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Auston Matthews celebrates onstage with the Toronto Maple Leafs after being selected first overall in the 2016 NHL draft.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

For Wendel Clark, Friday night was watching his own history play out again, 31 years later.

The Toronto Maple Leafs stepped to the podium and took a fresh-faced 18-year-old first overall in the National Hockey League draft, making Auston Matthews their second No. 1 pick in franchise history.

Like Clark, Matthews – a 6-foot-2, 215-pound centre who learned the game in a non-traditional fashion in Scottsdale, Ariz. – will be expected to be an integral part in moving a last-place team to respectability. He will be expected to grow into a superstar, one who may spawn restaurant chains and children's names in the Greater Toronto Area for decades to come.

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He will be expected to become kind of like Wendel: a beloved Leafs player who remains a local legend, all these years on.

No pressure, kid.

"He'll be fine," Clark said, explaining how being the NHL's No. 1 pick has been "a huge honour" he has carried with him throughout his adult life. "The pressure thing is blown way out of proportion. Because he's coming to the best city to play in. And I think he's coming at a good time."

It's certainly a good time relative to what Clark had to deal with. He was drafted out of tiny Kelvington, Sask., in the middle of the darkest period in Leafs history, when they bottomed out under wacky former owner Harold Ballard. Toronto went through a pile of general managers and coaches and didn't post a winning record for 13 consecutive seasons.

Matthews may also be joining a last-place team, but this is now an organization run by Hall of Famers and beginning to find stability, with three Stanley Cup winners – Brendan Shanahan, Lou Lamoriello and Mike Babcock – all pulling in the same direction.

Getting Matthews was part of their plan, not the result of continued incompetence. And last season should mark the bottom of their fall.

"It's a dream come true," Matthews said after he put on the Leafs revamped jersey as the first player to ever wear the new look.

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"He's got a great future," said Lamoriello, the Leafs GM.

Matthews will be a big reason why Toronto will improve. He is exactly what the franchise needs at exactly the right time: A teenager who projects as a difference-making No. 1 centre and who can grow into a leadership role and become a two-way star.

His ceiling, according to those who have worked closely with him, is up there with some of the most dominant players in recent NHL history.

"He's a lot like Anze Kopitar in his skating," explained Marc Crawford, the long-time NHL coach who was Matthews's coach last season in Switzerland's top pro league. "How [Matthews] carries speed and his ability to take pucks to the net. He's got a shot like Joe [Sakic] though. Joe had so many release points with his shot that I always thought that was his best attribute. And Auston has that. The other guy I see is a lot of Jamie Benn in him. He's not as physical as Jamie, but he stays on pucks. He's going to be a great, shooting centre."

By most accounts, Matthews is also the perfect fit for a demanding coach like Babcock. He lives the game and will think little of putting in long hours to get better through off-ice training, video work and skill building.

He is also the special young player who thrives by being pushed, as he was often at the national development program when up against some of the U.S.'s top players.

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"You think of the best leaders in the game, from a competitive standpoint, he has that," said Don Granato, who coached Matthews for two years at the development program and first introduced him to Babcock after a Detroit Red Wings game two years ago. "Any time I put pressure on him, he'd just elevate. He loves to be challenged."

"That kid has been talking about the NHL since I've known him," said Ron Filion, Matthews's midget coach with the Arizona Bobcats. "He loves to compete, so going first overall, for him, it's a victory already. That's the kid. That's who he is. He competes. You'll see just in practice – every puck has to be his. That hasn't ever changed."

Matthews is only the seventh American to go first overall in NHL history and the first since Chicago took Patrick Kane back in 2007. But Matthews is the first top pick in history from a Sun Belt city, and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman – ever the promoter of hockey's fledgling markets – set aside a portion of his introduction of Las Vegas as the league's 31st team earlier this week to talk about him. Bettman pointed out that Matthews became a hockey player after discovering the sport at Phoenix Coyotes games as a toddler, a sign that the league's controversial fixation on growing the game has made inroads.

Now, the embodiment of that progress will be wearing a Leafs jersey in front of a soldout crowd in hockey's biggest market, night after night.

Clark doesn't believe Matthews's unique background will hold him back in Toronto. He remembers coming in as a quiet kid who grew up on a grain and cattle farm in rural Saskatchewan and winning the big-city crowds over with his work ethic and fearlessness. He focused on being a good player, teammate and person.

Even when the Leafs weren't winning, the city loved him because they knew he cared.

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That is his message to Matthews, from one first overall pick to another. The hardest part will be the first two months, Clark explained, as he adjusts to the best league and players in the world. But he will adjust.

And he'll have as much help from the organization as he needs. Including from Wendel.

"He's not to worry about any of the expectations stuff – if you worry about that, it drives you nuts," Clark said. "That's not your job. I always said, I can only be as good as I can be. I can't be as good as people want me to be.

"The biggest pressure is what you put on yourself. That's what those great players do, like Mats [Sundin] and Dougie [Gilmour], when he played here. Those guys put more pressure on themselves than the outside people could ever put on them. Every night they competed."

They did, and it won enough hearts that they became household names, even without a Stanley Cup and even all these years later. Everyone in Toronto knows Mats, Dougie and Wendel – no last name required.

The Leafs hope one day Auston will join the list.

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