A few weeks before training camp began, one of the newest Maple Leafs wandered over to general manager Brad Treliving with a clear observation.
“I knew he was good,” Ryan Reaves told Treliving while coming off the ice at the Ford Performance Centre. “I didn’t know he was this good.”
Reaves has been around the NHL long enough to have played alongside Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, alongside Adam Fox and Artemi Panarin, and last year he played with Kirill Kaprizov. He understands and appreciates elite talent from up close and, before the Leafs got serious in training camp, he saw a certain side of Auston Matthews that isn’t often spoken about.
He watched him work out. He watched him skate in unorganized scrimmages. He watched him doing extra work with skills coaches. He saw the kind of dedication to the craft that separates the Crosbys of the hockey world from just about the rest of the game.
And what he witnessed up close is the immense talent that is Auston Matthews. A talent that too often taken for granted as the Maple Leafs search to find the team greatness he has found individually.
Training camp can so often be about other things: What position will William Nylander play? Will he or won’t be sign a contract? How good are the youngsters, Fraser Minten and Matthew Knies? Will the third-string goalie, Martin Jones, clear waivers? All of them sidebars to the big picture.
The big picture, as this Leafs season is set to begin Wednesday night against Montreal, is which version of Auston Matthews will show up and play and what can be expected of him as he takes another step in a career forever building?
This is Season 8 for Matthews as an NHL player. Time seems to have flown by.
He already has won the Hart Trophy, a couple of Rocket Richards, the rookie of the year and walked into the NHL with a four-goal game.
And, with Connor McDavid all by himself as the NHL’s best player, there is a place for Matthews just after him. All he has to do is grab it. The only trophy he cares for is the big one he hasn’t been close to.
“This guy is special,” Treliving said. “I’ve been around good players in the past. I don’t know if I’ve been around one like him before. He’s wired for greatness. It’s all he thinks about. There’s a commitment level you would expect from a superstar, but to me it’s more than that.
“I’ve seen it up close and heard it when we met in Arizona in the summer. Nobody works on his game more. He has a commitment to being the best.”
John Tavares is listed as the captain of the Maple Leafs. But when you hear him talk about Matthews, you’d think he might be talking about Matthews as the Leafs captain.
“His growth on and off the ice has been enormous,” Tavares said. “And now he’s in the prime of his career.
“He’s evolved to a place where he only seems to get better and better. He’s gone through some ups and downs as a player — mostly ups — and you realize when you’re around him that he’s just driven to make an impact.
“He puts a lot on himself to lead this group. He’s driven to be one of the best players in the world.”
Depending on the order of Top 5 lists around the NHL, the best players are mostly in the Western Conference. Edmonton has McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Colorado has Cale Makar and Nathan MacKinnon. And somewhere in that Top 5 box is Matthews — as high as two, as low as five — depending on the credibility of the list.
As the highest-rated player in the Eastern Conference on a Maple Leafs team that enters the season as one of highest-rated teams in the Conference.
When have the Leafs had this before? Mats Sundin was great, just not better than Jaromir Jagr or Eric Lindros or Peter Forsberg. Darryl Sittler was great, but in the Conference there was always Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy, Denis Potvin or Bobby Clarke. Dave Keon was more subtle than strong and, terrific as he happened to be, was never considered better than Jean Beliveau or Bobby Hull or Stan Mikita.
When Doug Gilmour was the best Leaf, Toronto was a Western Conference team. Wayne Gretzky, Steve Yzerman, Brett Hull and Pavel Bure were the best in the West.
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Now Matthews is alone in the Eastern Conference. After him at centre you can probably place old Crosby, young Jack Hughes and Brayden Point.
Crosby has three Stanley Cups. Point has two. Matthews is still looking for his first great playoff run, something McDavid and Draisaitl have done twice individually without similar team results.
“Every year he improves,” Morgan Rielly said. “Every year he’s a little better, a little faster.”
Also, a little smarter.
This is a new year. This is yet another new season for Auston Matthews. This is October. The possibilities are more than intriguing.