Dr. Kenneth Lam’s Two Cents As Arm Chair GM: Part One
On 24 June 2016, Toronto Director of Player Personnel Mark Hunter—who has since been promoted to the position of Assistant General Manager—walked up to the podium at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, New York and with the following words promptly affirmed the worst kept secret since the Maple Leafs won the draft lottery back on 30 April 2016: “Toronto is proud to announce, from Zürich, Men’s League Switzerland, from U.S. program, Auston Matthews.”
Choosing Matthews with the first overall selection in the 2016 National Hockey League (NHL) draft was the easy part, especially given the Leafs’ positional need down the middle as Toronto has not had a true number one centre since the departure of long-time Maple Leaf captain Mats Sundin following the 2007-2008 season. While there had been talks about how Finnish winger Patrik Laine—who ended up being taken by the Winnipeg Jets with the second overall selection—made a late charge that narrowed the gap between himself and Matthews as the potential top pick, Matthews appeared to be the prospect that the Leafs had targeted all along. In Toronto General Manager (GM) Lou Lamoriello’s words immediately after choosing Matthews, “Very rarely are you able to get a centre with the size and strength that he has who is a complete player. He is a two hundred foot player. We are just delighted. I think it is just great for the Toronto Maple Leafs… and our feelings are just a great future.” Indeed, Lamoriello’s response seemed to echo Calgary Flames President of Hockey Operations Brian Burke’s view before the draft lottery even took place, who remarked “Auston Matthews is the consensus No. 1 pick, league-wide. I’m hearing this late whispering that he’s not, and I think those are teams trying to throw people off the scent. I think he’s a lock.”
Whereas selecting Matthews first overall may have been a no brainer for the Leafs so to speak, a more difficult task for Toronto was getting Matthews signed, which was done on 21 July 2016 when the two sides finalized a three-year deal that would see Matthews earn $3.775 million annually if he attains all bonuses—essentially identical to Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel’s contract. Still, the biggest unresolved question is what to do with Matthews when the season opens? To this end, allow me to present three scenarios to you along with insights.
Assign Matthews to the American Hockey League (AHL) before or at the conclusion of training camp and have him play for the Toronto Marlies for the entire 2016-2017 NHL season. He can then learn the North American pro game before debuting with the Maple Leafs in the 2017-2018 season. However, the probability of this scenario unfolding is extremely low. Based on the fact that Matthews excelled with the ZSC Lions in the National League A (NLA) this past season on route to posting 24 goals and 22 assists for 46 points in 36 regular season games before registering 3 assists in 4 playoff games, he has already proven that he can played with men and outshine the overwhelming majority of his completion. In other words, there is only minimal yield at best by exiling Matthews to the AHL as he is NHL-ready by all accounts.
Give Matthews a taste of NHL actions but limit him to nine games so as to avoid burning the first year of his three-year entry-level contract. There are three variants to this possibility: (1) have Matthews start the season with the Marlies, then recall him to suit up for the Leafs at some point during the season, and then sent back down to the AHL afterwards once he played his ninth game for the Maple Leafs; (2) allow Matthews to start the season with the Leafs where he can play the first nine games of the season before dispatching him back to the Marlies whereby he can play the rest of the reason in the AHL; as well as (3) get Matthews to play for the Marlies right from the get-go and keep him in the AHL until the final nine Maple Leaf games at which time he will be called up to play for and finish the season with the Leafs. Considering that eliteprospects.com describes Matthews as a generational talent and International Scouting Services (ISS) refers to him as a franchise centre/player, Toronto will not want to upset Matthews and his agent by nickel-and-diming them for the sake of extracting nine additional games out of their future face of the franchise. Therefore, the likelihood of this scenario developing is close to nil.
Put Matthews into the Maple Leafs lineup for the entire eighty-two game season. Case closed. Unlike the previous two scenarios, this one is highly probable. Many scouts argued that Matthews would have challenged Eichel for the distinction of being the second overall pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft behind McDavid, had Matthews been born two days earlier and met the eligibility cut off date for last year’s draft. As both McDavid and Eichel played for the Edmonton Oilers and Buffalo Sabres for the whole 2015-2016 season (notwithstanding injuries) respectively and tasted success in the process, there is no reason why Matthews should not be given the same opportunity with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the upcoming 2016-2017 season. Bottom line: no teams would purposely suppress their future best player by delaying the start of his NHL career so the odds of this scenario unfolding is close to a virtual certainly. Indeed, when asked whether he is confident the eighteen year old Matthews can become a franchise number one centre in the NHL, head coach Mike Babcock responded in the following manner without hesitation, “Oh, I think so. Elite hockey sense. Big body. Elite drive. Smart guy. Comes from a good hockey family. He’s a special player.”
All-in-all, it seems that Babcock has all put penciled Matthews into the Leaf lineup for good so Leafs Nation can expect to be treated with some highlight play from the Scottsdale, Arizona native come this October. But which line would Matthews end up playing on and who would he play with as far as linemates are concerned? Stay tuned for Part Two of my article in the next issue!