Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews on Tavares, learning to win (PHT Q&A)

It’s been an historic start to the 2018-19 NHL season for Auston Matthews. As the Toronto Maple Leafs have lit up the scoresheet with 33 goals — 10 from Matthews alone — in seven games, the star forward has been setting records almost on a nightly basis.

Toronto’s 4-1 win over the Kings on Tuesday saw Matthews record a multi-point game for the seventh time this season. He’s also on a 17-game regular season points streak dating back to last Feb. 22. With his two points against Los Angeles, the 21-year-old joined the likes of Mario Lemieux, Mike Bossy, Wayne Gretzky and Kevin Stevens to record multiple points in his team’s first seven games of the season.

That’s a heckuva start for Matthews in a season where it wouldn’t be surprising if he ended it with 40-plus goals, 100-plus points and maybe a few trophies to take home from Las Vegas in late June. There is one specific trophy, of course, that he’d like to be lifting in six months. The addition of John Tavares has put the Maple Leafs in Stanley Cup contender talk, but there’s still lots to work out — hello, defense! — before they can reach that point.

“I think talking to [Maple Leafs GM] Kyle [Dubas] and the vision he has and when they were talking to John in the summer just what would happen, you know if you won a Stanley Cup in Toronto,” Matthews told NBC during NHL Player Media Tour in Chicago last month. “The hockey mecca of the world, it would be absolutely crazy. Obviously, we’re trying to build something to get to the top of that mountain and obviously accomplish that goal, but we got a long way to go and a lot of young players who are very hungry. It’s definitely something you think about every once in a while.”

We spoke with Matthews about the Tavares addition, learning from playoff failures and his wicked shot.

Enjoy.

Q. Go back to the day you heard that you had Tavares as a member of your team.

MATTHEWS: “Yeah, I was home and Kyle  actually called me, woke me up. I pretended like I was up for hours, but it was on a weekend, though, so it was OK. He was like ‘Hey, we signed John. We’re gonna announce it in the next hour so, just wanted to let you know’ and you know, I couldn’t really believe it. I was so excited by it. I didn’t really know what he was thinking. I heard the meetings went well with the management with Kyle and all of them, talking to him over the phone and he had a lot of questions and I tried to answer them as best as possible for him. So, he was kind of talking to a lot of different people, a lot of different teams, so you can kind of get a feel for it, but you just don’t know and obviously [I was] extremely excited when I found out he chose to sign with Toronto.”

Q. When you look at the Leafs, what have you learned, as a team, over the course of the last couple of seasons of how hard it is to win especially come playoff time? 

MATTHEWS: “Yeah, absolutely. That’s what it’s all about right there. Come playoff time it’s not easy, I mean, you look at Washington last year they almost didn’t make it out of the first round and then they went on the win the Cup. So I think that has been a good learning lesson for us young guys, just how hard it is even in the first round to get by, and you know when you have a player like John [Tavares], who has had that experience; obviously, he is still trying to reach that ultimate goal. Him coming here is definitely going to help us, but it doesn’t just make it a cake walk.”

Q. You being one of the young stars in the NHL, how can a guy like John Tavares help a guy like Auston Matthews?

MATTHEWS: “I think he can help me in a lot of different ways. Obviously he’s been in the league for a while, his resume speaks for itself; you know he is a top ten player in the league, a superstar center. He knows what he is doing as far as the way he treats his body on and off the ice nutrition, you know just taking care of those things that make such a big difference during the season. I think not only myself, but a lot of young guys can really look at that and not only ask questions but pick things that he does and kind of use it for ourselves as well.”

[What’s the ceiling for Auston Matthews this season?]

Q. Your release is something that is very unique and it’s something that’s so quick. How did you develop that, did you realize that is what separated you from a lot of other players you know with the skills that you had?

MATTHEWS: “You know, I think I’ve always been a shoot first mentality. I’ve always had a pretty decent shot, I think the summer before my draft year, maybe after my draft year, my first NHL season I basically just worked on my shot all summer. I was working with Darryl Belfry, who I still work with today. And it wasn’t just shooting; it was all different kinds of angles, different kinds of pucks in your feet, different areas being able to get the goalie moving one way or another, being able to find different spots. So, I know for myself I’m a shoot first kind of guy, and as you get up in levels, boys are just that much better, you don’t have that much time and space and being able to get your shot off quick and pick you corner makes a big difference.”

Q. The specifics of that trait, of working on your shot. Was it specifically on the ice stuff, or was it off the ice stuff like body position and hands, where the puck might be positioned on your stick?

MATTHEWS: “I think mostly on ice, to be honest. You know, I think training is a big part and especially in our summers being able to get stronger and more explosive. And that obviously helps with your shot, but you know I feel for myself, when I want to work on something I really improve on that, and the best way to do that is on the ice because that’s what we do for a living.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Scroll Down For:

    Former Bruins coach Cassidy wins; Boston’s home streak ends

    Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
    1 Comment

    BOSTON — The Vegas Golden Knights made former Boston coach Bruce Cassidy’s return a success on Reilly Smith‘s score in the fifth round of the shootout, beating the Bruins 4-3 to end their NHL-record for home victories to open a season at 14 games.

    The 57-year-old Cassidy was fired by Boston following 5 1/2 seasons in June after the Bruins were eliminated by Carolina in the opening round of the playoffs.

    Eight days after he was let go, he was hired by Vegas.

    In a matchup of two of the league’s top three teams, Western conference-leading Vegas opened a 3-0 lead early in the second period on two goals by Paul Cotter and the other by Jonathan Marchessault before the Bruins started their comeback when Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak scored just over six minutes apart late in the period.

    They tied it on Taylor Hall‘s power-play goal 3:08 into the third when he spun in front and slipped a shot from the slot past goalie Logan Thompson.

    Smith had the only score in the shootout, slipping a forehand shot past goalie Jeremy Swayman.

    Cassidy took over as Boston’s interim coach on Feb. 7, 2016, before getting the head job that April. His teams made the playoffs all six seasons, including a trip to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final when they lost the seventh game at home against St. Louis.

    Cassidy knows what it sounds like in TD Garden with The Standells’ song “Dirty Water” blaring after Bruins’ wins.

    “Now that you brought it up, I’m used to hearing “Dirty Water” at the end of the game,” he said, smiling. “I’m glad I didn’t hear it tonight. The streak is irrelevant to me. It’s nice to come in and play well.”

    Boston lost for just the second time in 12 games.

    “This locker room sticks together, and we knew we were going to do something special tonight,” Swayman said. “It (stinks) losing, but we’re going to make sure we fix the problems.”

    The Bruins’ home-opening streak broke the record of 11 that was set by the 1963-64 Chicago Blackhawks and equaled by the Florida Panthers last season.

    Before the shootout, Thompson made 40 saves. Boston’s backup Swayman had 21.

    “This city meant a lot to him, and he was fired up ready to go,” Thompson said of Cassidy. “We went out there and tried to get him two points tonight.”

    Cotter collected William Karlsson‘s pass inside the left circle and unloaded a wrister under the crossbar 1:36 into the game.

    Marchessault stole Pastrnak’s attempted clearing pass, broke in alone and tucked in his own rebound to make it 2-0.

    Cotter’s second came 51 seconds into the second period when he slipped a wrister past Swayman’s glove.

    “We couldn’t get it done early, before the shootout. We had chances,” Pastrnak said. “It’s a tough one to swallow.”

    Vegas star forward Jack Eichel missed the game with a lower-body injury.

    TRIBUTE

    The Bruins played a video montage of Cassidy on the Jumbotron late in the opening period that ended with a picture of him and said: “Welcome back, Bruce.”

    The crowd gave him a nice ovation and he waved thanking them.

    “It’s a really nice gesture by the Bruins’ organization,” he said. “I appreciate it. I said all along that I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. I’m thankful they did it.”

    FOR THE RECORD

    Cassidy finished tied for third on the Bruins’ coaching list with Hall of Famer Milt Schmidt (1955-66) at 245 victories, behind Claude Julien’s (2008-17) 419 and Art Ross (1925-45) with 387.

    EXTRA SPECIAL TEAMS

    The Bruins entered the game ranked second in the league both with their power play (29.6%) and penalty killing (84.1%).

    UP NEXT

    Golden Knights: Host the New York Rangers.

    Bruins: At the Colorado Avalanche.

    Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

    kris letang
    Kyle Ross/USA TODAY Sports
    1 Comment

    PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

    The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

    Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

    There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

    While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

    Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

    Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

    “It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

    Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

    The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

    “I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

    It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

    “This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

    Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

    Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

    “The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

    Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

    “We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”

    LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

    Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
    3 Comments

    LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

    Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

    Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

    L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

    Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

    Kris Letang Penguins
    Getty Images
    1 Comment

    PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

    For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

    The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

    While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

    “I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

    The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

    Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

    “He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

    Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

    “I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

    Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

    Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

    “First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

    Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

    The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

    “The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

    Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

    “It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”