WASHINGTON, D.C. — They were the types of goals that make even professional hockey players eager to rewatch. “Oh yeah, a couple times,” Maple Leafs defenseman Connor Carrick says. “I was talking about them with my dad yesterday.” Which Hockey Night in Canada highlight did you prefer? When Auston Matthews charged through the neutral zone, batted an airborne puck at the blue line, stick-handled into the left faceoff circle and beat Carey Price high-glove? Or when he settled a wobbling saucer pass and smoothly clubbed a 4-3 overtime winner past the Montreal goalie’s blocker in stride?
It’s a tough choice for teammates too. “The first one was a little more impressive, with how he handled the [puck] and how much he changed the angle,” forward James Van Riemsdyk says. “That makes it so hard. The second one, he collected a puck that was bouncing and got it off super quick.
“So that was really nice too.”
A few days later, Carrick nods across the visiting locker room in Washington, at a media scrum encircling the main attraction wherever the Maple Leafs go. As an acute and articulate observer of hockey talent, Carrick is thinking about what makes Matthews special. Grab a stall. Deep breath. This might take a few minutes. “He has a really strong sense of his skill level,” Carrick says. “I think he’s just able to work at a little bit higher pace in those tighter situations. Some guys see traffic as something to avoid, something to slow down for. You almost see him look at numbers at the line and hit the gas, attack the line and bull-rush it.
“The blend in his shot is really special, his ability to change angles and be deceptive and land in one piece and let that puck go is really high-end. Then I think the fact that when he’s stick-handling in-zone, all 360 degrees around him are in play. He’ll use whatever he’s got. He’ll use the back of the wall, he’ll use his feet, he’ll put it in areas and block a guy’s stick. He’s very talented that way, and he’s able to use his range all around him. And then when you have his size, it’s hard to reach around and try to poke that puck free.”
Of course, all these traits are geared toward helping Matthews do what he does best: score. His 40 goals last season set the Maple Leafs’ rookie record, and 32 at even strength led the NHL. He is already something of an offensive renaissance man, equally talented at redirecting shots near the crease and unleashing hell from above the faceoff circle. Through Wednesday Matthews had already tallied six more in seven games, the most recent coming as he curled into the slot and whipped a wrister that damn near grazed Detroit defenseman Trevor Daley’s kneecap. “You see him do that drag-and-pull a lot that changes the angle of his shot,” Toronto’s Matt Martin says. “He can be stickhandling, looking like he’s going to pass, fire it on net. You never get the same shot out of him twice, I guess.
“He can really shoot from any angle in any position. I think it’s deceptive. It’s hard for goalies to know what he’s going to do with the puck, because he’s such a good playmaker too that you can’t just play his shot. He never really commits to just shooting. He leaves himself options, and when he does shoot it, it’s pretty accurate.”
Anton Forsberg can confirm. In overtime on Oct. 9, Matthews’s head was still turned toward Toronto defenseman Jake Gardiner, selling the passing threat on a two-on-one, when he abruptly yanked the puck into his body and launched it underneath the crossbar. The move was one of several products from the past two summers, which Matthews has spent under the supervision of skills coach Darryl Belfry. Together they meticulously rebuilt the mechanics of Matthews’s shot, blending more stealth into an already elite release. “It was mostly changing the angle, shooting off any foot, shooting in stride, adding elements of deception,” says Auston’s father, Brian Matthews. “It was hidden and disguised. Auston wanted no one to know when it was coming.”
Since Matthews will not offer much in the way of specifics—“For a week, I shot a bunch. all sorts of different stuff.”—it helps to ask around. Some teammates might gesture toward the ice, where he often stays late for a few more reps after practice. “Some of it’s that natural talent, obviously,” Martin says. “But he wouldn’t be as precise as everything if he didn’t work at it, and I think he’s comfortable in all these situations because of how hard he works.”
Or they’ll mention his knack for landing in the right spot for rebounds around the net. “Especially in the NHL where everything’s so fast, he’s able to buy himself a half a second and gets it off, and it’s in the net,” linemate Zach Hyman says. “He has that instinct where he knows how to be, the puck finds him and he’s able to capitalize because he’s got elite skill.”
Indeed, it’s the totality of these traits that place Matthews among the NHL’s most versatile scorers. He is like Inspector Gadget on ice—Go-go super slap shot!—minus the clumsy incompetence, earning early headlines about his potential Hart Trophy candidacy that seem perfectly legitimate and a new nickname from Washington coach Barry Trotz that probably won’t stick: Young Mario. (As in, Lemieux.)
Follow Carrick’s lead. Watch Matthews’s first goal against Montreal once more. There was the bull-rush mentality, full speed as he chased after a puck over the red line and forced defenseman Jordie Benn into making a weak clear attempt. The hand-eye coordination to swat the puck and settle it flat. The curl-and-drag he practiced so often with Belfry, unleashed before Price could properly square to the play. The frustrated stomp of a skate from the former Vezina Trophy winner, beaten like so many other goalies past and future.
As usual, material got left in the edit room from SI's recent magazine story on Matthews. Here are some leftovers:
• Amanda Belfry regularly works with MLB players when they flock to Arizona for spring training, but Matthews was her first NHL client at Simple Pilates. "I don’t follow hockey," she says. "Someone called and said, 'Hey, we’ve got this guy.' Very quickly I learned what a big deal he is."
Matthews had sought out the Scottsdale-area studio with specific goals in mind, hoping to supplement his offseason strength program with exercises to improve his posture. Beginning the first week of June, they spent 55 minutes each week increasing his spinal flexibility and strengthening his core to prevent future back problems. "A lot of times when you’re 19, you’re not thinking about being 26 and your body’s been getting a beating for however many years," Belfry says. "I really respected that he was open to trying something he had never done before in the hopes of making him better."
• Why did Matthews choose No. 34? That's what his father wore as a baseball player at Scottsdale Community College. "Ripped up my shoulder," Brian says. "Wasn't meant to be."
• Matthews will admit that adjusting to the bright spotlights of Toronto took time. "I don't know how Marner does it," he once told Brian, referencing how the dynamic winger stays in the city year-round.
He wasn't a celebrity as an 18-year-old pro in Switzerland, where he and his mother Ema could take their usual Sunday strolls along the river without being bothered. "A much more relaxed lifestyle and laid back," he says. And even now he can head home and only get recognized around the rink. Living in Toronto, however, means calling ahead for restaurant reservations, hoodie up and ballcap low.
"After I was drafted, and after development camp and stuff, I was here for my parents looking for an apartment," he says. "We went to dinner and we were walking back to the hotel we were staying at and I got stopped two or three times in a block. That made me realize how much people pay attention and how passionate they are about the teams and the players."
• Much to the chagrin of his opponents, Matthews fittingly occupies the sniper role whenever he and teammate Mitch Marner play two-on-two matches in Call of Duty, a popular game among the Maple Leafs. "He memorizes the map and sits in the back and snipes me," Hyman says. "Very cowardly of him. It’s unbelievable. They have this whole strategy, whenever we play. Auston sits in the back and snipes, and Mitch runs around and looks for you. They have this whole little strategy they put together. And then they laugh. They start dying laughing. They’re clowns."
This is how Matthews justifies his tactics: "Just don't want to get killed."