Auston Matthews is expected to spend time on the Maple Leafs’ penalty kill.
In what has been a week of developments at Toronto Maple Leafs training camp, Sheldon Keefe got everyone talking again after discussing Auston Matthews’ expanded role this season.
The Leafs coach said that he plans on using his No. 1 centre on the penalty kill this season as he tries to capitalize on Matthews’ improving defensive game. This is a part of his game that doesn’t get noticed that much because of his reputation as a goal scorer but even when Mike Babcock was the head coach, he was always focused on Matthews being a better defensive player.
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Some will look at the decision to put Matthews on the penalty kill as a risk because of the potential to see him get injured and adding more to his workload. However, what Matthews will gain from having the responsibility can’t be overlooked either.
It should be reminded that Matthews isn’t being asked to take on a similar to what Zach Hyman has been asked to do over the years. He isn’t going to average more than two minutes a game on the PK but he has tools the team wants to take advantage of like his ability to win faceoffs.
Since he entered the league, Matthews has improved significantly at the faceoff circle going from a 46. 9 faceoff winning percentage in his rookie season to 54.9 per cent last season. That’s a significant increase and something the Leafs never utilized to the level that they should have been and the same goes for Jason Spezza who won 54 per cent of his faceoffs last season.
"“I know he’s very committed to being great in all regards and we believe he has the tools to do that,” Keefe told reporters about his expectations for Mthews. “He’s shown the ability and the willingness to put in the work. So, as I’m saying, we’ve got to continue to add layers to [his role] and give him opportunities to affect the game in more ways than just scoring goals.”"
Considering the Leafs had been using Hyman as the main faceoff man in the penalty kill should tell you about the Leafs need to get a natural centre into that role. They thought having Frederik Gauthier in that role would help but he wasn’t the solution considering the Leafs were 24th in faceoff winning percentage while short-handed as Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston explained.
It’s time that the Leafs start to showcase what Matthews can do on both sides of the puck and remind him that his size gives him an advantage where he doesn’t necessarily have to be physical. All he needs to do is get himself in a position to leverage his size and if he has to, he can lay a hit.
Considering the unique situation that the Leafs and all the Canadian teams face this season, Toronto will have to be ready to go up against teams that will want to grind out wins. This was the case against the Columbus Blue Jackets and they failed to overcome that challenge and the lessons learned should prove to be vital.
For Matthews, getting the chance to play with Joe Thornton and Mitch Marner to start the season should unlock his offensive game if the trio can establish chemistry in the early part of the season.
Any positive step he can make on the defensive side will only help the Leafs become a tougher team to play against which was the goal of this past off-season.
What do you think about the decision to play Matthews on the penalty kill? Will this make him a better player or is the team giving him too much responsibility? Let us know in the comments below.