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Auston Matthews hits the ice for Maple Leafs

No. 1 pick gets back to basics at Toronto development camp

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

NIAGARA FALLS, Ontario -- Gale Centre sits a few minutes from the roar of the famous waterfalls and more than an hour from the roar of Toronto. Here in the quiet of an empty arena Tuesday, with a few fans watching through the windows, the No. 1 pick of the 2016 NHL Draft blended in with the other 40 prospects on Day 2 of Maple Leafs development camp.


"There he is!" 5-year-old Landon Sicard yelled when he finally spotted him.

There was Auston Matthews, wearing the inconspicuous No. 63, doing the same drills everyone else was doing. There was Auston Matthews on one knee after two hours on the ice, picking up pucks and putting them in a milk crate like the others.

Video: Auston Matthews on day two of Toronto prospect camp

But there was Auston Matthews leading a lot of the drills too, using his 6-foot-2, 210-pound body to protect the puck better than the smaller prospects, cutting into open space quicker and moving with the puck more crisply than the others.

"Auston's going to make the team," said Cole Sicard, Landon's 9-year-old brother. "I know it."

This was Matthews' first real on-ice work with the Maple Leafs. It was about going back to basics, not proving something; about building a foundation for the future, not making predictions about the future. It was mostly slow-motion skill development.

The coaches would put the prospects through detailed drills, take video of them with an iPad, break down the video with them right there on the ice and then have them do the drills again.

At one point, Matthews was sliding side to side with no stick and no puck, working on the technical aspects of his stride as if he were a kid at summer hockey school. Barb Underhill, a former Canadian Olympic figure skater and now a renowned power skating coach, had a specific issue with his form.

"You can always refine things and get better in small areas," Matthews said. "Her main thing with me was my left shoulder, I guess, wasn't coming across enough. So obviously I want to try to fix that. She definitely paid close attention to it."

Tweet from @MapleLeafs: Leafs Development Camp is underway! Here's Auston Matthews looking right at home in Blue and White. #TMLtalk

Underhill put a rope around Matthews' waist and made him pull her down the ice while keeping the proper form. Then she stood and watched as Matthews skated on his own, with a stick but without a puck. As he blurred past, she nodded in approval.

"If you're a really good pro, you can figure out a way to get something [out of it], even from the little things," said forward Jeremy Bracco, a second-round pick last year, who played with Matthews with USA Hockey's National Team Development Program. "Nobody's perfect. I know for him it's trying to better yourself every day."

But in subtle ways, Matthews still stood out as a man among boys. He's 18 but doesn't look 18. He was bigger than the other forwards in his group. It showed when he stood in line with them for drills, and it showed when the coaches worked on puck protection and puck retrieval. Matthews grabbed the puck along the boards, held off a coach pretending to be a forechecker and darted up ice with ease. He didn't fumble the puck like others did. He was smooth.

"He's a great player, and that's why he was picked first overall and that's why he's here," Bracco said. "He's going to have a big impact right away."

Matthews elbowed his way in front of a coach pretending to be a defenseman, established position and swiped the puck in the corner. He threw his weight around, maybe a little too much.

"They wanted us to cut off the line and create some space," Matthews said. "The first time I went, I actually hammered the coach there kind of hard. The guys were kind of laughing at that. But it was fun."

Video: Auston Matthews sits down with NHL tonight

Then there was his shot. The prospects worked on toe drags and quick snap shots, and on taking short passes and whipping the puck on net. Matthews did not go through the motions. When he missed the net, it was because he was trying to pick a corner. When he didn't miss the net, there was a good chance the puck was going in it.

"He's an elite guy," goaltender Kasimir Kaskisuo said. "He can shoot the puck really well. … The good release. Smart shots and smart decisions around the net."

Again, this camp is about teaching, not competing. The prospects will continue skill development through Thursday. But they will scrimmage Friday in Niagara Falls and finish the week by scrimmaging again Saturday in Toronto.

"I think everybody here is really looking forward to Friday and Saturday," Matthews said, "to be able to scrimmage and translate the stuff we're learning here this week into an actual game and compete against each other."

Matthews might not blend in then.

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