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Matthews completes superb NHL rookie season with Calder Trophy win

 

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To say that the last 12 months for Auston Matthews have been a whirlwind is truly an understatement.

First, the Scottsdale native was selected first overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2016 NHL Draft, making headlines in the process as a player going No. 1 that wasn’t from Canada or any of the United States hockey hotbeds.

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Then in his NHL debut in Ottawa in October, he recorded four goals to definitely show the NHL that kids from the desert can play hockey.

On New Year’s Day in Toronto in an outdoor game – the Scotiabank NHL Centennial Classic against the Detroit Red Wings – Matthews picked up the overtime winner at Exhibition Stadium before a crowd of better than 40,000.

Still, Matthews wasn’t done.

After finishing the regular season with 40 goals, Matthews outdistanced his competition – Winnipeg Jets forward Patrik Laine and Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Zach Werenski – in the Calder Memorial Trophy voting and became the first Leaf in more than 50 years to win the award.

Matthews accepted the award at the NHL Awards ceremony on June 21 in Las Vegas.

“It means a lot,” said Matthews. “Just being a Toronto Maple Leaf, an Original Six team, it’s a pretty big honor to play for a team like that. It’s just a special night. I’m not a big public speaker, so it was definitely pretty nerve-racking going up (on stage), but it was pretty cool.”

Matthews was a near-unanimous selection, receiving 164 of 167 first-place votes and three second-place tallies for 1,661 points. He paced rookies with his 40 goals and 69 points while appearing in all 82 games. His 40 goals also shared second place in the entire league, highlighted by a historic debut in which he became the first player in the NHL’s modern era (since 1943-44) to score four times in his first game.

“Lot of young talent in the league now,” said Matthews. “(The voting totals were) a pretty big surprise to me. Not only with Patrik, but with Zach to do what he did as a defenseman at 19 years old, it’s not easy. I think it’s the hardest position to play being that young. Then there are other players that aren’t here – such a good rookie class. It’s definitely an honor to receive this award.”

The 19-year-old Scottsdale native was Toronto’s first Calder Trophy finalist since 1992-93 (Felix Potvin) and becomes the first Maple Leaf to win the award since 1965-66 (Brit Selby).

But heading into the season, was earning the Calder a goal at all for the Arizona Bobcats and Jr. Coyotes alum?

“Yeah, of course,” said Matthews. “You want to perform individually, but in the end, you want to do what you can to help the team win and I felt I did a pretty good job at that, kind of just doing my thing out there, but having fun at the same time playing with some pretty good players. We’re a young team that’s continuing to build and get better every day.

“Individually, you want to take a step forward and as a team, you want to take a step forward. We got a taste of the playoffs this year, so we want to continue to push it and obviously, get to that ultimate goal.”

Opening 2017 with his overtime dramatics, lifting the Maple Leafs to a 5-4 win over Detroit, Matthews said he just wanted to take in the atmosphere and enjoy the event.

“Definitely one of the best moments in hockey I’ve ever experienced for myself – it’s pretty special,” said Matthews. “All 23 guys out there, I think, we played a real solid game and when it’s a Winter Classic game, it’s a little bigger setting, a lot more fans, kind of that national stage. For us to come out and get that win was a pretty exciting game. I think people were on the edge of their seats there in the third period and overtime, so it was just really fun to experience this whole thing.”

That said, playing outdoors was nothing new for Matthews.

“I mean, I’ve played outdoor hockey before, probably just like everybody else,” Matthews said. “I lived in Michigan (playing for the U.S. National Team Development Program) for two years (2013-15), so played quite a bit in the winter when we had time, so it was a blast out there, a lot of fun, the setting, two Original Six teams going at it against each other, so it was a pretty fun night.

“The first two periods were pretty defensively structured by both teams, not too much space out there, so you kind of just were taking what was given, and the third period kind of opened up a little bit. We were able to score a couple quick goals, a couple big goals, and momentum kind of switched again and they were able to come back. Regardless, obviously you don’t really want to be in that position that we were in, but it’s good to get the two points.”

Toronto had a 4-3 lead until the Red Wings scored with 1.1 seconds left in the third period.

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Fast forward to the end of the regular season and Toronto qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, facing Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals.

All six games in the series were one-goal games, but the Leafs could only muster two wins and were bounced from the postseason.

“It was really important to get a taste of that,” said Matthews. “It’s a new year coming up and everybody’s got to be ready and be dialed in. It’s not easy to make the playoffs, as we saw this year, and I don’t want to say we snuck in, but it was pretty close. It was definitely an exciting year.”

Looking ahead, Matthews sees a bright future for the Leafs.

“The expectations kind of come with the territory,” Matthews said. “All us young guys, we embrace it and we enjoy it. We’re a young team and we’re looking to get better to hopefully achieve our ultimate goal. It’s not even us, but a lot of the older guys – Tyler Bozak, James van Riemsdyk – that are super close. That’s a good thing to have and everyone being so tight with each other, hopefully that translates to on-ice success as well.”

What’s on Matthews’ agenda as the summer kicks into full swing?

“Been working out, started skating more the last few weeks,” Matthews said. “I thought it was pretty important to take a couple weeks off after the season. Playing a lot of games, your first season in the NHL, it’s been a busy summer, but rested up a little bit and got back into the swing of things, so it’s been really good.

“Excited for the season.”

Photos/Michael Caples/MiHockey

— Matt Mackinder