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Auston Matthews not fazed by spotlight in Toronto

Maple Leafs prospect embracing change of pace, learning from coach Mike Babcock

by Mike G. Morreale @mikemorrealeNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

It might be hard to believe, but Toronto Maple Leafs center prospect Auston Matthews did find some downtime for himself in what had to be the busiest summer of his life.

It was expected. Matthews, raised in Scottsdale, Ariz., was branded the Maple Leafs' savior the moment Toronto selected him with the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft at First Niagara Center in Buffalo on June 24.

"It was a pretty hectic summer, so I didn't really go on vacation anywhere," Matthews told NHL.com. "I stayed at home most of the time, was in Toronto a couple of times skating and working out, but it was nice being home for most of July and August to hang out, work out and skating a few times a week.

"Having a chance to just kind of unwind from the beginning of summer and spend time with my family and friends before the season begins was nice."

Matthews will play for Team North America in the World Cup of Hockey 2016 before entering training camp with the Maple Leafs, so his calendar is booked from this point forward.

Video: Auston Matthews signs three-year deal with Toronto

"I've had a lot of people, from the public relations staff, to the media-related people, telling me what to expect," Matthews said. "The key when it comes to media is just always being responsible. The team has definitely laid out a platform and the expectations."

Many believe Matthews will fill a top-six role out of training camp. There's a good chance he could begin the season as Toronto's No. 2 center behind Nazem Kadri, or perhaps on the first line. Whatever the assignment, no center has scored 30 goals in a season for the Maple Leafs since Mats Sundin, who had 32 goals and 78 points in 74 games in 2007-08.

Matthews, who turns 19 on Sept. 17, looks forward to perfecting his game under the tutelage of Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock.

"[Babcock] has been great," he said. "He's given me feedback on my on-ice sessions. His resume speaks for itself and he's one of the most respected coaches in the League, so obviously he pays close attention to detail. He stressed some little things to me (in development camp in July) that can help me in the long- and short-term."

Matthews knows the spotlight will be on him beginning with the first practice for Team North America at Bell Centre in Montreal on Monday. Although he's used to it, he prefers a more subtle approach and isn't comfortable making brash predictions.

That's unlike Winnipeg Jets forward Patrik Laine, who suggested he should be considered the No. 1 prospect for the 2016 draft while attending the NHL Scouting Combine in June. Laine, incidentally, went No. 2 in the draft and will represent Team Finland at the World Cup.

During the NHL Players' Association Rookie Showcase in August, forward Pierre-Luc Dubois, selected No. 3 by the Columbus Blue Jackets, said he could be in the running for the Calder Trophy if he's able to earn a roster spot with Columbus.

"Obviously, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and I think all of us believe in our ability," Matthews said. "I know I believe in myself, and those players believe in what they're able to do. I don't really get caught up in all that stuff. I just kind of do my thing and let my actions speak for my words. I don't really get too caught up in that kind of thing."

Matthews spent last season playing for Zurich in National League A (Switzerland's top professional league); he was tied for fourth in the league with 24 goals and was 10th with 46 points in 36 games. He was the center of attention in Zurich, and not too long after the season began, fans were chanting his name.

Matthews should expect the chants and media attention to increase significantly playing for the Maple Leafs, whose fans are starving for a winner. Toronto has qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs once in the past 11 seasons.

"It's definitely been different (in Toronto)," Matthews said. "It's Toronto, the hockey mecca of the world. It's a little change of pace from what I'm used to anywhere else, but it's something you have to embrace and kind of learn as you go along."

Though grateful to be part of an Original Six franchise, Matthews couldn't help but get excited when asked about NHL hockey coming to Las Vegas, a five-hour drive from his hometown. The expansion franchise will begin play in the NHL in 2017-18.

"I think it's awesome," he said. "They are really growing hockey in the Southwest. That's pretty evident with the team in Arizona and the three teams in California. Now we'll have a team in Vegas, and I think that's huge.

"It's only going to expand even more in that part of the country. I remember watching the Coyotes when I was 2 years old, so I think it's definitely going to help allow young kids living in Nevada give hockey a try, and that would be great."

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