NEWARK, N.J. -- Toronto Maple Leafs rookie Auston Matthews used to look forward to NHL All-Star Weekend in part because it meant seeing Alex Ovechkin stop at nothing to entertain and Zdeno Chara and Shea Weber blast slap shots in the Skills Competition on Saturday.
"I loved it," Matthews said following practice at Prudential Center on Thursday. "That was my favorite thing, watching the Breakaway Challenge, the hardest shot, the [accuracy] challenge. It was always exciting, especially the couple years when [Ovechkin] ran the show in the Breakaway Challenge with the different stuff he brought out."
Matthews will be on the same stage as Ovechkin later this month when he goes to Los Angeles to represent the Maple Leafs in the 2017 Honda NHL All-Star Weekend at Staples Center.
His favorite event, the 2017 Coors Light NHL All-Star Skills Competition, is set for Jan. 28. The 2017 Honda NHL All-Star Game, a 3-on-3 division-based tournament, will take place on Jan. 29.
"It's a huge honor to be in the same sentence as a lot of those players I've grown up watching for quite some time now," Matthews said. "It's unbelievable. It's still a couple weeks away, I'm very excited but it's definitely a huge honor."
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In addition to perhaps winning an event in the Skills Competition and helping the Atlantic Division win the 3-on-3 tournament, Matthews said he is most looking forward to meeting many of the best players in the NHL today.
For example, Matthews said he still has never met Chicago Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane, who is nine years his elder and followed a similar path to the NHL, including playing in the United States National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and being selected with the No. 1 pick in the NHL Draft.
Matthews, selected first by the Maple Leafs in June, was the first American since Kane (2007) to be chosen with the No. 1 pick.
"I think it's just meeting everybody, just embracing the whole experience," Matthews said. "It's a special thing to be a part of and it's definitely a big honor to represent the Maple Leafs. It's going to be nice to meet all the players, get to know guys personally and just enjoy myself.
"There are so many players, exciting players to watch that are going to be there, so I'm for sure looking forward to it."
Toronto coach Mike Babcock said that while Matthews doesn't lack for confidence, getting selected to the Atlantic Division All-Star team should reaffirm his belief in himself.
"Auston knows he's a good player, and we expect it to be one of many All-Star games he gets to go to," Babcock said. "In saying all that, anytime you're around the best players, I think that's a positive thing. The confidence you gain from that, being around the best guys, I think is important as well. He's on a fast track. He's a good young man, a good player and it's going to be apparent to the whole league shortly."
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It should be already. Matthews has 21 goals, tied for third in the League with Ovechkin and fellow rookie Patrik Laine, who was selected to represent the Winnipeg Jets in the All-Star Game. Matthews has 15 goals in the past 20 games and 35 points in 39 games overall.
Matthews is centering an all-rookie line with Zach Hyman and Connor Brown on his wings. Babcock has no reservations about using them against the best the opposition has to offer.
"You never know how mature he is and you never know driven he is until you have him every day," Babcock said. "His ability without the puck has gone through the roof very quickly. He's a real good player. He's still got lots to learn. He's going to be a dominant faceoff player in the National Hockey League. He's not that yet. He'll have more and more confidence and do things quicker as time goes on, but even at this point I think he's centering a real good line in the National Hockey League right now."