leafs. (James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

This season is even better. Still only 21-years-old, this young man, who grew up in Arizona as a Coyotes fan – go figure, has 27 points in 18 games played (16 goals, 11 assists). Teammate Kasperi Kapanen noted, “I think he’s just raised his level in everything really. He’s defending well and he’s taking care of the puck, but at the same time I feel like his shot’s even harder and he’s making those plays that kind of blow your mind.”

Despite missing games with a shoulder injury and not playing with William Nylander, who was in a contract dispute, Matthews is on pace to shatter personal records. This year’s Matthews is stronger, faster, more driven, more confident, and understands the game better. Watching him on offense, it seems he believes there’s nothing he can’t do.

In addition, for hockey fans, Matthews is pure entertainment. A combination of skill and swagger, he believes in himself. He’s great with the puck. Perhaps, as one reader correctly commented to a post the other day, he’s uni-dimensional (he’s a scorer) compared to Mitch Marner. That said, scoring is a pretty important dimension in hockey. This year his goal-scoring seems almost unstoppable.

But it’s more than Matthews’ on-ice behavior. He’s mature; and, in Toronto, that means a lot. He seems ready for the spotlight in ways former Maple Leafs on-ice stars – Phil Kessel comes to mind – never were. I’m thinking Toronto might be a tough place for a young hockey player. I hear it can gobble players up if they aren’t prepared. Matthews seems prepared.

Related: Should the Maple Leafs Trade Marner? Not Even for Crosby

Great Maple Leafs Centers

Looking back over Maple Leafs history, and with thanks to Forbes’ post last year, here is a list of some of the great Maple Leafs centers in modern history (delimited by me to the year 1960, Dave Keon’s rookie season).

Dave Keon

In Oct. 2016, CBC Sports named Dave Keon the best Maple Leaf of all time. Keon played for the Maple Leafs during their greatest success: his teams won four Stanley Cups. Keon played his first 15 seasons for the Blue and White and was not an out-of-this-world scorer. However, his length of service makes him a Maple Leaf leader in many statistical categories. He’s also the only Maple Leaf to ever win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. During his rookie season (1960-61), like Matthews, he was named the NHL’s top rookie. He was the Maple Leafs’ captain from 1969-1975.

Dave Keon

Darryl Sittler

Sittler played 12 seasons in Toronto; and, during 10 of those seasons, the Maple Leafs made the playoffs. He followed Keon as the Maple Leafs’ captain, and stayed in that role for six seasons (1975-1981). Sittler was a top-10 finisher for the Hart Trophy five times and had five 40-goal seasons. He stands first in Maple Leafs history in shots and hat tricks. Finally, he holds one NHL record that probably never will be broken: in one amazing game in 1976, he scored 10 points (six goals and four assists) against the Boston Bruins. That, in Sidney Crosby’s youth, he was given the nickname “Darryl” (after Sittler) for his prolific scoring, says something.

Mats Sundin

Sadly for Maple Leafs fans, as good as Sundin was, he played for the team during its Stanley Cup drought. Although the Maple Leafs didn’t succeed, Sundin did. He played 13 seasons with the team and remains the Toronto’s all-time leader in both goals and points. He was their captain for 11 years – from 1997 to 20o8. What to me is special about Sundin is that he was a class act. He played and lived with maturity on and off the ice, and might be a good model for Matthews in how to comport himself.

(Vince Richard/The Hockey Writers)

Doug Gilmour

Gilmour only played seven seasons as a Maple Leaf, but his success was immediate when he came from the Calgary Flames. He holds the Maple Leafs’ team record with 127 regular-season points – a record that might be in Matthews’ sites if he can stay healthy and the team stays successful. This record was set during Gilmour’s first full season with the team (1992-93). In addition, Gilmour had 35 points during the playoffs in 21 games. Sadly, for all Gilmour’s scoring success that year, the Maple Leafs lost in the semi-finals and didn’t make the 1993 Stanley Cup finals.

Matthews and Maple Leafs History

Obviously, it’s too soon to anoint Matthews as the best center in Maple Leafs’ history. However, if what I am watching on the ice this year continues; if Matthews can learn to skate away from danger zones where he can get bashed by eager opponents; and, if the Maple Leafs can continue the high-scoring success they’ve shown early for the rest of this year and into the near future – well, there’s a chance we’re looking at unfolding Maple Leafs history.

Regarding Auston Matthews’ tenure with the Toronto Maple Leafs, here’s to the good times.

Related: Nylander to Make Season Debut With Matthews and Marleau