Toronto Maple Leafs Roster Preview, 50-in-50: Auston Matthews

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DETROIT, MI - APRIL 01: Auston Matthews #34 of the Toronto Maple Leafs prepares for a first period face off while playing the Detroit Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena on April 1, 2017 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

The Toronto Maple Leafs have existed as a franchise for a full century. In that time, they have never possessed a player of Auston Matthews caliber at such a young age. He is a transcendent type of player, one that a team stumbles upon once every, well, century.

What else is there really to write about Matthews that hasn’t been written? His accomplishments have ascended to the echelon of Canadian Heritage Moments. Quite the accomplishment for an American.

However, there is one aspect of Auston Matthews that should excite Leafs fans the most. Between the jaw dropping assists, highlight reel goals and mind bending skill, one fact remains. The world has seen only the bedrock of this young man’s skill. Believe it or not, Matthews will only get better.

Toronto Maple Leafs Roster Preview, 50-in-50: Auston Matthews

Where does one begin? Should it be the four-goal debut? The diving break-away goal? The one-handed tip? Auston Matthews produced so many memorable moments in his first NHL season that it would be impossible to relive each one in just a single article.

It seems mind-numbingly silly that Matthews was once accused of “hitting a wall” a mere ten games into his NHL career. While there were peaks and valleys to his production, as there are in every rookie’s season, his game never wavered.

Matthews proved that under all the skill and speed, what truly made him special was his attention to detail and willingness to learn. As a rookie, he slowly began to earn the trust of his coach, especially on the defensive end. While he will likely never lead the penalty kill, his ability to play in his own end is far more advanced than anyone could have expected.

Elevating His Surroundings

The true way to test if a player is truly elite is to see whether they make their teammates better. So far, Auston Matthews has passed with flying colours. Just look at how Matthews most common line mates fared without him.

First, there is Zach Hyman. Hyman was Matthews’ most common line mate by a wide margin, as the pair played 971 minutes together. With Matthews, Hyman was a positive possession player, clocking in at a 52.18% CF at even strength. When ripped from Auston’s loving arms, Hyman deeply regressed, coming in at a 47.33% CF at even strength. Hyman’s direct ability to drive the possession of the game went from positive to negative without Matthews by his side.

Then there is William Nylander. Clearly, the most talented line mate Matthews played with, his numbers tell a similar story. Together, the pair was electric. Registering a 55.19% CF at even strength, Nylander thrived alongside Matthews. However, like Hyman, Nylander’s possession metrics took a serious hit when the pair were split up. Falling into the negative category, Nylander put up a 48.31% CF at even strength when separated from his favourite centre.

Both Hyman and Nylander are talented players of above average NHL caliber, Nylander especially. Seeing the drastic nature of their possession splits with and without Matthews truly illustrates how infectious Matthews skill was on his teammates. Indeed, the sign of an elite player.

Profile (via ElitePropsects)

Age: 19

Position: C

Height: 6’3″

Weight: 216 lbs

NHL Draft: First round, 1st overall in 2016 by Toronto

Contract (via CapFriendly)

As a first overall pick, Auston Matthews signed an entry level contract that included the maximum bonus allotment possible. While his base salary is a paltry $832,000, Matthews hit each and every one of his performance bonuses in his rookie season. Such success brought his cap hit up to a hefty $3,775,000.

This is where the salary cap calamity enters the picture. Matthews’ $2,850,000 in earned performance bonuses from last season will now count towards the Leafs salary cap in 2017-18. Combined with both Mitch Marner and William Nylander’s performance bonuses, the Leafs will enter the season with a $4,550,000 overage on their salary cap.

However bad the cap overage looks initially, it is important to keep one thing in mind. This is the most positive salary cap dilemma a team can have. Instead of being penalized for signing horribly bloated contracts, the Leafs have an abundance of rookies who did far better than they could have imagined.

Nearly $5 million is a small price to pay for such a luxury.

2017-18 Season

If Auston Matthews were to continue along the trajectory of his rookie season, 2017-18 will be the year he becomes a true star. The Leafs have brought in talent to surround him, particularly Patrick Marleau, which should only help his rapid ascent.

At the end of the day, it truly does not matter who Matthews plays with. He scored 40 goals playing nearly one thousand minutes alongside Zach Hyman. If Mike Babcock decides to pair him and Nylander up with Marleau they’ll score so many goals that new calculators will have to be invented that can count that high.

There is almost no doubt in anyone’s mind that Matthews is the next Toronto Maple Leafs captain as well. It may not happen this year, but in due time, he will don the “C”. In just one season he has taken the Leafs organization to the playoffs, obliterated their rookie scoring records, been named Rookie of the Year, and firmly established himself as their captain to be.

And remember, this is only the beginning.

Main Photo: Embed from Getty Images