BUFFALO — He grew up in Arizona, a rink rat in the desert. Now Auston Matthews is headed north, to the biggest hockey market in the world. The Toronto Maple Leafs made him the first overall draft pick Friday. An 18-year-old American from Scottsdale, the newest and brightest hope for Canada’s richest and longest-suffering NHL team.
Matthews spent last season in Switzerland’s top professional league. He chose to play pro instead of major junior or college, and it went well. He finished first on his Zurich club with 24 goals in 36 games. He’s drawn comparisons to Jonathan Toews and Anze Kopitar, a couple of the best two-way centers in the game.
Which brings us to the Leafs, who haven’t had an elite center since Mats Sundin left in 2008. They’ve only made the playoffs once since then, and we all know how that ended.
Two years ago, the change started in earnest. First, Brendan Shanahan was brought on as president. A year later, after a disastrous finish to the 2014-15 season, Shanahan fired general manager Dave Nonis and the entire coaching staff. Not long after, Mike Babcock was hired as head coach and Lou Lamoriello came aboard as GM. The organization started to embrace analytics. Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf, the two big acquisitions of the previous regime, were traded. There would be no more shortcuts, no more impatience. They accepted it — there would be “pain.”
“The challenge in Toronto is not coming up with the plan but sticking to the plan,” Shanahan said last year. “That is the hard part. Our vision is to draft and develop our own players. I think every decision we make has to be about building a winning organization that can sustain itself year after year after year through the draft.”
Even with Matthews in the fold now — and even with Matthews joining other talented youngsters like Morgan Rielly, William Nylander, and Mitch Marner — the Leafs still have a ways to go before they’re competing for the Stanley Cup. They finished dead last in 2015-16. They couldn’t score, and they weren’t all that great at defending either.
But they played hard, and the fans appreciated that. In the end, it was arguably the most successful 30th-place finish in NHL history. It gave them the best odds to win the draft lottery, which they did.
And that gave them a direct path to Matthews, who’s confident he won’t buckle under the pressure.
“If that were to happen, I definitely think I can handle that,” he said of playing in Toronto. “I think I’m physically and mentally strong. I want to be an impact player in the NHL.”