ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — Auston Matthews is a world away from home, but rarely has he come across as more comfortable. That’s even when discussing the hair he’s chosen to allow to grow on his face.
But no, it wasn’t the Narcos-inspired moustache that originated while on vacation in Mexico that had Matthews approaching mild levels of giddy on the opening day of training camp in St. John’s, N.L., after having stepped off the ice for his first official workout for the 2019-20 season on Friday morning.
It could be the fact that he’s $15 million richer after cashing in a signing bonus on July 1. It could be that there’s a liberating quality to being under contract, and not having to worry about how production or potential injury could impact his bottom line for the next five seasons.
It could just be the fact that the media on hand just hasn’t had the chance to ask the same questions over and over again.
Or, this is just the new Auston Matthews.
The one projecting like the 19th captain in the franchise history.
I wouldn’t go as far as saying that it’s the best-kept secret around Maple Leafs training camp, but essentially all signs over the first 48 hours of official activities have pointed to the soon-to-be 22-year-old being awarded the letter sooner rather than later.
There have been reports, suggestive dialogue, an eyebrow-raising answer from Kyle Dubas, Brendan Shanahan’s word the franchise will have a defined leader this season, and a photo that surfaced on Reddit appearing to show the captain’s badge on Matthews’ left shoulder during a photoshoot.
There was also a schooled Matthews addressing the media in a most engaged, most enthusiastic and most mature manner, serving as further validation for those bracing for an official announcement.
Matthews gushed over his so-far limited experience in Newfoundland (which will eventually included being screeched in), entertained more questions surrounding his facial hair, and provided thoughtful insight on a range of topics with local media from both Toronto and St. John’s.
He then took the time to take pictures with fans and volunteers before taking off for the afternoon.
In a word, it all seemed ... different.
What did stay true was Matthews’ presence on the ice.
Working with Andreas Johnsson and William Nylander in the first session of the morning, and taking power-play rushes with new lead quarterback Tyson Barrie, Matthews looked the part of a superstar centre worth in excess of $11 million-plus annually.
Clapping a one-time blast over the shoulder of helpless tryout netminder Brandon Halverson on a 5-0 drill, Matthews drew cheers from a delighted crowd at the Paradise Double Ice Complex, which on Friday featured far more No. 34 jerseys than any other Leaf.
Matthews hasn’t quite yet been drilled on the topic (which I’m sure contributed to his Friday mood), but when asked at media day about whether or not he’s ready for a more central leadership role he continued to welcome the responsibility.
“I thought I felt that last year as well but obviously every year that goes by you get more and more comfortable with that,” he said. “I think that’s what management expects out of myself, and I expect that out of myself too.”
Many of Matthews’ teammates, though, were asked about his leadership qualities.
“Auston has been more and more vocal,” said Frederik Andersen. “When you get more comfortable in the team and being in the league longer, you’re going to feel more comfortable voicing your opinions, speaking out a little more.
“Obviously from Day 1 he’s been an unbelievable player. He’s (someone) that demands and deserves a lot of respect in the room. And I think you see that around the team.”
And of course the moustache.
“It looks good on him,” Andersen said, smiling. “He loves being a little different. Standing out a little bit.”
Leafs coach Mike Babcock said the Leafs will soon “end the speculation” and officially appoint a captain.
More reason for Matthews to stand out.
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