The Toronto Maple Leafs’ presumptive first overall pick, Auston Matthews, has led an interesting career thus far. Get to know the Leafs’ new franchise center below.
1 – Don Granato, Matthews’ Under U17 coach, told USA Hockey officials Matthews was likely to become the next American-born first overall pick early in Auston’s tenure with the US National Team Development Program. “I’ve watched hundreds of players over the years,” Granato told ESPN. “You just know. It’s the way he carried himself.” He’ll be the first American number-one pick in nine years, since Patrick Kane in 2007, and seventh in NHL history.
2 – Matthews was born in San Francisco, California and moved to Scottsdale, Arizona at two months old. His mother is Mexican and Auston can speak some Spanish. This would make him the first player of Mexican descent to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs, given Raffi Torres never played a game after his trade to Toronto this season.
3 – The only other Arizona-reared player active in the NHL is Sean Couturier, but he was raised in Canada. If you’re keeping track: Matthews is half Mexican, born in California, raised in Scottsdale, and played his draft year in Switzerland. Doesn’t get much more “nontraditional” than that.
4 – As is well known, Matthews missed the 2015 draft cutoff by two days. His father told Scott Burnside of ESPN that it was Auston’s own fault because he was a late birth. On a related note, from that same Burnside article comes the story of Matthews’ first ever hockey practice taking place the time his younger sister was to be born through induced labour. Auston’s mother agreed to delay labour an hour so he could play.
5 – Matthews’ mother, who moved to Switzerland with Auston for the 2015-16 season, had to work two jobs to pay for his extensive hockey expenses growing up, which reached upward of $20,000 a year.
6 – In balancing a hectic schedule between his hockey and baseball commitments, one story goes that Matthews was benched once because he was late for a baseball game. He responded by hitting a grand slam to end the game. Matthews’ father has said Auston was actually better at baseball – said to have helped him develop his elite hand-eye coordination — than he was hockey, but his passion was on the ice. “I was missing a lot of baseball practices because I always wanted to be on the rink shooting pucks,” said Matthews.
7 – Matthews finished fourth in Swiss NLA regular season points scoring last season with 1.28 points per game. Remove players who played 12 games or fewer and he finished second behind Pierre-Marc Bouchard. Here’s head coach Marc Crawford on Matthews’ acclimation to the Swiss NLA as a recently-turned 18 year old: “By the second or third game he was the team’s top guy, and by his seventh or eighth game he was the class of the league.”
8 – In various interviews, Crawford has described Matthews as having the presence of Joe Sakic, the shot release of Jamie Benn, the two-way responsibility of Anze Kopitar, and the effortless skating stride of Jean Beliveau. No pressure, though. “He’s not quite as physical as Benn or as responsible as Kopitar, but he’s got the power and all the intangibles that you want — character and humility and is just a hard-working kid.”
9 – Said to be perhaps a better shooter than a playmaker, if you had to pick, Matthews finished first in the Swiss NLA in goals per game (0.67) with 24 in 36 games. He finished fourth in overall goal scoring, but missed five games waiting for his residency permit to be authorized on his 18th birthday, and missed some games with a back injury as well. “He’s extremely good at shooting the puck with his different release points and he makes those real good small-area plays, which is the NHL now,” said Crawford of his shot.
10 – Matthews was awarded ‘Rising Star’ honours and was a finalist for league MVP, reportedly finishing as the runner-up to Bouchard.
11 – Here is how Matthews’ numbers stack up against other U20 players to have played in the Swiss NLA:
12 – Established, elite NHLers John Tavares, Patrick Kane and Tyler Seguin opted to play in the Swiss league to keep warm during the 2012-13 lockout. They were 23, 25, and 20 years old, respectively, at the time. None were necessarily bringing their A games, but Tavares posted a 1.50 points per game, Kane a 1.15, and Seguin a 1.38. Matthews posted a 1.28 at age 18.
13 – Matthews earned an estimated $400,000 by playing in the Swiss league last season over spending another year in junior either in the WHL or in college. It was a controversial decision in some quarters, but it was a very unique situation. He was 18 years old and NHL ready — by Crawford’s description — at the start of the 2015-16 season. He had already played against US college competition for two seasons for the USNTDP.
14 – Matthews, who was homeschooled in high school, took an accelerated course load to be eligible for college had he gone that route. His CHL rights belonged to the WHL’s Everett Silvertips, who also owned Seth Jones’ rights when he was in a similar situation in 2012 with his early October birthdate. Jones’ ultimately demanded a trade to Portland and went the WHL route. Matthews’ agent, Pat Brisson, also represents Jones.
15 – The connection to Zurich came through Brisson (at the time of his decision to go overseas, he was technically his family’s adviser due to the NCAA rule prohibiting agents), who has a long-standing relationship with Zurich head coach Marc Crawford. Crawford was also able to establish a connection with Matthews’ family through the U18 World Championships in 2015, which took place in Switzerland.
16 – The decision to play in the Swiss league in his draft year instead of the WHL makes Matthews eligible to play in the AHL at age 19, should that become a consideration.
17 – Matthews’ uncle, Wes, was an undrafted football wide receiver who appeared in four games for the Miami Dolphins in 1966. He received a one-year deferment from the Vietnam War to play that season.
18 – Matthews credits another uncle, Bill, for getting him into the sport at a young age. “He would take me and my dad, and we would go watch Danny Briere and Shane Doan and all of those guys back in the day,” Matthews told USA TODAY Sports. “That’s how I got into it. I started playing when I was 5 or 6.” Bill passed away from cystic fibrosis just before Matthews graduated to the United States National Development Program.
19 – With the United States National Team Development Program under-18 team in 2014-15, Matthews’ 55 goals and 117 points broke the all-time record set by Patrick Kane (52 goals, 102 points) in 2005-06.
20 – Matthews was named the tournament’s most valuable player in the United States’ gold medal win at the 2015 IIHF World Under-18 Championship in May, 2015. “That’s the tournament that we basically train two years for,” Matthews said. “It’s a big one. It was really cool and special to win it.”
21 – After that tournament ended, the US National team asked a 17-year-old Matthews to participate an exhibition game, and he scored a goal in a 4-1 win against Austria. He will compete for the United States in the World Championships starting May 6.
22 – It’s been something of a debate as to whether Matthews would’ve gone ahead or behind Eichel last draft if he was born two days earlier. Here’s how Matthews’ draft-year minus-one production stacks up against Eichel’s:
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23 – Here are Matthews’ own words on the comparison vs. Eichel: “We’re both pretty big guys and we like to have the puck on our stick; we’re both power forwards. I think the style of our game might be a little bit different. Jack is obviously an unbelievable skater. I’ve never seen somebody skate like him. He has a great shot and is really powerful. I kind of am a little bit quicker in the corners and stuff with my hands. I try to use my hands and vision a lot.”
And head coach of the U18 US National Team, Danton Cole: “From a physical standpoint they’re both very similar, but it’s a different-type game. People have seen Jack play now and aren’t surprised anymore with the power he plays with. With Auston, I don’t want to say he’s more finesse, but maybe more of a cutter, whereas Jack is more power. But they’re big centers who play at a real hard pace and what’s very similar is that they each have a competitive burn to succeed at all costs.”
24 – Matthews is a student of Maple Leafs skills development consultant, Daryl Belfry. Matthews was rumoured to be working with Belfry recently in Florida for two weeks after his Swiss season ended, in order to get him prepared for the upcoming World Championships.
25 – Matthews doesn’t like taking time off after the season ends. He told the Arizona Central, “I don’t think I ever really get burned out on hockey. I hate taking those couple weeks off after the season where you let your body rest and recuperate. Obviously, it’s necessary — as much as I’d rather not do it.”
“He’s so dedicated to nutrition, to his off-ice work, studying the game,” Matthews’ mom, Ema, told NHL.com. “His desire to be better, to get better, is impressive. He’s always focused on the weaker parts of his game. He’s our son and, as his mom, he amazes me every day.”
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