Auston Matthews and Leafs relaunch with high expectations

“It’s just like it was when I faced him … I don’t know if it’s God’s gift, but he’s just a very special player.”

That was Maple Leafs defenseman Jordie Benn on what it’s like to play with Auston Matthews at training camp after facing him as a member of the Montreal Canadiens, Vancouver Canucks, Winnipeg Jets and Minnesota Wild over the past six seasons.

Last season, Matthews emerged as one of the best two-way centers in the NHL and scored a franchise-record 60 goals in 73 games, on the way to winning the Hart Trophy as league MVP. He’s also one of hockey’s most visible players on virtually every media platform, another sure sign of his star power.

Just turned 25, Matthews might be heading for an even better year — if he can stay healthy. He has missed 51 of 246 games over the past three seasons and still managed a total of 148 goals. In a full campaign, he could have a shot at 70 goals as well as career highs in assists and points.

“Your expectations are so high, but I would say he’s delivered on those expectations,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said, with the club set to open the pre-season Saturday against the Ottawa Senators at Scotiabank Arena. “He’s a world-class player who’s on another level on the ice, and that’s what you want to see, and that’s what he’s done.

“We’ve all come to know Austin and he’s a guy who doesn’t get comfortable. He isn’t content, both in his own game and what’s he’s capable of doing to lead us as a team to greater heights.”

The NHL hasn’t had a 70-goal scorer since Alexander Mogilny and Teemu Selanne — 77 and 76, respectively, in the 1992-93 season. Mario Lemieux reached 69 in 1995-96.

Matthews doesn’t want to talk about predictions or targets for goals, but he believes in his talent: “I know what I’m capable of.”

He’s also quick to share the credit with linemates Mitch Marner and Michael Bunting.

Marner scored 35 goals last year, blowing by his previous career high by 15, and finished with a career-best 97 points.

Leaf Auston Matthews goes to work along the boards, battling TJ Brodie during training camp on Friday.

“He’s hungry every time he’s out there. He’s looking to attack, looking to find guys or attack the net himself,” Matthews said of Marner. “That element of his game, he’s improved so much at it, and just helps everybody get better. You have to be focused on him, not just as a shot threat but a guy who can make plays and make passes that not too many people can.”

Matthews invited Marner and Bunting to his Arizona home over the summer for a mix of work and fun. Marner says Matthews is in top physical shape, after missing parts of camp last season.

“From my standpoint, it’s just his mentality has risen so much,” said Marner, “just knowing how good he is and knowing he can take anyone one-on-one pretty easily. Just seems like his hands, his feet, his shot are all in one motion right now and it’s really exciting to watch.”


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