Auston Matthews looks…big. Like, NFL wide receiver big. And rested. And relaxed. And perhaps a little restless?
Sitting in a Vegas hotel room, testing out EA Sports new NHL 20 game, Matthews looks like he could run into a brick wall and the brick wall would lose the fight. His official NHL listing is 6-foot-3 and 223 pounds, but he might be closer to 230, all muscle. Whereas the lucky NHLers who go all the way to the Stanley Cup final often describe themselves by the end as “skinny fat,” held together by duct tape, Matthews has the appearance of, well, someone whose team got eliminated from the playoffs two months ago. He’s healthy and strong as a bull.
An optimist might look at the Boston Bruins’ 15-win post-season, which ended with a Game-7 home loss in the final, and call it a positive for the Toronto Maple Leafs. If they pushed Boston to seven games in Round 1, and Boston almost went all the way, the Leafs might’ve been the third-best team in the playoffs, for all we know. Not that Matthews sees it that way.
“I’m not sure it’s really encouraging,” he said Wednesday, hours before the 2019 NHL Awards show, during which he was unveiled as the NHL 20 cover athlete. “I’d say it’s probably more frustrating, because you’re one win away, and then you never know what could happen. The team you lose to in seven games ends up in the Cup final, and it’s almost a what-could’ve-been situation. It leaves a sour taste in your mouth, because it’s been the same result three years in a row. We believe in our team, we believe in our core, we have all the tools. It’s just a matter of putting that together and getting to that next level as individuals and as a team.”
Three straight playoff seasons to start his career, three first-round defeats, and while there’s still a different lesson to take each time – the 2019 Leafs pushed the Bruins a lot harder than the 2018 Leafs did in their defeat – Matthews isn’t remotely satisfied. Especially when, watching the Toronto Raptors win the NBA championship, his mind wandered to what it might be like if the Leafs did the same thing. The Raps drew millions to their parade after winning their first title in their 24th season. The Leafs, with an older fan base and a 52-year drought, would inspire a pandemonium even more feverish. Was it fun for Matthews to watch a basketball team in his city win it all? Or did it inspire a degree of jealousy?
“I don’t like to use ‘jealous,’ but it serves as motivation,” Matthews said. “I was pumped to see that, to see the city and how crazy it was. The excitement, the parade, the streets after the night they won, it was just madness. It gives us motivation, because you saw that sea of red, and you picture it as a sea of blue and white. It serves as a big motivation for us as players to accomplish that goal. It’s an amazing city, an amazing sports city, and hockey is at the top of that list.”
Two months removed from his last NHL game, Matthews still has a long off-season ahead. A distraction might be welcome, so the NHL 20 announcement comes at a good time. Like most of the athletes chosen for the cover, he’s grown up playing the EA series. Pretty much every member of his generation does. Instead of playing as himself, he prefers customizing “outrageous looking” dreadlocked characters and competing on a team with his buddies online. He’s a fan of the game’s newest features, which include ‘Signature Shots,’ granting the game’s iconic players their trademark moves. He’s impressed at how well EA nailed his toe-drag wrist shot and P.K. Subban’s slapper, for instance. Matthews’ competitive fire extends to the game, even if it requires him resorting to cheap tactics, including the dreaded glitch goal.
“Whatever it takes to win,” Matthews said. “I’m all about glitch goals. I played P.K. when we were doing some stuff, and every single goal was a glitch goal. I kicked his ass. It was fun.”
Matthews, still just 21, looked comfortable delivering a longer-than-it-had-to-be speech live onstage at the NHL Awards Wednesday night following the EA cover announcement. That was consistent with his image, which is slowly morphing. As a rookie, he was reserved, bordering on robotic, when giving interviews, and the Leafs, then under the Lou Lamoriello regime, insulated him from doing too many. Matthews is clearly far more comfortable in his own skin now when it comes to speaking or showing off his flashy fashion choices.
“It’s just happened naturally,” he said. “You walk in from Arizona, 18, 19 years old, walking into Toronto the Maple Leafs, right? It’s the biggest hockey market in the world, so you’re a bit thrown back by it. You’re guarded. But as three years went by, you get more comfortable in your position, in your situation.
“In the end, everybody has their opinion about you, and you can’t let that affect how you live your life, what you’re all about. I just try to be myself every day, and that’s how I go about it.”
Just because he’s more open doesn’t mean he won’t be diplomatic when asked about certain hot-button topics, of course.
On his ice time, a lightning rod for discussion after coach Mike Babcock played him less than 39-year-old Patrick Marleau during Toronto’s Game 7 loss: “It depends on the situation. I’m not the one deploying myself on the ice. It’s up to the coaches and what they feel is best for the team. Every guy, if you ask him, he’ll want to play more. As a forward or even a D-man, there is such a thing as playing too much, but that’s all dependent on what type of player it is, how they feel. It’s a long season, right? So it depends on the situation.”
On the possibility of the Leafs having to make major roster changes while dancing around contract negotiations for RFAs Mitch Marner, Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen: “I don’t really worry about it too much. Something’s going to be done, and I think all my buddies are going to be with me when September comes. So leave it up to the management, to the staff, and go from there. Something will get done. It’s just the unfortunate part of the business side of sports in general. But I’m excited, I’m looking forward to next season, and I think everybody’s going to be there and ready.”
But he has no problem opening up when the focus is on the things he can control. When viewed threw the lens of advanced per-60-minutes metrics, Matthews has rated right up with Connor McDavid as one of the most productive players in the league since debuting in 2016-17. Only McDavid has more even-strength goals over that span. So Matthews understands that, with better health luck, he has the ability to be an awards contender in the near future. At the same time, it’s not the ultimate goal, just as it isn’t for most players.
“Individual awards are awesome, and you don’t take that away from anybody,” he said. “They deserve them, and I’d love to earn those at some point and have a good season injury free and just break out. But in the end, everybody says it, you’re measured on championships. I remember ‘Ovie,’ a while ago, and Sid won pretty young, and I think (Alex Ovechkin) won every single award that year, and my dad was like, ‘Yeah, he would trade all the awards to be in the position Sid was, which is winning the Cup or playing in the final.’
“All those individual awards are amazing, as they should be, but guys are ultimately measured on championships. We grow up dreaming about winning the Stanley Cup. I’m not sure your main goal growing up is to win the Art Ross, even though it’s an amazing accomplishment, something I want to strive for.”
Whether the Leafs can legitimately challenge for a championship a year from now remains to be seen. Their roster structure is up in the air at the moment, and there’s no telling if they’ll have to go through Boston again to survive the first round next season. Matthews has a lot of time to think about it. For now, he can sit back, play his new video game and dream of trophies and parades.