22 Jul Auston 4:16
Welcome to the 6ix
Where major sports franchises come to make a large enough impact to stick around in the professional sporting world… and yet championships are a but a figment of our imaginations.
Okay, I’ll take a step back for a moment. It’s not all Doom and Gloom, this is not an Old Valyria situation. But the past has been bleak to say the least, especially in the hockey market.
Toronto, my hometown, is a city that is well known for celebrating pride. Although, with respect to our hockey team, the only thing that we can proudly boast about is having the longest Stanley Cup drought in the NHL. Each year we, as a city, we play the role of Atlas trying to carry this infamous burden on our shoulders. And yet, year after year, the weight of this magnificent black mark becomes greater to bear and harder to shake.
In truth, most Toronto hockey enthusiasts (and yes there are many of them) fall within two categories: The first of which are die-hard “homers” who cannot accept that the Leafs have perpetuated a cycle of bottom feeding for years on end. These are the type of folk who believe such band aid solutions such as a Stephane Robidas or a Brad Boyes are genuinely the pieces we need to turn this franchise around.
The other category is made up of those of us who have become so jaded to the idea of a successful hockey team in this city that it is easier to presume nothing positive will come from the first puck drop in October.
For myself, the Leafs have taught me about love. Year in and year out I give them my heart… and they stomp on it. Making empty promises. Trying to throw money at their problems. And throwing away OUR future. Yet, hard as I try, it’s a relationship I may never be able to get out of. And that is something I have come to grips with long ago.
That all being said, something happened a little over a year ago that everyone both old and young, jaded and hopelessly optimistic, could get behind: the scorched earth rebuild. The Toronto Maple Leafs would finally be dismantled and built back up properly. It would be slow. It would be painful. And it certainly wouldn’t happen overnight… and then we unloaded the contract of David Clarkson.
And then we hired Mike Babcock… and Lou Lamoriello… and traded Phil Kessel (which I will hold true until the end of my days that it was still addition by subtraction) and Dion Phaneuf (probably the worst Captain in the history of the franchise). And, before we knew it, we were officially on the pathway towards failing… the right way.
Fast forward to June 2016 where the Maple Leafs, on the eve of their centennial season, were drafting 1st overall for the first time in 30 years. To put it in perspective: in 1985 Lou Lamoriello wasn’t yet able to get into movies at a Senior’s discount, Kyle Dubas was yet to even be a thought in his parents minds and Tina Turner won the Grammy for Album of the Year. Yes, A LOT has changed since then.
Que Auston Matthews
Here’s teenager from Arizona who, as a top prospect, rolled the dice and went to play puck overseas before becoming eligible for the NHL. Truthfully, I do not know where one gets a pair of skates in the desert, much less learns how to play hockey at a competitive level. I have seen the Grand Canyon… and there ain’t no ice at the bottom of it.
But, I can tell you one thing that I know for certain: this kid is going to be something special. Mayhaps he will even be the saviour of this sullen franchise. The realist in me has to take all of my expectations with a big chunk of salt when it comes to the Maple Leafs, but I have a very good feeling about this all the same.
As a 17 year old Matthews ventured to Switzerland where, as opposed to exercising his neutrality on a day to day basis, he was a point a game scorer against grown men. Further, Matthews learned under the tutelage of Marc Crawford. Seeing as how we didn’t hear any stories of Matthews sucker-punching any of the opposing players, we can safely assume that Crawford might have imparted a thing or two about how to play hockey the right way.
Matthews was touted as the number one pick before he went overseas. He only further cemented that status by his play. He then went on to join the U.S national team during the world championships and continued to prove that he is ready to play with the big boys.
What Does It All Mean?
Maybe Matthews will be a Connor McDavid type, although it is difficult to be a “once in a generation” talent. So we’ll scale it back just a little bit. Many compare him to a Jack Eichel (whom I believe will be a perennial All Star). Based on what I have seen, I have no reason to doubt that type of production from Matthews. Then again, he could always go the way of a Patrick Stefan or an Alexander Daigle. At the end of the day, he is yet to play a game in the NHL so it is entirely speculatory any way we go with this. My guess, look for Matthews to put together a season of upwards of 55 points on a young Maple Leafs team that will be doing a lot of learning by experience next season.
He may be a kid but he is going to be the anchor of this team for a long time to come. The first time we’ve had a true first line centre since Mats Sundin (no disrespect to Tylar Bozak but… I’m not wrong). He’s going to get the chance (whether this year or in the years to come) to play with the likes of William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Kaspari Kapanen and together they are going to try and shake this notorious cycle of failure and missteps.
There’s a chance this Leafs team finishes dead last in the league again this year. And I would be completely fine with that, just another chance to get a high end prospect. But I predict that in two years this is a playoff team. In three years they’re a contender. And don’t be surprised if you see Auston Matthews leading the team in scoring by then. Because, yes, as pessimistic as I am about my hometown squad, I think this kid is ready for every challenge that comes his way. And I’ll be the first guy coming to the games (if I can ever get a ticket on that 30 year wait-list) carrying a sign that simply says: Auston 4:16… and I’ll just bet I won’t be the only one.
By: Eric Saltsman