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‘Young Mario’ Matthews continues to reinvent ways to score

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Auston Matthews is drawing comparisons to Mario Lemieux and getting noticed by Bryce Harper amid a hot start to his second NHL season.

Last season’s Calder Trophy winner as rookie of the year, Matthews went into training camp seeking to be more assertive on the ice. That has translated to five goals and three assists in his first six games and the kind of improved all-around play that makes the face of the Toronto Maple Leafs a superstar already at age 20.

”He’s got a skillset that ranges from just about everything,” Maple Leafs center Nazem Kadri said Tuesday. ”The ceiling’s the limit for Matts, and he knows he can be a great player and he already is. It’s crazy to think he’s (still) at such a young age.”

Even though Matthews remains in the shadow of Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby on hockey’s pantheon of top players, he already has filled up the highlight reel thanks to some tweaks and adjustments. The Scottsdale, Arizona, native was the first rookie to score 40 goals since Alex Ovechkin in 2005-06 and is conscious of the pressure to keep up that pace.

”You’re always reinventing yourself,” Matthews said. ”The league’s always adjusting and you’ve got to adjust right back to it.”

The league hasn’t adjusted yet. Matthews showed that by scoring goals so many different ways this season.

Matthews scored an overtime winner against Chicago by taking the puck off a carom off the back of Patrick Kane‘s right skate and going down the ice. Against Montreal, he scored one goal by flipping the puck past a Canadiens defender and knocking it down at full speed before firing through a screen, and then another on the rush by shooting short side on 2015 Vezina Trophy winning goaltender Carey Price.

”For me, the first (Montreal goal) was probably a little more impressive just how he handled the pass and you see how much he changed the angle,” Toronto winger James van Riemsdyk said. ”He’s really good at changing the angle, getting it off quick, things like that. He’s got a lot of different shots that he’ll try within his toolbox. It makes him pretty unpredictable when he’s going to shoot it.”

Matthews has only played 88 regular-season and six playoff games and yet has admirers far and wide.

Harper wore a brand new blue No. 34 Matthews jersey out of the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse after their season-ending Game 5 loss to the Chicago Cubslast week. Matthews said he doesn’t know Harper, who’s from Las Vegas, but called the honor ”awesome.”

Capitals coach Barry Trotz has been watching Matthews’ growth and likened him – already – to a Hockey Hall of Famer and one of the best players in history.

”Auston Matthews, I’ve been saying it: He’s a young Mario Lemieux,” Trotz said. ”He’s (big), he can skate, he’s ultra-skilled, he’s very, very competitive, he makes plays.”

Matthews’ rookie success earned him another believer: himself. He said last month he was aiming to trust his skills more and want the puck more. With the season underway he said ”you just want to be the best player you can be,” and that’s evident with how much the line of Matthews, Zach Hyman and William Nylander have had the puck.

”We’ve been able to create offense, which is important, and that leads to chances,” Nylander said. ”That’s always a positive.”

At even strength, Matthews has been on the ice for 80 Leafs shots and 64 by opponents, evidence of just how much his evolving defensive game benefits the Maple Leafs.

”When you play well defensively, you feel like you get the puck more,” Matthews said. ”We’re offensive guys. We want to create offense so when you have the puck it feels good and you feel like you can create chances.”

Those chances are coming, and Matthews is cashing in on them. No wonder he has earned coach Mike Babcock’s trust.

”He’s a good player trying to get better each and every day,” Babcock said. ”What I like about him is how hard he works and how competitive he is and how much he wants to get better. The best players in the league, the superstars, they love hockey more than everyone else, so they can work at it harder and longer than the next guy.”

Matthews downplays his own improvements but sounds like a perfect Babcock-type player when discussing his early-season success.

”I feel good,” Matthews said. ”Just a couple weeks in, so you want to find that consistency individually, with your linemates, with everybody. You just want to continue to get better every day.”

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Leafs’ Kapanen ‘didn’t expect’ trade

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Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Kasperi Kapanen discussed his July 1 trade from the Penguins with the Pittsburgh media on Sunday and admitted he was surprised by the move.

Kapanen was a part of the deal, which landed the Penguins Phil Kessel.

“I think it was a shock for everybody,” he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ahead of the Leafs’ prospects game against the Penguins. “I didn’t expect it.”

The 19-year-old was hanging out with friends in his native Finland when he got the news.

“I was just with my buddies, and I saw that my Twitter was exploding,” he said. ”I read some of the tweets and didn’t really think too much about it, but then my agent called me, so I thought something was going on.”

Originally the Penguins’ 2014 first-round selection (22nd overall) Kapanen joined the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the American Hockey League in April and appeared in four regular season games scoring a goal and an assist. He added three goals and two helpers in seven Calder Cup playoff games.

With the trade behind him, the 5-foot-10, 171-pound forward said he has no hard feelings towards the Penguins organization.

“I don’t hate them, or anything like that,“ he said. “Hopefully, I’ll just be a better player now. Their loss.”

Kapanen, a long shot to make the Leafs out of camp, will likely start the season in the AHL with the Marlies.

Michael Nylander joins OHL club as assistant coach

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After 24 years of playing professional hockey, Michael Nylander is turning to coaching.

The 42-year-old has joined the OHL’s Mississauga Steelheads as an assistant coach, the club announced via Twitter on Sunday.

The move will bring Nylander, who spent the 2014-15 season playing professionally in Sweden, closer to his son William Nylander – the 2014 first-round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Nylander’s other son, Alexander, was the first-round pick of the Steelheads at the 2015 CHL import draft.

Originally a third-round selection of the Hartford Whalers (59th overall) in 1991, Nylander spent 15 seasons in the NHL with the Whalers, Calgary Flames, Tampa Bay Lightning, Chicago Blackhawks, Washington Capitals, Boston Bruins and New York Rangers.

In 920 career NHL games, Nylander scored 209 goals and 679 points.

Preds hope Moses signing will boost third line offensively

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The Nashville Predators wanted more depth scoring and they went all the way to the KHL to get it. Steve Moses, who signed a one-year, $1 million contract, is tentatively projected to play on Nashville’s third line and could make that unit significantly more dangerous.

“Goal-scoring was something we wanted to put more of in our lineup,” Predators GM David Poile told The Tennessean. “Here’s a guy that’s free, here’s a guy that has all those qualities and why not take a chance on somebody like that? He’s not big, but he’s fast and he can score. Hopefully, there’s got to be a place for him in our lineup.

“Last year, we had two lines, the (Mike) Fisher and (Mike) Ribeiro lines, that were very prolific offensively. And our third and fourth lines (were) somewhat equal, very good defensively, (but) didn’t provide, with all due respect, too much for us offensively. I don’t want to be greedy, but would like to try to push the envelope a little bit more.”

Nashville had six forwards last season that recorded at least 15 goals in Filip Forsberg, Craig Smith, James Neal, Colin Wilson, Mike Fisher, and Mike Ribeiro. When they were all healthy, combinations of those forwards typically compromised the team’s top two lines. After those six though, Nashville’s next best forward when it came to goals scored was Taylor Beck, who netted eight markers in 62 contests.

Meanwhile, Moses had 36 goals and 57 points in 60 games with the KHL’s Jokerit Helsinki. He is a product of the University of New Hampshire, but the 26-year-old has spent the last three seasons playing in Europe.

Former UNH teammate James van Riemsdyk said, “(Moses) skates like the wind. He’s really well built. He won’t get thrown around over here.”

Related: Video: New Pred Moses opens U.S. scoring at Worlds with beauty goal

Poll: Will Seabrook re-sign?

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In Chicago, conversation about the cost of keeping the team together never really ends.

Having just come off a summer in which Brandon Saad, Brad Richards, Johnny Oduya and Patrick Sharp all exited due to financial constraints, the ‘Hawks can now begin looking ahead to next July, when another prized player could go unrestricted:

Brent Seabrook.

Seabrook, 30, is heading into the last of a five-year, $29 million deal with a $5.8M cap hit. His resume is loaded — three Stanley Cups, Olympic gold, a ’15 All-Star Game appearance — and he’s coming off a postseason in which he led all defensemen in goals (seven), the same number that Tampa Bay captain Steve Stamkos potted.

So needless to say, he’d be coveted on the open market.

There are two sides to this discussion. The first is why Seabrook would want to stay in Chicago, and it’s a fairly easy sell — it’s the only team he’s ever known, having been drafted by the ‘Hawks in the first round in ’03. He’s since appeared in over 800 games in a ‘Hawks sweater during his 10-year career, and developed a dynamic pairing with fellow blueliner (and one of his best friends) Duncan Keith.

Seabrook also has, as mentioned above, achieved a boatload of success with the ‘Hawks.

But there are reasons why he’d leave.

Well, one big reason — the money.

Per war-on-ice.com, the ‘Hawks already have close to $60 million committed to 16 players after this season. While there aren’t many other noteworthy contracts on the horizon — Andrew Shaw will require a new deal in ’16-17, Teuvo Teravainen and Marko Dano the year after — there is a question of how much Chicago can pay Seabrook.

Do consider that, a few weeks ago, Calgary gave Mark Giordano — who’s a year older than Seabrook — a six year, $40.5 million extension that carries a $6.75M cap hit. Earlier this summer, TSN speculated that Seabrook “is due to earn at least Dion Phaneuf-type money, in the neighborhood of seven years and $49 million.”

Those are both pretty steep AAVs but, given the dearth of quality UFA defensemen that usually hit the market, they could be in Seabrook’s wheelhouse. Remember that Mike Green got $6M per from Detroit this summer, while Andrej Sekera got $33 million over five years from the Oilers.

If Seabrook doesn’t sign an extension prior to the season starting, you can expect this conversation to pick up steam as the year progresses.

But why wait for that? Let’s vote and discuss now.