Just because Auston Matthews invited a world-class goaltender into his quarantine bubble, and just because the sniper extraordinaire has been honing his already-elite shot between Love Island binge-a-thons and Justin Bieber Instagram Lives, does not mean he’s asked Frederik Andersen to serve as his personal Shooter Tutor.
“No. He’s not going in net,” Matthews chuckled over the phone Thursday from Arizona. “I wouldn’t do that to him. He’s not a street hockey goalie. He likes to play out anyways.”
All of our realities have been turned upside down and inside… well, end of sentence.
This is just Matthews’.
In a flash, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ stud centre has gone from pumping pucks past goalies at a mind-bending rate and a much-salivated-over Round 1 playoff showdown with the Tampa Bay Lightning to hibernating at his Arizona home, where he’s training like summertime, gorging on relationship-based reality television and overseeing the construction of a backyard sports court.
Depending on one’s mood, it might feel like yesterday or 34 months ago that Matthews (47 goals) was jostling with Alex Ovechkin and David Pastrnak (48 each) in a thrilling Rocket Richard Trophy race destined to spill into the final weekend of the NHL season. The league might well have crowned the most prolific shooter since Steven Stamkos hung goalies for 60 in 2011-12.
“There’s obviously unfinished business, considering we’ve got 12 games left to play, and then there’s close races for spots in the playoffs. There’s pretty much unfinished business everywhere,” said Matthews, careful to put sport in perspective.
“It’s obviously frustrating and disappointing to see the season go on pause. When you think about all those kinds of achievements and accomplishments, being really close to scoring 50 goals and stuff like that, I think it all kind of becomes irrelevant when you’re talking about human lives and what’s been going on around the world.”
Matthews — co-leading the NHL with 35 even-strength goals — was all but guaranteed to become the first Leaf since Rick Vaive in 1983-84 to hit 50. The 22-year-old’s 55-goal pace gave him a fantastic shot of supplanting Vaive’s 54 in 1981-82 as the greatest goal-scoring campaign in franchise history.
“Obviously, your mind wanders thinking about that. Everybody would love to be playing hockey right now and doing their own thing,” Matthews said. “That’s what everybody misses… Everybody wants to go out there and compete and do what they love the most.
“But this thing is bigger than sports. It’s bigger than a lot of things. And I think the most important thing is to be safe and try to stay as healthy as possible.”
To that end, Matthews and Andersen — a billet/buddy he rescued from downtown Toronto condo quarantine — have been working out and treating the unplanned break like the off-season. Matthews is lifting weights, snapping pucks, practising his stickhandling and messing around on Rollerblades.
“He’s an extremely close friend of mine. Our relationship has just grown and grown over the years,” Matthews says of Andersen. “I really enjoy spending time with him.” (Even if Andersen has less patience for the forward’s Netflix choices.)
When Matthews is not burning through Love Is Blind, he’s poring over game video and thinking about how a “killer instinct” right from puck drop might’ve prevented the Leafs from their severe bouts of inconsistency this season.
“Making sure that we’re all ready,” the alternate captain said. “And I think that should be taken upon the leaders to set that example.”
The superstar nails it when he describes his individual 2019-20 as a season of “growth — and room for growth,” one that began with a (since settled) off-season legal spat that sprung from a night of regrettable behaviour and was spiked with on-ice adversity throughout.
“It’s not just going to be all an uphill slope. You’re going to go through tough times, and I think we had our fair share of adversity throughout the season,” Matthews said. “In the long run that kind of stuff builds teams, builds character and leadership and all that.”
No matter what had been going on outside the boards, Matthews had been thriving within those confines. Beyond simply the number of lamps he set alight, he’d added a wicked one-timer and an improved knack for tipping pucks to an arsenal built upon a deadly quick pull-and-snap wrister.
His defensive game had never been better. He was winning faceoffs (54.9 per cent), stealing pucks (78, tied for first among forwards), getting ice time (20:58) and driving possession (54.2 per cent Corsi) at the best rates of his career, all while seeing tougher matchups.
But best of all, for the first time since his Calder-claiming rookie campaign, Matthews was healthy and “extremely dialed in” to play all 82.
Suddenly, the world might not be ready for 82 — and Matthews might not reach 50.
If and when Matthews’ remarkable season resumes and the killer instinct is called upon, it’s unlikely the NHL will allow fans into the buildings.
That’s a strange scenario to envision for a big-stage performer who thrives through the noise.
“It’d feel kinda weird, to be honest. I think fans are such a huge part of the game, and not only inside the arena,” Matthews said.
“We’ve got the playoffs going on and we got Maple Leaf Square and everybody out there, the atmosphere just shifts to a completely different level.”