Not usually one to shy away from the limelight, Auston Matthews is more than happy to sit this one out.
Unlike teammate Mitch Marner and a host of other still-unsigned restricted free agents, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ star snagged his big-money contract extension in February.
While a number of young players sit and wait as the clock ticks towards the opening of training camps next week, Matthews was relieved he didn’t have to deal with a similar cloud of uncertainty.
“It’s nice not to have that in the back of your mind,” he said Friday at the NHL/NHLPA Player Media Tour. “(You) can focus on your game, getting better, recharging your batteries and getting ready.”
Matthews inked a five-year, US$58.17-million agreement with Toronto just after the all-star break, setting a bar for his generation of players coming out of their entry-level deals with regards to both dollars and term thanks to a deal that will walk him into unrestricted free agency at age 26.
The current RFA logjam includes not only Marner, but Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen, Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk and Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine – just to name a few – as agents and teams play a game of chicken.
“It’s the trickle-down effect,” Matthews said. “Everybody’s waiting on somebody to make a move.”
Matthews is well-versed in talking about a talented winger in the middle of a tough negotiation after William Nylander missed the first two months of last season before signing with the Leafs last December.
The centre said he’s hopeful Marner’s situation doesn’t drag on nearly as long.
“Mitch is a big part of our team and we want him (at camp),” Matthews said. “We want him there as soon as possible.”
Matthews, who underwent minor procedure in May to remove surgical hardware from a 2014 surgery on his leg, caused a stir on social media this summer when pictures of him sporting a pencil-thin mustache surfaced.
He still had the look this week in Chicago, and said he liked the online comparison to the actor who portrayed notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar in the “Narcos” series on Netflix – “without the beer belly.”
“I was pretty bored,” Matthews said of why he decided to grow the lip warmer. “I just stuck with it.”
Matthews set career-highs in goals (37), assists (36) and points (73) in 2018-19 despite spending an extended period on the shelf out injured for a second straight season.
Set to turn 22 later this month, he missed 14 games with a sore shoulder last season after sitting 20 games with various ailments in 2017-18.
“I want to try to stay healthy for a full season,” said the 2016-17 Calder Trophy winner as the NHL’s rookie of the year. “I’ve gotten off to pretty good starts in all three years and then been derailed by injuries or an injury.
“It’s a little bit of bad luck, but sometimes that’s the way it goes. You’ve got to play the cards you’re dealt.”
Matthews also said he wants to put even more focus on the defensive side of his craft in hopes of getting more chances at the other end of the rink.
“I’ve come a long ways,” he said. “But there’s definitely a lot of progress that can be made.”
Matthews said he spent some time this off-season thinking about Toronto’s playoff exit at the hands of the Boston Bruins in the first round for the second consecutive spring.
It didn’t help that the Bruins went onto make the Stanley Cup final before losing to the St. Louis Blues in seven games.
“Of course you think about it,” Matthews said. “It’s always in the back of your mind – that kind of, ‘What could have been?“’
The Leafs made a number of off-season moves – many salary-cap related – that saw them wave goodbye to forwards Nazem Kadri, Patrick Marleau and Connor Brown, and defencemen Jake Gardiner, Ron Hainsey, and Nikita Zaitsev.
Among the players coming in are forwards Jason Spezza and Alexander Kerfoot, along with defencemen Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci.
“Unfortunately it’s the business part of the business where you see good guys, good teammates, good players having to go,” Matthews said. “(The new) guys are all going to contribute and help our team in different ways.”
The loss of Marleau hit Matthews hardest after the veteran took him and Marner under his wing and treated them like de facto family members as rookies.
“Our friendship obviously goes beyond just being at the rink,” Marleau said. “We’re all going to miss him.”
But the Leafs and Matthews will push forward, hoping to take the next step in their evolution.
“The Achilles heel has been that first round,” he said. “Just trying to get over that hump. It’s tough to really measure a successful season without reaching that ultimate goal and accomplishing it.
“It’s been frustrating, especially the last two years – same team, same result. It’s just making sure everybody’s really focused and dialled in.”
And after seeing the euphoria surrounding the Raptors’ NBA title win back in June, Matthews allowed his mind to wander to thoughts of what a Stanley Cup would mean to Toronto.
“It’s tough not to, especially with how wild it was,” Matthews said. “It was amazing to see.
“It’s our ultimate goal.”