Matthews had just turned 17, and was a member of the national under-18 team that was representing the U.S. in international events, playing against USHL teams and a few NCAA squads as well. He was often the best player on the ice. It was assumed then that he would eventually become a No. 1 overall NHL pick. Last Saturday's NHL draft lottery was mostly about him.
When a hockey player like Matthews is compared to Toews (who was taken third overall in the 2006 draft by the Chicago Blackhawks), what the person doing the comparing is basically saying is that he is someone you can win with. There are talented, skillful players and then there are players with whom you can win.
These special players are, of course, talented -- the NHL is a talent business. But they are also well-rounded and physically hockey-strong players who come to understand how the wiring of sports and of being an athlete works. You need more than one of them to win, but the man in the middle of it all needs to be that kind of smooth operator, someone with a presence and respect. The Los Angeles Kings have that in Anze Kopitar. The Boston Bruins have it in Patrice Bergeron. It's not a surprise that since 2010 these three teams -- the Blackhawks, Kings and Bruins -- have been your Stanley Cup champs.
Toews is called "Captain Serious" because, yes, he takes his job seriously. Toews does not skate like Connor McDavid, or shoot on the rush like Sidney Crosby, or one-time a power-play chance like Steven Stamkos or Evgeni Malkin. He probably doesn't do any of those things at the level of Tyler Seguin. (Toews has broken 70 points once.) But there is more than that to being a hockey player. It's about having composure, showing a consistent 200-foot effort, making sound off-ice decisions, grinding each faceoff, being in great shape, and being someone who is serious about his or her job, which in professional sports means being serious about winning. It takes a lot of mental energy to do this, especially when you become the face of the franchise.
Toews is lucky in that he has always had Patrick Kane to help carry the water with the Blackhawks. Kane carries the offense and does much of the Chicago Showtime heavy lifting.
Toews is the CEO whose grit and leadership (he'll pick his spots with an occasional fight) provides the Blackhawks with their pillar. Even Kopitar and Bergeron, as well as Crosby's 2009 Cup-winning team, had plenty of help. In hockey, no one does it alone. But it often starts with that pillar, that hub.
Matthews, who hails from America's Desert Southwest, will be the new Toronto Maple Leafs pillar. The last American to be a centerpiece for the Leafs was Phil Kessel. And while Kessel was good in Toronto -- he led the Leafs in scoring in all six of his seasons there -- his optics (he always looked like the grumpy neighbor/villain in a "Christmas Vacation" movie) and the team weren't. Matthews is different. He has a stoicism and calm that will serve him well in Toronto.
But, like Toews, like Wayne Gretzky, like Gordie Howe, or like everyone who has won a Stanley Cup, Matthews will need help breaking the Maple Leafs' 48-year Stanley Cup drought. But he is a great first piece. He is not a showhorse, he is a workhorse. He will go to the dirty areas, hang around the net, make his linemates better and make them money. Like Toews, he is confident, comfortable in his skin and he has a sneaky sense of humor.
We will have to wait and see what the Leafs do in free agency and/or trades this summer to get a sense of whether they are going to be patient with young players and wait another year or two -- John Tavares will be a free agent in two years -- to really go for it. Or, now that they have Matthews, will they look to start the playoff clock next spring and go after Stamkos and/or others in free agency? I've been of the opinion, since this past season, that if the tanking worked and they got Matthews, the rebuild would happen quicker. Last year's No. 2 pick, the aforementioned Jack Eichel, just helped the Buffalo Sabres improve from 54 points to 81 points in his rookie season. The Leafs had 69 points last season. I think they can flirt with 90 with Matthews in the fold if they stay healthy and get some goaltending.
The tanking plan worked. The Leafs got the first pick and have the opportunity to draft Matthews first this June. The kid from the the desert will likely soon head to the Great White North, hoping to make the Leafs great again. This is serious stuff.