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Auston Matthews begins on-ice journey with Toronto

No. 1 pick in 2016 Draft does short drills with prospects, says being with Maple Leafs 'huge honor'

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

TORONTO -- They were baby steps. Auston Matthews crouched into a starting position at a faceoff dot at one end of the rink. The whistle chirped, and the No. 1 pick of the 2016 NHL Draft took his first strides as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs -- 13 strides, to be exact -- before coasting to a stop at the other end.

Matthews didn't get his feet wet Monday. It was more like he dipped the tip of the nail of his pinkie toe into the water. It was Day One of the Maple Leafs development camp at their practice facility, the MasterCard Centre for Hockey Excellence.

Video: Auston Matthews takes first strides as a Maple Leaf

He went through medical testing and spent less than 15 minutes on the ice doing a grand total of four drills, so coaches could shoot video to analyze him and create a teaching plan for the summer. Straight ahead without a puck. A zig-zag without a puck. A zig-zag with a puck. A set of starts and stops from blue line to red line. That's it.

Then it was off to nutrition training and a bus ride to Niagara Falls, Ontario, where the prospects will practice Tuesday through Thursday and scrimmage Friday. They will hold another scrimmage in Toronto on Saturday.

But it was a first -- first day at the rink, first time in the dressing room, first time wearing a Maple Leafs logo on the ice -- and when you're the first player drafted first by Toronto since Wendel Clark in 1985 and the team is trying to win the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1967, well, missing it was the last thing the media was going to do.

Eight TV news cameras recorded it, a 2-to-1 camera-to-drill ratio.

"It's definitely exciting, just to finally be here and kind of get a sense of what it's going to be like," Matthews said with a smile, facing the spotlights in front of the interview backdrop outside the Maple Leafs dressing room for the first of what should be many, many times. "It's awesome. It's a huge honor to put on the Maple Leafs sweater and go out there and do a little skating. It's definitely pretty cool."

Video: Auston Matthews speaks at Development Camp

The Maple Leafs are treating Matthews like the other 40 prospects in camp. He wore a stick-on name tag that might as well have said, "Hello my name is …" before it said "AUSTON MATTHEWS." He wore No. 63 on his helmet, not the No. 34 he grew up wearing. He called it a "camp number" and said no one got to pick his number. He roomed Sunday night with forward Dmytro Timashov, a fifth-round pick last year.

The goal of this camp, as it is with similar camps around the NHL, is for the prospects to get to know each other, get to know the organization and learn what it will take to succeed in the NHL on and off the ice. They had a team dinner Sunday and watched a video intended to reinforce the richness of the Maple Leafs' history and the privilege of playing in Toronto. They will go through media and social media training, learn from sleep experts and more.

"We're here to teach them all how to become good pros," Scott Pellerin, the Maple Leafs director of player development said.

It can be an overwhelming experience.

"I remember my first time," said forward Mitch Marner, whom the Maple Leafs picked at No. 4 in the 2015 NHL Draft. "You're nervous. You don't really know what to do on the ice. You're scared to do things with the puck. I think it's just making sure that the guys coming in here for the first time know that [you should] use your skill and be yourself out here."

Video: Maple Leafs Draft Party Reaction

The thing is, Matthews isn't like the other 40 prospects in camp. Even though he is only 18 years old, he has already skated with NHL players like Shane Doan at home in Scottsdale, Ariz.; already played a season of pro hockey in Switzerland and been runner-up for the league's most valuable player award; and already played with and against NHL players at the IIHF World Championship and led the United States in goals (six) and tied for the lead in points (nine). He has already been the center of attention for a long time.

"I'm going to help him out as much as possible, but I think he knows," Marner said. "He played pro last year. He knows what it takes to be a competitor in this league and do big numbers."

Did Matthews feel nervous at all Monday?

"Uh, I don't know," he said. "Not too much."

If he felt any nerves, he hid them well. He certainly didn't project them, not in his brief appearance on the ice, not in his brief appearance with the media. Like he did when he visited the Stanley Cup Final with other top prospects, like he did when he made the rounds at the NHL Draft after the Maple Leafs selected him, he seemed calm and comfortable.

He gave yet another glimpse of why the Maple Leafs felt he could handle being the No. 1 pick in the "Centre of the Hockey Universe." He said he embraced everything that came with his draft status, and while he was polite and polished, he didn't say too much. It seems doubtful he will give sound bites that create or add to any media firestorms.

"Just learn as much as possible," he said. "Soak it all in."

One step at a time.

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