Time not on Matthews’ side

Star cen­tre is hav­ing some tough puck luck, and a re­duced role likely isn’t help­ing

Toronto Star - - SPORTS - DiManno Rosie

It was Mark Mas­ters of TSN who, at the end of an un­usu­ally long scrum with Aus­ton Matthews, asked the Leafs stud about some ex­tra on-ice work he has been putting in with the team’s player de­vel­op­ment con­sul­tant in re­cent days.

There was a bit of an ex­as­per­ated sigh from Matthews, the first hint that maybe he’s had enough scru­ti­niz­ing of his un-Aus­ton goal pro­duc­tion over the last cou­ple of weeks.

“Yeah, I don’t know, Mark. Just stuff. Stuff. I don’t have 10 min­utes to get into de­tail.”

There’s noth­ing wor­ri­some about the 21-year-old’s dead­eye shot or his zippy re­lease or that sig­na­ture toe drag thing. At least noth­ing that, say, some more ice time — as be­fits his straw-that-stirs­the-drink sta­tus — might not rec­tify. Or maybe de­ploy­ment on Toronto’s first power-play unit, which coach Mike Bab­cock seems loath to im­ple­ment.

Se­ri­ously, if Matthews de­cides to play hard­ball on a new con­tract this sum­mer as a re­stricted free agent, money might not be the ob­sta­cle. De­spite his hockey splen­dour, the most glit­tery Leafs star in decades, per­haps ever, isn’t al­ways treated with the in­sti­tu­tional re­spect he mer­its.

At Sun­day prac­tice, the first pow­er­play unit was com­posed of John Tavares, Mitch Marner, Kasperi Ka­pa­nen, Nazem Kadri and Mor­gan Rielly. In the pre­vi­ous evening’s 3-2 loss to Bos­ton, the Toronto power play had fi­nally come off its 0-for-10 schneid, cour­tesy of Marner, on a de­lec­ta­ble no-look pass from Kadri.

Who knows what churns in the Bab­cock brain? It’s hard to fig­ure why a team blessed with of­fen­sive riches is merely eighth in the NHL for pow­er­play goals, with a 22.6 per cent suc­cess rate, after blow­ing off the doors to start the sea­son. Or why they’ve drawn fewer man-ad­van­tage op­por­tu­ni­ties (115) than any other team in the league, par­tic­u­larly given their speed, which logic would sug­gest should re­sult in more clutch­ing and felo­nious ob­struc­tion from op­po­nents. When the query is put to Bab­cock, he de­murs, claim­ing it’s not his place to ques­tion of­fi­ci­at­ing, at least not for pub­lic con­sump­tion. But that wasn’t re­ally the ques­tion.

Toronto has hit a slightly scuf­fling tract, go­ing 2-4 since the end of De­cem­ber. Some of that drag is re­flected in Matthews’ num­bers: three goals in the last 10 games, two of them on Dec. 20 against Flor­ida, and eight as­sists.

Pretty de­cent, just not in the ex­pected Aus­ton realm.

Yet Matthews claims he’s felt bet­ter than ever over the last three games and Bab­cock noted that his mar­quee cen­tre — co-mar­quee with Tavares, at least — is “skat­ing bet­ter than he has since he’s come back” from a shoul­der in­jury that cost him 14 games. His line­mates haven’t been con­stant and even Bab­cock seems now to have ac­knowl­edged that putting the strug­gling Wil­liam Ny­lan­der on his right flank was a bust of an idea, since ditched.

Lousy puck luck has a small some­thing to do with Matthews spin­ning his wheels. On Satur­day, with about four min­utes left in reg­u­la­tion time, a rolling puck thwarted his back­hand at­tempt in what had goal writ­ten all over it. “It just rolled off my stick, so not much you can do. Ob­vi­ously you want that one back, but it’s just the way it’s been go­ing, I guess, as of late.”

Yet Matthews em­pha­sized that his line, with Ka­pa­nen and An­dreas Johns­son, had kick against Bos­ton. Eight shots got through.

What’s felt en­er­giz­ing to him these past few games: “We’re hold­ing on to the puck a lot more, mak­ing plays when the op­por­tu­ni­ties are there. They’re just not go­ing in the back of the net. It gets frus­trat­ing at times. But at the same time, when you’re look­ing at it, I think it’s a bet­ter sit­u­a­tion to be in. You’re gen­er­at­ing all these chances, you’ve got the puck on your stick, you’re hav­ing these nights when you get five, six, seven shots on net and they’re good, high-scor­ing chances. It’s just a mat­ter for it to get rolling.”

In his third year in the NHL, Matthews has learned to roll with the oc­ca­sional slumpy spots.

“It’s a bit eas­ier now. Men­tally you just kind of block it out, not worry about it too much. Con­tinue to work hard and do what you’re do­ing to be suc­cess­ful. Just push it aside and keep go­ing.”

Last week, Matthews sug­gested, mildly, that the power play had be­come a mite too pre­dictable and op­po­nents had ad­justed to Toronto’s at­tack sys­tem. The term he prefers is “stale.” “Not mov­ing the puck enough, some­times just think- ing too much with it in­stead of just mak­ing de­cent plays, sim­ple plays, just shoot­ing the puck and go­ing from there. We’re kind of get­ting back to that. We’ve had games where we’ve gen­er­ated plenty of chances and the puck didn’t go in or we’ve had games where we had no chances. Like I said, the power play was just stale. Hope­fully we kind of get in a rhythm.”

Pre­sum­ably, when the Leafs host Colorado on Mon­day, Matthews will re­main with Ka­pa­nen and Johns­son. But, again, who knows?

One thing that does ap­pear likely — though Bab­cock wasn’t con­firm­ing it yet — is that Fred­die An­der­sen will be back be­tween the pipes after be­ing side­lined seven games with a groin is­sue, then a no-go on Satur­day, felled by flu. “I def­i­nitely feel ready to go,” he said Sun­day, ap­par­ently re­cov­ered. “We’ll see.” An­der­sen showed no mercy in prac­tice against the “snakebit” guys ei­ther be­cause eas­ing their frus­tra­tion is not part of his re­mit.

“No, I think you have to try and be harder on them. Make them com­pete even more to try and score. I don’t think let­ting peo­ple score will make any­one bet­ter. It’s a bat­tle and we com­pete with each other out there. That’s go­ing to ben­e­fit ev­ery­one in the end.”

Suck it, Aus­ton.

Aus­ton Matthews has got­ten used to the at­ten­tion around his scor­ing — and lack of scor­ing — ex­ploits.

KEVIN SOUSA GETTY IMAGES

“We’re hold­ing on to the puck a lot more, mak­ing plays when the op­por­tu­ni­ties are there. They’re just not go­ing in the back of the net,” says Maple Leafs cen­tre Aus­ton Matthews.

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