Wendel Clark cracked up reporters Tuesday when one of them asked him when in the season he thought Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews had a good chance at breaking his 31-year-old franchise record for most goals by a rookie. But make no mistake, Clark is seriously impressed by the 19-year-old Matthews - who scored his 35th goal of the season in the first period against Florida, besting Clark's 34-goal performance in the 1985-86 campaign - and the Leafs icon is thrilled for the bright future Matthews and his young teammates represent.
"Second period of the first game (of the year)," Clark told the group of reporters, referencing Matthews' four-goal performance against Ottawa in his first-ever NHL game Oct. 12. "(Breaking Clark's record) is good - if we're going to be any good, we need these young guys breaking all the (records) and doing well. He had a great start to the year, and it was awesome he was able to get there."
Video: FLA@TOR: Matthews buries 35th for Leafs rookie record
Matthews scored the record-setting goal at 11:54 of the opening frame, taking a feed from linemate Zach Hyman behind the net and firing a shot past Panthers goalie James Reimer. It was the 14th time Matthews has scored the first goal of the game for Toronto, tying the team record set by Dave Andreychuk in 1993-94. It's an indication, Clark said, that Matthews is as focused as anyone from the opening puck drop.
"He's ready to play off the bat," Clark said of Matthews, who now has 62 points in 75 games. "He has a goal-scorer's touch. He can either be shooting like this goal tonight, where it's open in front of the net (and) he slides it in, or he can be sliding something out of the corner. Goal-scorers score from everywhere, on anything, and they're usually not in places you think (and) they're in the net."
"The pretend goal-scorers are going high top-glove all the time, where when you watch Auston shoot, he's like low, between-the-legs, blocker side. He's going percentages of what's going to happen. If there's no goal on the shot, there's going to be something on a rebound, or maybe another shot, or a teammate's got it. So he really thinks the game more about how to get the goal (rather) than to (score) the pretty goal."
Clark also said, in some ways, Matthews reminds him of another legendary Leaf - one Clark was traded for in one of the most memorable deals in team history.
"He's got a great set of hands for a big guy, so he's got a real nose, and sometimes he does a lot of things like Mats (Sundin) does," Clark said. "He's a big, strong guy. He's already big and strong at 19, and two, three years from now, he's going to be bigger and stronger once he fills out…he's got hands of a little guy, like the old days."
Matthews' ability to score different types of goals is something that puts him on highlight reels, but it's his play away from the puck and his defensive game that stands out as especially terrific to Clark.
"Kudos to Auston, being your first year and some of the situations and the defensive responsibilities that the coach is asking him to do, that's probably more impressive, and doing it and accepting it with a grin on his face," Clark said. "Those are the big things when you're talking about what he does - not necessarily the stats, but the other things he's learning as a 19-year-old."