Auston Will Need to Find Balance

TORONTO (June 25) — It was no surprise that Auston Matthews wiped Britain’s exit from the European Union off the front page of one local newspaper today, while liberally sharing space with another.

During the Toronto Maple Leafs 100th anniversary season, Matthews will become the most intensely–scrutinized player in team history. His Los Angeles–based agent Pat Brisson; Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello and media–relations director Steve Keogh will need to devise some form of shelter–plan so that Matthews can properly contend with the anticipated typhoon… while effectively honing his craft on the ice.

This balance will be difficult to achieve while every component of the Toronto hockey landscape (fans, media, club sponsors, endorsement companies) seeks its pound of flesh. The Millennium of Overkill exacts an enormous toll on public figures in all industry. Matthews will soon discover, first–hand, what Brisson has surely prepared him for — that being the individual face of the National Hockey League’s most intense market (Lamoriello is correct in saying the logo is the inclusive face), while carrying the burden (fairly or otherwise) of franchise savior, is an extraordinary task. To a large extent, Brisson did similar work with Sidney Crosby more than a decade ago. So, Matthews enters the environment with sound tutelage.

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TORONTO SUN HEADLINE WRITERS BUSTED OUT “SAVIOUR” ON THE COVER OF TODAY’S NEWSPAPER (LEFT), AND THE FRONT PAGE OF THE SPORTS SECTION. IT IS NOW PART OF OUR HOCKEY LEXICON.

With our ubiquitous mobile devices, we live in a society of instant expression and gratification. Were the latter a disease among hockey fans in this city, Toronto would have long–ago been destroyed by plague. Beyond the maintenance of health, nothing matters more, it would seem, than the Leafs winning a game. Even when such accomplishment began to threaten a 30th–place finish in the NHL, fans at the Air Canada Centre stood and applauded their heroes through a pointless 6–2–1 streak in the middle of March (as I’ve written previously, one more victory would have resulted in Auston Matthews wearing an Edmonton jersey today). It is therefore nearly impossible to comprehend the onus and burden that No. 34 will come to bear.

This is, for example, the first time ever that the career of a drafted player in Toronto hinges on the Maple Leafs winning the Stanley Cup. The club was so hopelessly mismanaged during the Harold Ballard era that Wendel Clark — the NHL’s No. 1 pick in 1985 — came aboard with no–such expectation. Neither was it an overbearing concern for the last franchise center drafted by the Blue and White. The Leafs had sharply declined (with two playoff misses in three years after the 1967 Stanley Cup) when Darryl Sittler joined the team for the 1970–71 season. General manager Jim Gregory made strides toward contention by surrounding Sittler with elite personnel (Lanny McDonald, Errol Thompson, Borje Salming, Ian Turnbull, Mike Palmateer). By the time that club was ready to make a move, however, nobody could beat the Canadiens. Scotty Bowman’s juggernaut romped to four consecutive championships to end the 1970’s.

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The NHL is a more balanced entity than it was 35 years ago and teams are rewarded for adopting convention. In the salary–cap era, that entails a minimum two key performers playing under entry–level payroll restrictions; a Norris Trophy candidate on defense; depth and size at center, and unwavering stability between the pipes. If William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Matthews all make the club in September, the contractual economics will be in place. The Leafs are devoid of a blue–line stud and will not move into contention without such a player. Matthews will provide much–needed bulk at center, and the Leafs are confident Frederik Andersen will end the interminable search for a goalie — now in its 12th year.

Nothing would aid Matthews more than the addition of another veteran center; someone with whom to share the key position. Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri are the incumbent middle–men and both are efficient. But, they’ve also been stuck in a losing environment (not of their own creation) for more than half–a–decade. The Leafs would therefore best compliment Matthews by signing or trading for an accomplished pivot — one that has gone deep into the playoffs. Two–such men could be on the open market next Saturday: Steven Stamkos and David Backes. While Stamkos has long been the apple of eyes around here, I maintain that Backes would provide more of a cushion for Matthews. He could captain the Maple Leafs for a few years; teach many of the young players about winning important games, and continue to supply reasonable scoring numbers. Backes is nearly six years older than Stamkos, but he’s a proven leader and still in the prime of his career. Moreover, he wouldn’t choke off nearly as much of the Leafs’ cap margin.

The surest path toward contention for any team is a competent mix of youth and experience. The Leafs have a chance, in the next few years, to be spectacularly young, but there aren’t many “show–me” types on the roster. That’s why I contend Backes would be the perfect hire for Lamoriello. In a best/worst–case scenario, there is also the challenge of retaining elite, young players. Should Nylander, Matthews, Marner, Nikita Soshnikov and others reap their potential, the Leafs will be in an economic conundrum three years from now (and that doesn’t include the expensive, missing part on the blue line). Stamkos will consume a ton of cap space for many more than three years while Backes could be off the board not long afterward.

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Perhaps Matthews is one of those rare birds capable of carrying a young team from the outset of his career. But, Mike Babcock has been around too long to anticipate such a gift. As much as anyone, the coach understands the need for a veteran presence to share the initial burden with his young, franchise cornerstone. That’s why the Maple Leafs — come next weekend — will likely be “all in” on Stamkos… and why the club should be talking to Backes as well..

Fans of the Blue and White are sophisticated enough to realize that Matthews may not be an instant phenom. Intelligence and emotion, however, collide in this city when the puck is dropped. One can barely imagine the out–poring of anxiety and grief on social media should Matthews encounter a five or six–game scoring drought. Or, if Andersen begins to flub two–bouncers from center–ice. The stakes are much higher today than they were a year ago, when it was all–but certain the Leafs would play for the No. 1 pick. The poobahs at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment — devoid of post–season hockey revenue for much of the past 12 years — are likely “urging” Brendan Shanahan, Lamoriello and Babcock to pick up the pace. Especially the 37.5% faction at Rogers Communications, with its mountainous TV–rights package contingent on a Leaf revival. Should Lamoriello acquire Stamkos, that gentle ownership nudge will turn into a shove.

And, amid all of it will come a 19–year–old kid wearing an anvil.

It’s the reason that Matthews and his advisers need to form a balance–plan. Surviving the initial wave of hysteria in Leafs Land could be the biggest challenge of all for No. 34.

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

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