Don Granato, Auston Matthews’ coach for the USA Hockey Under 18 National Team Development Program, joined Leafs Lunch to discuss Auston Matthews and his future in Toronto. Transcript below.
What can Auston Matthews bring to a team? What did you see the years you were with him?
Granato: I saw a lot of things that are harder for other people to see. I’ve done a lot of scouting in my career as well, and the hard part when you scout is that you’re trying to figure out what a coach is asking of him. Is he doing it exactly as he’s asked? How good of a teammate is he? What’s he like in the locker room? What’s he like on the bus, or in your community? All of those questions, if you answer them with a rating, are a 10. He’s an exceptional person. He’s a competitive person. He has all the intangibles that you’d want from a competitive standpoint — a passion for the game, a passion for his team, for his teammates. Everybody can see when they walk in the rink how talented he is. It’s the other things that really, really excited me when I had the opportunity to work with him for a couple of years.
Take us through this: Gold medal game last year in Switzerland, you’re absolutely outplaying the Finns, and goaltender Veini Vehviläinen is standing on his head. Auston Matthews is the guy who makes the key play that leads to the tying goal. As you are going through that game, what’s your description of what Auston Matthews is doing to emerge on the right side of it?
Granato: If you have any Ottawa Senators fans, they’ll appreciate this because our number-two center was Colin White. For me, down the stretch, especially in overtime, I was rotating Colin White and Autson Matthews as much as I could. I wanted to make sure one of those two were on the ice as we went into four on four, which lasted 12 minutes. I felt very relaxed in that game because of the bench. As a coach, you only need to do what your team needs, and that’s it. I don’t feel like I’d need, as a coach, to upstage the talent that you have. You know the team I had with the 1997 US-born kids — I had a lot of talent. You let them drive the bus. No better guy than Auston Matthews. His dad even told me after the tournament – he said, “You know, he wanted to win that one for you.” That’s the type of kid that he is. He’s a team guy. He wants to win. The results for him aren’t on how many interviews he does or who pats him on the back. The results for him, the only result, is winning, whether that be a practice or a game. I knew I had a gem on the bench for us.
With the UNTDP, you’ve seen elite kids over the past number of years. Is there a kid that went through the program when you were there that reminds you of him? We’ve heard the big names – the Toews, the Kopitars, the Tavares – and those are huge, huge comparisons for the young man. Is there a player that you’ve coached where you’ve said, “there’s a similarity here?”
Granato: I’ve been lucky to be on the ice with a lot of first-round picks, Hobey Baker winners and such. This is a whole other level because of the combination. He wins outright in the intangibles but he wins outright in the skill as well. His coordination and hand skill and hand-eye coordination is baffling. The things he can do at high speed within the context of the game, where other people feel pressure – he’s got some magic to him. He goes into situations and it’s like he carries no pressure with him. He wants to be challenged. He wants to go into the corner with the biggest, hardest, strongest guy because that’s the best challenge for him. He’s a unique guy in so many respects. I’m very fortunate, and feel very fortunate, to have him for the two years that I did.
There’s been a lot of talk the pressure in Toronto. You’re under a microscope, and all eyes are on you. It’s high when it’s high and it’s low when it’s low. Maybe take us, if you can, inside his mind. A kid who ends up going to Europe as opposed to staying in North American where things can be comfortable tells me this is someone who doesn’t just not shy away from a challenge on the ice, but doesn’t shy away from challenges in life.
Granato: Great thing to bring up. We finished the U18 Worlds in Switzerland last year and Jim Johanssen of USA Hockey called me a couple of days prior to the end, and said, “hey, we’re going to be short Charlie Coyle. We’re going to need Auston for an exhibition game.” Auston went and met the team in Austria. Canada was pretournament in the same venue, so Sidney Crosby was there. The short of the story is that Auston told me, when he came back, “listen coach, I don’t want to go play junior against younger players – 16 year olds and 17 year olds. We played Division I games, so I got a feel for college hockey. I really want to go play against men because I don’t know if I can do it.” He said, “I want that challenge.” When he was taping a stick in the hallway in Austria, he turned around and looked and saw Sydney Crosby doing the same thing outside the Canadian locker room. He said, “that’s what I want to do. I want to play against men. I want to see if I can do that. I know I can do the other stuff.” That’s the type of person you’re dealing with. He doesn’t read his own press clippings. He is not impressed by himself. He wants challenges. You see that when he steps on the ice in practice. He’s always got a game going on with somebody else – a keep-away game, or some sort of whacky game that he’ll play. He’s a guy that thrives in competition. He feels most comfortable in a competitive environment.
I worked for the Maple Leafs for a couple years, so I know what a franchise that is. It’s an amazing place to be; that market is an amazing place to be. I think this young man can handle that. Mike got to see him last year, coach Babcock did, because my brother was a part of his staff. He came and watched Auston play against the University of Michigan, who had Dylan Larkin and JT Compher and Zach Werenski on a team. Keep in mind Auston is a junior in high school and we’re playing the University of Michigan. He scored an unbelievable goal against Michigan that night and was pretty dominant in the game that night as well.
When you think about Auston and his path, is it similar to what Jack Eichel did in Buffalo this previous year?
Granato: Time will tell. Everybody adjusts differently. I know Eichel had a great year. I had the good fortune of having both of them. No disrespect to Jack Eichel, and I know Auston has a lot to prove, but I think he’ll do that. I’m pretty confident he will.