When Mike Babcock won the Stanley Cup in 2008, two of his best forwards just so happened to be two of the best two-way forwards in the game.
Indeed, if not for Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, the Detroit Red Wings would not have beaten the Penguins that year, or even been in the final. Those two were responsible for so much of the Wings’ success during their time together, and Babcock never pretended otherwise.
One could even argue that Babcock left Detroit in large part because the Wings’ “big-time players” — and that included defensemen Nicklas Lidstrom — had either retired or were past their primes. When Babcock took the job in Toronto, the Maple Leafs were clearly positioning themselves to draft Auston Matthews, a plan that officially came together in June.
With that, Matthews became a tremendous responsibility for the highest-paid hockey coach ever. The scouts said the 18-year-old had the potential to become the Leafs’ best center since Mats Sundin, and perhaps even the best center in franchise history. His NHL career couldn’t have started any better, with four goals in his first game.
But Matthews has struggled to produce lately, with just two assists in his last nine games. Like any other rookie, he still has things to learn defensively, though his coach is optimistic those lessons won’t take too long.
“We need him to be a dominant, dominant center for us,” Babcock said Tuesday, per NHL.com. “We think he’s going to be by Christmastime. We think he’s a very good player already, but we think he can be lights out both with and without the puck.”
That’s a pretty aggressive timeline, no doubt. But that’s how highly the Leafs think of Matthews. He’s drawn comparisons to Jonathan Toews and Anze Kopitar, a couple of the best two-way centers in the game — and also a couple of players who won Stanley Cups early in their careers.
Granted, Toews and Kopitar each had a lot of help. For starters, the Blackhawks and Kings each have No. 1 defensemen in Duncan Keith and Drew Doughty, respectively, and it remains to be seen what the Leafs have in Morgan Rielly. But that’s another story for another day.
Toronto hosts the Nashville Predators tonight. That’s another team that badly needed a franchise center, and hopes it finally has one in Ryan Johansen. Johansen was traded last season from Columbus, which hopes it has the same in Pierre-Luc Dubois, drafted two spots after Matthews.
It doesn’t always come back to the number-one center, but it sure does quite a lot. Rare is the team that wins the Stanley Cup without one, and that’s why the long-suffering Leafs need Matthews to be “a dominant, dominant center” for them.