The Auston Matthews Hype Machine

TORONTO (Mar. 10) — My ol’ pal, Nick Kypreos, has immeasurably improved the decorous Toronto Star sports section with his bi–weekly column on the Maple Leafs. Whichever executive made the decision to bring him aboard should receive a bonus. But, even Kyper showed that he can be ensnared in the Toronto media hype machine by referring to Auston Matthews, on Thursday, as the “second–best player in the world.” Had Nick written the article one year ago, it may have been accurate. At the moment, however, there’s a solid argument that Matthews is no better than the fourth–best player on his own team, let alone second in the hockey universe.

Auston won the Hart Trophy last season largely as the result of a media love–in. That he broke the Toronto franchise record for goals in a full schedule (60) was a remarkable accomplishment, yet he was not — nor will he ever be — in the company of Connor McDavid, who resides in the stratosphere of Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux among modern National Hockey League marvels. Neither, once more, was Matthews a factor when the chips were on the table, coming up small in Game 7 (on home ice) against Tampa Bay. McDavid, if you’ve forgotten, erupted for playoff–leading 33 points in 16 matches, leading Edmonton to the Stanley Cup semifinals. He could have been the first player to win the Conn Smythe Trophy without appearing in the title round.

This is a good time to pause and address those who complain that I only write “negatively” about the Maple Leafs. Please understand, as I’ve mentioned on numerous occasions, that “positive” and “negative” are thoroughly subjective; governed by the team you follow and root for. Without question, I write critically about the Leafs. For several reasons, not the least of which is the near–absence of critical reporting, today, within the mainstream Toronto media, of which I was a member for 23 years (1988–2011). During the bulk of that time (17 seasons), I had the privilege of being the first radio beat–reporter to cover a team in the NHL, home and on the road. The nature of my Leafs reporting would have been perfectly acceptable in the newspaper industry (at the time). That I spoke objectively about the team was entirely foreign, given that radio had always been an extension of the Maple Leafs.

Over the air, one is compelled to wave the blue and white flag; never more so than today, with the absurd cross–pollination of team/media ownership. Yet, during much of my time covering the Leafs at The FAN–590, there wasn’t a lot to criticize. Between 1993 and 2004, I followed the club — under Pat Burns and Pat Quinn — through four advancements to the Stanley Cup semifinals and 11 playoff–round victories. I was at Joe Louis Arena, nearly 30 years ago, when Nik Borschevsky upset the Detroit Red Wings in overtime. At the Los Angeles Forum to cover the infamous Gretzky–Doug Gilmour–Kerry Fraser affair in Game 6 of the ’93 semis between the Leafs and Kings.

As a fan and season ticket holder, I was in Maple Leaf Gardens the night (Feb. 7, 1976) Darryl Sittler erupted for 10 points against the Boston Bruins; and the night, 2½ months later, when Sittler scored five playoff goals on Bernie Parent of Philadelphia. I attended all three home matches of the 1978 Cup quarterfinals when the Leafs ultimately upset the New York Islanders on Lanny McDonald’s overtime goal In Game 7 at the Nassau Coliseum. I honestly know what it looks and feels like when the Leafs win something that matters. The wheels fell off with the advent of the salary cap (in 2005) and have not since ushered the team beyond prosperity in the regular season.

So, yes, I emphatically contend that the nucleus of a club that has failed on six consecutive attempts in the playoffs should be altered. Perhaps significantly. Instead, the vaunted Core–4 will stay intact for a seventh–such opportunity. Show me a similar example, in any professional sport. You cannot, because there isn’t one… nor should there be. In my era of covering the Maple Leafs, reporters and columnists would have been clamoring for change, long before now. Instead, we have comparative lap dogs inventing the silly phrase “all in” and actually believing that Kyle Dubas re–shaped the club with mostly over–the–hill, third and fourth–level acquisitions. The only way, in fact, this club can be re–modeled is by finally subtracting from the posse of forwards that has proven, beyond any reasonable doubt, it cannot prevail in the clutch. Which would have been acceptable after two or three eliminations in the opening playoff round. Yet, with half–a–dozen on the ledger, the composition of the team is still intact.

I ask you: What more evidence is required to approve of; acknowledge or understand critical reporting?

Since 2016, Auston Matthews has been the poster–boy of Toronto’s underachievement. He is, undoubtedly, at or above the level of any regular–season sniper in Leafs history, including such franchise legends as Charlie Conacher, Babe Dye, Syl Apps, Ted Kennedy, Frank Mahovlich, McDonald, Sittler, Rick Vaive, Wendel Clark, Gilmour, Dave Andreychuk and Mats Sundin. Where he significantly pales, by comparison, is with a playoff resume. Last season, Matthews carried the team through the regular schedule, interrupted and fractured by the Omicron variant of COVID–19. To his credit, nothing interrupted Auston’s scintillating run to a second Rocket Richard trophy. This season, he is a mere shell of the Hart Trophy recipient; no higher, as I mentioned, than fourth–best on the Maple Leafs, behind Mitch Marner, William Nylander and John Tavares. For ol’ Kyper to call him the “second–best player in the world” was a brief, yet startling, lapse of his normally sound judgement.

In my view, Matthews (currently 35th in NHL points) hasn’t the drive or the conviction of a great playoff performer; an immeasurable waste of skill. I’ve written it before: the Leafs will take a giant step forward if Matthews joins a rival NHL club after next season. Marner is, plainly, the most–indispensable component of the current team, while Nylander has evolved marvelously under Sheldon Keefe. Both, clearly, need to begin carrying such performance beyond the regular schedule. Tavares, though slowing with age, still produces at a rate most would expect.

What the Maple Leafs must do — and I know you get tired of reading about it in this corner — is somehow replace Matthews with a franchise defenseman. The fantasy swap of Auston for Erik Karlsson before the Mar. 3 NHL trade deadline would have positioned the Maple Leafs for a deep playoff run. It was never going to happen because the current GM, even though he inherited the Big 3 draft picks, cannot bring himself to raze the old gang.

Which is truly a shame for the NHL’s most–tormented fan base.


15 comments on “The Auston Matthews Hype Machine

  1. If Matthews wants to stay a Leaf they can’t pay him more than McDavid and if he isn’t interested in being a Leaf long term three things need to happen.
    1. If the team fails in the first round of the playoffs again, new management needs to be brought in to replace Shanahan and Dubas who can make the tough decisions and reshape the team to be a Cup contender
    2. Matthews needs to be traded prior to July 1st to a team stalked with picks and prospects that can help the team win a Cup in the next five years. That team should be given permission to discuss an extension with him prior to the trade so as to get the max in return.
    3. Rielly has to be convinced to waive his NMC because they will never win a Cup with him as their No. 1 defenseman.

    1. Exactly on point. I have believed from almost Day 1 of the Matthews era that he doesn’t want to be here, and is only interested in the money to live the celebrity life and winning really doesn’t enter into his personal thought processes at all.

  2. Howard, as a lifelong member of Leafs Nation, I have always found your candor refreshing and spot on. It pains me to say this, but since Rogers assumed control of all broadcast rights, the majority of your media brethren have forgotten that being a reporter means being objective; not a cheerleader for the team. As far as I am concerned, keep on telling it like it is. The majority of us objective Leaf fans stand with you.

  3. I remember how the Leafs ended up getting nothing for Mats Sundin, due to his no trade clause. Matthews has a no trade clause that kicks in on July 1 ’23. If Dubas does not make him an offer he can’t refuse by then, Matthews will be able to play out the string and then sign with his hometown ‘Yotes at the end of ’24. So, either they sign him by July 1, or they need to trade him so they don’t end up being screwed again a la Sundin in losing their most valuable asset for nothing. Love your clear eyed assessments Howard!

  4. The nature of Toronto as epicenter of the Canadian hockey universe, unfortunately, helped to doom the club to its current cap restrictions. Brian Burke referred to the broad phenomenon as “blue and white disease.” Each of Nylander, Marner, and Matthews were paid over-premium at the time–and two of them continue to receive premium dollars this far into their contracts. Marner and Matthews were paid as UFAs yet without securing more than 1 year of UFA years between them and awarding them no movement clauses. Why? Because they are hyped, promoted, and never addressed critically because of the nature of the market in which they play. Nobody (myself included) thought, in the fall of 2018 when Nylander was signed to a contract he dictated, that the greatest accomplishment of this team would be a Game 7 home loss in the opening round of the playoffs. And yet, that it is. And the current contracts and subsequent roster makeup all but guarantee that is what it will be.

  5. Where is Cliff Fletcher when you need him. He would not hesitate to pull the trigger on a mega deal. Kyle doesn’t have it in him. Neither does Shanahan for that matter.
    Auston is the kid in the playground that if he can’t be the best he picks up his ball and goes home. He never elevates in a game when challenged by an opposing star player. Always shrinks. He loves to feast on lesser players. I was a huge fan in his first 2-3 years but no longer.

  6. I will be surprised if the team does not offer to make Auston the highest paid player i the NHL next summer. I don’t think they will have room under the cap to keep Nylander. Unless Matthews advises the team he isn’t signing an extension prior to his current contract expiring, I am afraid Nylander will either be traded or allowed to walk.

  7. For my money, the following teams are where Matthews may find himself in the next couple of years, should he not sign an extension in Toronto, with reasons. My personal belief is he will not sign an extension, but who knows…New York Rangers – the big apple where Gretzky went. He would cement himself as a huge piece winning a cup in New York and getting back to his mega scoring touch. Los Angeles, another Gretzky spot, Hollywood wold come calling and the lights and everything. Should Anahem win the lottery, there is no telling what could happen in Disney…Yes, massive trades would need to happen for both teams on an epic scale, who said it cannot happen? Arizona – there was an article I read a couple years ago that had stated, with speculation, that should Matthews sign back home, he would have part ownership of the Coyotes in a new arena….the last one Colorado. They could pull a trade off with one of their big guns upfront and replace with Matthews, however, would Matthews be built enough to withstand the heavy hitting Western Conference? My take anyway.

  8. I believe that Auston Matthews has peaked offensively as an NHL player. I don’t see him repeating his 60-goal season anytime soon. Matthews isn’t going to be playing into his late 30’s with all the injuries he has already picked up in his career. His time in Toronto could be winding down. If the Maple Leafs fail to advance beyond the Eastern Conference quarterfinal this spring, he will become trade bait for sure.

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