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Auston Matthews gets big break with Maple Leafs

No. 1 draft pick shatters glass in first day of practice after looking like he belongs in NHL

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

TORONTO -- A normal 19-year-old would have been nervous. Auston Matthews is not normal.

In his first training-camp practice with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday, the center skated smoothly through a drill, then leaned against the boards to relax while waiting his turn, as if he had been doing this forever.

Afterward, messing around with teammate Mitch Marner, he missed the net with a bad-angle one-timer and shattered a pane of glass in the far corner. He called it a "terrible shot" and laughed when someone joked about general manager Lou Lamoriello docking his first paycheck.

"Lou won't be too happy," he said with a smile.

Don't nerves come with this? The first day of camp for the No. 1 pick of the 2016 NHL Draft? Under the microscope in the Center of the Hockey Universe?

"Um," he said, surrounded by reporters after he had already done a round of TV interviews, "not really. I think you just kind of take it as it's an exciting time. Not everybody gets to go through this or have the opportunity to do this. I know for me, I'm excited."

Matthews seems comfortable and eager for the next step. He hardly could be more prepared.

Last season, he played professionally in Switzerland, then played for the United States at the IIHF World Championship. This month, he played in the World Cup of Hockey 2016 for Team North America, made up of players 23 and younger from Canada and the United States.

He played left wing on the top line with Connor McDavid, the No. 1 pick of the 2015 NHL Draft, and on the top power-play unit with McDavid and Jack Eichel, the No. 2 pick in 2015. He played against Team Finland, Team Russia and Team Sweden.

He showed he could skate, and think, with and against some of the best players in the world, scoring two goals, assisting on another, dangling on his knees on one play.

Video: Auston Matthews shatters glass in 1st day of practice

"I know their coaching staff was getting ready to break it to the local media that he was the 13th forward," said Mike Babcock, coach of Team Canada and the Maple Leafs. "We talked before he went there about not taking a backseat to anybody. 'You don't have to. You're too good.' And I don't think he did."

And he did it all at Air Canada Centre, his new home rink with the Maple Leafs, where the souvenir stands sold Team North America sweaters with his name and No. 34 on the back, and the fans chanted his name at one point.

"I think that was a really good challenge for me going in," Matthews said. "My mindset the whole time was just getting better and learning as much as I could. Going into it, I knew I could play at that level. I think the way I played and everything, going into the season here and training camp and preseason, gives me a lot of confidence."

It should. So should this: As the NHL unveiled its plans for its centennial celebration Tuesday, none other than Wayne Gretzky brought up Matthews' name, unprompted.

"I was thinking, 'Gosh, I could maybe play with that Matthews and Connor McDavid. They're pretty good,'" Gretzky said. "I'd know where to go, put it that way. These players today, more importantly, they're so big and strong and fast. The coaching and the teaching at a younger age is so much more advanced than when we played. These guys are special, elite athletes."

Gretzky went on to say how proud he was of how these young players handled themselves with class and dignity, mentioning Matthews, McDavid and Sidney Crosby as following in the tradition passed down from Gordie Howe, Jean Beliveau and Bobby Orr.

"Kind of speechless, I guess," Matthews said of Gretzky's words. "Especially coming from him, the best player to ever play the game, it's a pretty humbling comment from him. To be in the same sentence as those guys, it kind of puts you on your heels a little bit. It's tough to kind of get [your mind] around when I haven't even played an NHL game yet."

This will be an adjustment, though.

Matthews is going from a best-on-best tournament to practicing and playing preseason games with a mix of NHL players, minor-leaguers and junior players. Then he will break in with the team that finished 30th out of 30 teams in the NHL last season, grinding through 82 games like he never has before, traveling across the continent like he never has before, facing physical opponents like he never has before, learning to use his skill within the structure.

"I think once he starts playing and starts to learn our systems a little bit, adjustments will be made," said defenseman Morgan Rielly, his teammate with Team North America and the Maple Leafs. "He'll always have that creativity. It's just a matter of making it work during the games, which I'm sure he will."

Babcock said Matthews will start as the Maple Leafs' No. 3 center.

"He determines where it goes from there," Babcock said. "He's a good young player, but we feel he's an important player for us, and over time he has a chance to be a dominant player in the National Hockey League."

Key words: over time.

Toronto can't let expectations run amok. Toronto can't set limits on Matthews either. Toronto needs to let him play, let him grow, understand this is the beginning of a long-term process for him and the Maple Leafs, and understand Matthews is off to a great start already.

Ask him about expectations, and the only number he mentions is 200, as in playing the full 200 feet of the ice.

Ask him how he will judge himself, and he says: "Just making an impact each and every night. Gaining more and more trust from the coaching staff and being able to go out there in all situations. Having their full trust that you can go out there and be responsible on both ends."

If he does that, Lou will be plenty happy.

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