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Top pick Matthews appears ready for big time

Maple Leafs' selection at No. 1 unfazed by attention, pressure to save Toronto

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

BUFFALO -- His heart raced. His nerves frayed. Buffalo Sabres fans were booing every mention of the Toronto Maple Leafs before the 2016 NHL Draft at First Niagara Center on Friday, loudly, lustily, and now it was time for the Leafs to make the No. 1 pick and for Auston Matthews to take the stage.

"You get nervous," Matthews said, "a little anxious."

But was Matthews nervous because he feared the Leafs wouldn't take him? Not really.

Was he anxious because he was overwhelmed by the moment? Does that indicate he won't be able to handle it when he arrives in Toronto and the "Centre of the Hockey Universe" puts pressure on him to lead the team from last place to its first Stanley Cup since 1967?


"Once they called my name," Matthews said, "it was definitely a sigh of relief."

Video: Auston Matthews on joining the Maple Leafs

Yes, Matthews was relieved to go to Toronto. He was relieved because this process, the culmination of everything for which he had worked for so long, was finally over. He was relieved because he had the opportunity to go to a passionate hockey market and do what he has dreamed of doing since he was a kid: play in the NHL.

Playing in Toronto is not like other places, especially for a player like Matthews. The relentless passion of the fans and coverage by the media can affect fourth-liners, and Matthews will be no fourth-liner.

The Leafs have had one No. 1 pick before this: Wendel Clark in 1985. They have had a few star centers in memory: Dave Keon, Darryl Sittler, Doug Gilmour, Mats Sundin. Not only have they not won the Cup since 1967, the longest drought in the League, they have made the Stanley Cup Playoffs once in the past 11 seasons.

The fans are starving for a savior so badly many were actually happy the Leafs finished 30th last season, because that meant they had the best odds of winning the draft lottery and therefore the best odds of landing Matthews, a player his former coaches have compared to Los Angeles Kings' Anze Kopitar, a stellar two-way centerman and a two-time Stanley Cup champion.

Some fans came to the draft wearing Leafs sweaters with Matthews' No. 34 and his last name written or taped on the back. At least a couple had T-shirts with "AUSTON 20:16" on the front, the "O" filled by a Leafs logo. It was as if his first name and the year were a Bible verse.

Matthews seemed unaffected by all of it.

"Hockey's a team game, so there's really no savior," Matthews said. "I want to be an impact player. I believe I can be a franchise centerman, a No. 1 centerman in the NHL. That's my ultimate goal."

Though Matthews has an unusual backstory because he grew up in Scottsdale, Ariz., it isn't like he's coming from the barren desert to the big city.

Video: 1st overall pick Auston Matthews interview

He has skated with Arizona Coyotes captain Shane Doan and other NHL players in the offseason. He has played for USA Hockey's National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., where his coach was Don Granato, brother of Tony Granato, assistant to Mike Babcock when Babcock coached the Detroit Red Wings. He went to some Red Wings games and sat in Babcock's office.

He played professionally in Switzerland this season instead of college or junior, learning from former NHL coach Marc Crawford and finishing second for the league most valuable player award, and he played for the United States in the World Championship with NHL players, leading the team in scoring. His agent, Pat Brisson, represents NHL players like Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews.

So he is not in awe. Life in the fishbowl? After he was drafted Friday, he went through a gauntlet of interviews, photo shoots and autograph signings. At one point, fans were standing outside and peeking through a window as he signed items with two cameramen filming him. He just went about his business.

"He's comfortable in his own skin," said Babcock, now the Leafs coach. "I think when you've been good for as long as he's been good, you get used to the spotlight and you're used to delivering under pressure."

Video: Auston Matthews mic'd up for 2016 NHL Draft

Matthews is only 18. The Leafs have been bad. People have to keep that in perspective and keep expectations reasonable. He shouldn't be constantly compared to other players. The Leafs seem sensitive to that, saying he isn't a savior, saying he should be himself, saying they need to insulate him and surround him with support. Babcock called him a "kid" multiple times.

But he's incredibly talented, and he's experienced, confident and polished for his age. He is polite and doesn't say too much, perfect for the Toronto media market, and he's already reading from the script.

Here's Babcock: "Expectations for me are real simple: You come and you compete hard and you work hard every day and you get better."

Here's Matthews: "I want to make the team better and get better each day."

If any 18-year-old is ready for Toronto, it's probably this one.

"It's going to be an adjustment for sure," Matthews said, "but it's something I feel I can handle well."

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