It’s appropriate that the happiest and most hopeful Maple Leafs fans have been in exactly three seasons and 15 minutes is after a game they lost. But though the Senators prevailed 5-4 in overtime of the season opener, it’s obvious that Toronto—and, hell, the rest of us—should be very, very excited. Auston Matthews is here. And I, uh, don’t think he’s going to be a third-line center for very long.
Matthews, the first overall draft pick, became the first player in the history of the sport’s modern era—since the forward pass was legalized—to score four goals in his NHL debut. There is plenty to praise on goals 1, 3, and 4: Though Matthews did not necessarily do the heavy lifting, he had the instincts to put himself in the right place at the right time for scoring chances, and he finished, and those two things make up the lion’s share of what it takes to fill a scoresheet. But that second goal, my goodness, that second goal:
That’s roughly what Matthews looked like lapping opponents in juniors, and even grown men in the Swiss league last year, but this is against an NHL team, and it’s a season highlight for anyone, let alone a kid 15 minutes into his career.
“Physically, he’s a man at  years old,” Senators center Kyle Turris told reporters after the game. “So he’s physically ready for the game. Obviously, he’s mentally there too.”
Ready. That’s a word you’ll hear a lot regarding Matthews. You’ll find no one who suspects he could be a bust. Even if he doesn’t enter the league with quite the same amount of hype as Connor McDavid, Matthews is mentioned in the same breath as a generational-level talent, a franchise-changer for a franchise that desperately needs one.
“The number-one is not going to be a savior,” team president Brendan Shanahan warned before the draft, and he’s right, hockey doesn’t work that way. But Matthews is a special player, and he projects to lead a Leafs youth movement of high-end prospects, cultivated through years of losing and some sagacious trades. Coach Mike Babcock, giddy as anyone else after Matthews’s night, says there’s so much to be psyched for.
“We were all a part of history,” Babcock said. “From my perspective, since I have been the Leafs coach, that is the best night I have had here by 10 miles. Not even close.
“Because now we have an opportunity. I know Matthews scored all the goals, I thought (Mitch) Marner in the first half of the game might have been the best player. I thought (Willie) Nylander was great, I thought (Zach) Hyman was great, I thought (Connor) Brown was great, thought (Connor) Carrick was great, thought (defenceman Nikita) Zaitsev was great.
“I’ve never seen anything like (Matthews’ performance). But he is a good player. You see that second goal he scored? Not many guys do that.”
Do not begrudge the Leafs and their fans this excitement, even if history says they’ll fuck it up somehow, because what the world is better than a young player with this much hype immediately living up to it, if just for one night? And Matthews, in my book, does not belong solely to the Leafs.
Matthews is a child of the West, a California-born, Arizona-raised kid with a Mexican-born mother, whose interest in hockey was sparked only when he became infatuated with watching the Zamboni. He grew up a Coyotes fan, idolizing Shane Doan and Danny Briere. None of this sounds like a typical NHL star’s story, and yet, if you’re of a certain age, it’s eminently familiar to you. This is a blueprint for the next generation of American stars: young, multi-sport athletes, not necessarily shunted to hockey by geography, but by choice.
(The NHL is going to point to Matthews as justification for its entire Sun Belt strategy, and while that’s a simplification, it’s not unfair. If the Coyotes never existed, Matthews is probably playing baseball right now.)
He’s part of an increasingly lambent future for American hockey, along with the likes of Jack Eichel, Johnny Gaudreau, Dylan Larkin, Brandon Saad, and Shayne Gostibehere, all of whom make up what feels like a changing of the guard in the NHL. Look to the World Cup’s Team North America for a preview of the next decade, and be glad of it. The sport is thriving.
Matthews should thrive too, even if they’re (probably) not all going to be four-goal games, and even if he’s still got a lot to learn. (“That last play was 100 percent my fault,” Matthews said of getting outskated on Kyle Turris’s OT winner.) But any missing pieces are muscle memories that can only be picked up by mileage against the world’s best players. There are no fundamental flaws here; the game is not too fast for him. He’s already got an NHL star’s brain in an NHL star’s body. The most stunning thing about Matthews, after just one game into what should be a long career, is how much he looks to have figured out already.