How good is Auston Matthews?

Answer: really good

How good is Auston Matthews?

“At what point do [the] Toronto Maple Leafs have to start playing Matthews one versus five to make it fair for other teams?” asked Brad Marchand, after Auston Matthews, the Leafs’ centre-man and the NHL’s 2016 first-round draft pick, finished on an incredible end-to-end effort against the Montreal Canadiens.

This question is warranted. Matthews has been off to a rapid start this season, netting 12 goals and 21 points in 19 games while leading the Leafs to second place in the Atlantic Division.

If you aren’t already a member of the Matthews fandom, I suggest you join now.

Following his 40-goal rookie season, Matthews has quickly proven himself as a prolific, exciting, and timely goal scorer. That lofty total was enough to tie him for second in the league, a feat comparable only to that of Alex Ovechkin in his rookie season, arguably the greatest pure goal scorer in the league, with 52.

Yet the NHL has taken a dramatic shift since then, with scoring generally on the decline. To put things into perspective, 11 players in Ovechkin’s rookie year had 40 or more goals, while that number drops to just three in Matthews’ year.

In addition, this admirable output is produced in less than ideal circumstances.

Matthews does not skate on the first power play unit, which can often be a dramatic goal boost for many players. Instead, he led the league last year with 32 even-strength goals, which is not only incredibly difficult, but valuable in the playoffs where less power plays take place.

Further, one player alone cannot win a game, despite what Brad Marchand suggests. In the case of Matthews, he plays a majority of his shifts with two very talented and hardworking players, William Nylander and Zach Hyman.

Despite their success, these players are still learning and developing their game, finding their place in a relentless league. In comparison, other leading centers such as Steven Stamkos have the privilege of centering a line with Nikita Kucherov, who has been utterly unstoppable this season. Similarly in Edmonton, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are proving to be a perfect pair.

Respectfully, Matthews plays with very capable players, but they unfortunately aren’t comparable to Draisaitl or Kucherov. Yet this does not stop him from producing goals like he plays with those stars. One can only imagine what his assist total would be if he were passing to players who converted like those two.

Understandably, there are always cases against star players — seeing as they garner so much attention, their inconsistencies are highlighted just as much as their accomplishments. A case can be made that Matthews fails to provide the same opportunities for his teammates as he does for himself, leaving a sub-par assist total and players working for him rather than with him.

Yet, as per Sportsnet, the Leafs’ top line is among the best in the NHL in high danger chances, scoring chances on net, and passes to the slot. Essentially, the chances are there, and they aren’t all for Matthews.

Regardless, it seems that a respective shooting percentage thus far of 10.9 per cent and 6.2 per cent for Hyman and Nylander are not up to par. In comparison to Matthews’ 16.7 per cent chance shooting, he seems to be able to convert on his chances. Still, there is little concern that these players won’t begin converting soon, as their play advances.

Granted, his output is impressive, but there’s another side to the ice, and the defensive play will frequently distinguish the elite from the complete. As for Matthews, he has been superb in the defensive end as Chris Johnston from Sportsnet notes, “Matthews has only been on the ice for one goal against in 128 minutes at 5-on-5 this season”.

That is wildly impressive considering Leafs head coach Mike Babcock refuses to coddle his young superstar, putting him on for defensive zone face-offs more than half the time, where they must battle to shift the direction of play.

The added level of difficulty is not showing, as Matthews currently has the fifth highest plus/minus in the league (+14), and again as Sportsnet notes, “He has been stripping opponents of the puck at the same rate as Patrice Bergeron.” To say he routinely makes defensive plays comparable to former Selke Trophy winners is impressive at the least.

It’s easy to see how Matthews can be ranked among the best two-way forwards in the league and it’s also intangible which can solidify him among the ranks of the best. McDavid and Stamkos may very likely finish the season with more points and gather a surreal amount of attention. However, Babcock refuses to let his star players run amok and rely solely on talent.

He wants a balanced style of play and is molding Matthews in this image of balance. This image is one of consistency, hustle, and intelligent hockey that few will find anywhere else.

In other words, Matthews is elite and on his way to being complete.

A look ahead at the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2017–2018

Line changes and new acquisitions in store for the Leafs’ upcoming season

A look ahead at the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2017–2018

Soon after the Pittsburgh Penguins hoisted the Stanley Cup for the second year in a row, the General Managers (GM) of the National Hockey League (NHL) got on their phones and looked for ways to improve their teams.

The 2017 NHL Entry Draft saw Swiss-born Nico Hischier go first overall to the New Jersey Devils, while Canadian teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs, who selected Swedish defenseman Timothy Liljegren, and the Edmonton Oilers, who took undersized forward Kailer Yamamoto, found themselves with later draft positions thanks to their regular season success.

The Leafs got to work in free agency, signing veterans like Dominic Moore, recent Cup champion Ron Hainsey, and a 37-year-old Patrick Marleau. Leafs Head Coach Mike Babcock kept his players busy over the summer, regularly checking in on them wherever they were training. Babcock even called his top defenseman, Morgan Rielly, telling him to start preparing to play with Hainsey.

With a year that saw them make the playoffs and push the Washington Capitals to six games last spring, as well as a summer of prepping behind them, the Leafs are looking to improve upon their last season. The boys in blue are hungrier, more confident, and better prepared to skate with the best of the best in the NHL.

Calder Trophy recipent Auston Matthews is centring Toronto’s top line in between Zach Hyman and William Nylander. That line will play against the NHL’s top shutdown pairings and defensive lines, but with the firepower of Matthews, Nylander, and Hyman’s brute strength and shot, the top line is expected to produce well.      

Leafs fans can also look forward to seeing Marleau on a line with Nazem Kadri and possibly Connor Brown, whose 20 goals as a rookie were only overshadowed by virtue of being on a team with rookie phenoms Matthews, Nylander, and Mitch Marner.

For what seems like the first time in a long time, the Leafs have a solid top four on the back end. Jake Gardiner seems to be playing with Nikita Zaitsev in Reilly’s old spot, while Reilly plays with Hainsey. Hainsey, a serviceable defenceman, is over 35 years of age, which begs the question of whether he can keep up with this young Leafs team.

Around the league there are plenty of storylines to follow. Did the Columbus Blue Jackets just have a fluke season, or are they the real deal? Can Connor McDavid’s Edmonton Oilers go all the way, seeing as they’re the Vegas favoured team to win it all? Speaking of Vegas, how will the Golden Knights do in their inaugural season? Is it possible we will see a Penguins three-peat?

But the most important question on the minds of Toronto sports fans will always remain whether or not the Leafs are good enough. For that, we’ll just have to wait and see.

Pressure mounts on controversially-named sports franchises

Changing the face of sport is harder than you think

Pressure mounts on controversially-named sports franchises

Public furor directed at several professional sports teams over offensive names and branding is reaching a fever pitch. Several professional sports leagues in North America include teams whose mascots, names, and logos have drawn criticism from many communities. When we consider that these logos and names are not only representative of the teams, but entire cities across North America, the concern broadens.

The NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks, the MLB’s Cleveland Indians, and the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs and Washington Redskins are among the highest profile targets of public outrage. In addition to the inappropriate names, the teams logos heighten the organizations’ offense.

‘Chief Wahoo’ is the team mascot and logo for the Cleveland Indians — a cartoon depiction of an Indigenous man with red face paint. The logo has received heavy criticism and prompted petitions for it to change.

The Chicago Blackhawks are a team that have been lauded for their Stanley Cup victories and the success of their individual players, however, the team’s logo has also been a source of longtime contention. It is the face of an Indigenous man with feathers in his hair and war paint on his face. Some consider it to be one of the most offensive logos in professional sport.

Offensive logos, however, are not limited to professional sport, as controversy has sparked up around intercollegiate teams as well. The McGill Redmen have attempted to respond to the controversy over their name by devoting a portion of their website to explaining the origins of the Redmen name.

Richard Pound, former chair of the McGill Athletics Board stated, “Unless we find historical evidence which establishes that the Redmen name came from other than the colour of McGill’s uniforms, we intend to preserve the traditional name for our men’s teams.”

This argument is common throughout sports teams’ logo and name debates — franchises do not seem to want to change because to them, they represent the history of the team and the league.

Naming sports teams for symbols from Indigenous culture is disrespectful and offensive. It exploits these already marginalized communities through racist caricatures. We can only hope that in the future, sports teams realize the damage these logos cause and dismiss the idea of having Indigenous mascots, logos, and names to represent their team.

Calling the shots

Examining the athlete-referee relationship

Calling the shots

The animosity hockey players reserve for referees is infamous. As with many officiated sports, this tension has been a part of the culture of sport for as long as there have been athletes to break rules and referees to enforce them. A missed call, unfair penalty, or even the whisper of bias is enough to earn a referee a scolding, and sometimes warrants a full-blown tantrum, from a player or coach who disagrees with an official’s decision. 

It is no surprise that in the heat of the moment, some athletes feel the need to voice their discontent with the person who is calling the shots, but does this anger stem from something deeper than just one bad call? 

This question has very recently come to the forefront of discussions surrounding the athlete-referee relationship, especially in hockey. On February 3, the NHL’s Department of Player Safety handed out one of the largest suspensions in history to Calgary Flames defenseman Dennis Wideman. 

Wideman returned after serving a 20-game suspension without pay for hitting an on-ice official, resulting in a concussion for the referee. The hit occurred when Wideman was leaving the ice after being the subject of a hard-hit himself. The NHL’s disciplinary committee believed Wideman’s hit acted as a retaliatory measure against the referee for not calling a penalty against the player who had hit him first. Brian Burke, the Flames’ President of Hockey Operations, has expressed his disagreement with the league’s decision, and maintains that Wideman collided with the referee and the impact was accidental. 

Most sport fans can agree that intentionally hitting or attempting to injure a referee in an act of retribution goes far beyond the boundaries of expressing discontent.   

When asked about the incident, In an interview with The Varsity, referee-in-chief of the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) men’s hockey program and former Director of Officiating for the NHL, Bryan Lewis says that situations like Wideman are few and far between . 

In his experience of officiating over 1000 games in the NHL, Lewis says that “95 per cent of the time…Players and coaches respect referees,” and that verbal disagreements are just a part of the game. He also emphasizes that just because players don’t like a call and try to dispute them, doesn’t mean they can’t respect it. Lewis acknowledges that referees can make mistakes and miss certain calls. “Bad calls happen, but you have to give referees the benefit of the doubt,” he said.   

With the exception of incidents like Wideman’s, the game’s officials largely accept the feelings of players. For career referees like Lewis, dealing with players’ anger is just another part of the job and doesn’t signal deeper institutional issues. Lewis says, “you have to understand that, when you call a foul on anyone, that player isn’t going to turn around and say thank you.”

In a game that is characterized by high energy and strong emotion, it is no surprise that players are irritated over negative calls and feel the need to express themselves. By and large, referees understand this emotion and accept the fact that the discontent between them and players is just a part of the game.

Sports Industry Conference

Conference helps students bridge the gap from sport enthusiasm to sport industry

Sports Industry Conference

Hosted by the University of Toronto Sports and Business Association (UTSB), the theme for this year’s sports industry conference was “Behind The Game: Building the Playbook.” Over 360 students from different universities across the province were in attendance.

Rookie season

There was a panel dedicated to mentorship and development that included Tyler Currie, —the director of international affairs for the NHL’s Player’s Assocation, and Rachel Bonnetta the host of Major League Soccer. 

The panelists agreed that mentorship was a key factor in the growth of the industry. “There is no substitute for a great boss,” said Saint John Sea Dogs president Trevor Georgie.

Currie spoke to the value of encountering what he refers to as an “anti-mentor.”    

Each speaker commented on the relationship between chance and preparation and the importance of honouring personal values. Each story emphasized that meeting a potential mentor is not enough to guarantee a smooth transition into the working world, but rather that students must make an active effort to engage with, and learn from, guidance.

No “I” in team

The second panel of the day highlighted the role of community and partnership in the industry. Jillian Svensson, vice president of business development and operations for You Can Play, explained that when it comes to removing barriers in sport, partnership is essential. Together, the COC and You Can Play have formed the “One Team” initative, which runs programs and promotes the acceptance of LGBT+ athletes in sport.

Shooting hoops

The first keynote panel of the day explored basketball and its growing popularity in Canada. Canada Basketball president and CEO, Michele O’Keefe explained that, while it will be a while before basketball reaches the level enjoyed popularity of hockey in Canada, the number of participants in the sport is on the rise. TSN insider and panel moderator Jack Armstrong recalled the evolution of basketball in Canada, from generating practice players to athletes “with the skills and athleticism to start and get drafted to the NBA.”

Former resident and current manager of the Toronto Raptors and Phoenix Suns Bryan Colangelo, added that he would like to see more funding coming from the federal government to encourage the sport’s growth.

Money ball

The third panel of the day, Data and Analytics: Staying Ahead of the Curve, featured industry insider Jason Rosenfeld, the director of basketball analytics for the NBA. The panel, which was moderated by Scott Cullen an analytics columnist for TSN, highlighted the importance of analytics and statistics in sports.

“The NBA needs to translate international statistics to NBA statistics [and] use data to see what is wrong and how to improve on that,” said Rosenfeld. He mentioned that fans are slowly but surely becoming interested in sports statistics. “It’s great to have fans excited about stats and data in the leagues; it’s fantastic.”

Going for gold

The fourth panel of the day, The Pinnacle of Sport: Sports at the Highest Level, discussed how far sport has come in Canada, and the importance of specific endeavours in that development. Masai Ujuri, general manager of the Toronto Raptors, was praised for his direction of the country’s sole NBA franchise. Johann Koss, founder of Right to Play, remarked that behind every successful sports team are multiple people and organizations who helped make the success possible. He suggested that “To build a successful team, [one should] build relationships and establish young communication with everyone you work with.” Tim Bezbatchenko, Toronto FC general manager, added that when creating long lasting success, “trust with the players is crucial.” 

Over time

The final talk of the night, International Expansion, saw TSN’s Leafs Lunch host Andi Petrillo interview NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly.

Daly, who was named the deputy commissioner in 2005, spoke about the potential for two new teams to emerge in the NHL. “We are discussing it, still in the early stages. Either [it] will be in Quebec City or Las Vegas,” he said.

Overall, the conference was a huge success. When asked if he believed this type of event was helpful to delegates, Tyler Currie said that a passion for business and sport is what brought the delegates to the conference.

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What does it take to be an all-star?

Students weigh in on professional league exhibition games

What does it take to be an all-star?

Every year, millions of hockey fans take a mid-season break to watch the NHL All-Star Game, an exhibition weekend that aims to showcase the leagues’ best players. All-star games have taken root in many professional sports leagues — most notably the NFL Pro Bowl, the MLB Midsummer Classic, and the NBA All-Star Game.   

Traditionally, league officials determined all-star rosters, which remains only partially the case today. For the NHL All-Star Game, 40 players are selected by the league’s Hockey Operations Department to compete on four seperate teams, and four individual captains  are selected by fans through an online voting system. Once the fans have elected them, the four appointed captains get to select their teams based on the 40-athlete pool. 

“I do enjoy the all-star festivities,” said U of T graduate student Shakeeb Ahmed. “Having the captains pick the team gives it a certain pond hockey feel to it.”

For Ahmed, the NHL All-Star Game is so enjoyable because there’s nothing to lose. Athletes get to showcase their individual skills, like hardest shot and fastest skate time, and with games using a three-on-three format with modified rules, some pressure is relieved. “[It’s] not so serious” he said, “like the rest of the NHL season. I think the game is of course for fun and entertainment [and] I also think it’s a way to showcase the immense talent in the league.” 

Lindsay Boileau, a business management student at Ryerson, prefers the all-star skills competitions to the actual games, citing the modified rules and nonchalant play from athletes as a deterrent to watching the game. “I personally don’t look forward to the All-Star Game each year,” she said. “Player’s aren’t trying their best and are going easy on each other. So it’s not very entertaining for me to watch personally.”   

Undoubtedly an opportunity to watch players let loose and have some fun — something professional leagues often forget — all-star weekends breed conversations surrounding who actually benefits from the exhibitions. 

Proceeds from the NHL All-Star Game go directly to players’ pensions, but is the event all fun and games, or does the league have a hidden agenda?

According to Ahmed, the exhibition’s only underpinning is that it gives host cities like Nashville, this year’s host, the opportunity to rake in a lot of added business. “[The All-Star Game] gives the city hosting it gain sales and revenue in large quantities in a short period of time,” he said, adding that this doesn’t just mean demand for NHL merchandise but for various businesses and attractions in the city as well.   

Boileau, for one, expresses more cynicism, admitting that she doesn’t see a point in the NHL’s hosting an All-Star Game, which looks like a money-grab to her. “Now you see players refusing to attend the All-Star Game after being voted in by fans,” she said. “This has led the NHL to suspend players for one game after the all-star break. So to me it just looks like a way for the league to make extra money.”

A self-proclaimed Leafs and Penguins fan, Boileau cites the John Scott controversy as a prime example of the NHL’s sticky hand in the all-star festivities. She agrees that this All-Star Game was defined by the audience the AHL goon drew, which had non-hockey fans tuning in to watch the exhibition. “This All-Star Game in particular probably did spark the interest of people who wouldn’t normally watch hockey. This is due to the media surrounding John Scott, an enforcer who wasn’t well known in the NHL. But this normally doesn’t happen, that a goon gets voted in.”

Overall, the NHL All-Star Game and the events leading up to it is made for entertainment purposes: to showcase the ‘not-so-serious’ side of different athletes. For every fan that enjoys All-Star Games, whether it’s the skills competitions or John Scott’s game-winning goal in the final, there are multiple players, coaches, and officials who revel in the opportunity to watch players just have fun.