Matthews is the prize for Mike Babcock's Maple Leafs being NHL's worst team

Posted at 5:23 PM, Oct 04, 2016
and last updated 2016-10-04 17:23:26-04

TORONTO (AP) — The Toronto Maple Leafs are hoping to reap the reward of having the NHL's worst team last season.

Auston Matthews is the prize.

Toronto took advantage of its awful season by drafting the highly skilled player with the No. 1 pick overall, the franchise's first selection at the top of the NHL draft since 1985.

Matthews, who just turned 19, will have a chance to make an instant impact.

The Maple Leafs won just 29 games last season, their fewest since 1970 when they played six fewer games, and won only one more game the previous season.

Mike Babcock, meanwhile, proved coaching can only do so much.

Toronto gave him a $50 million, eight-year deal a year ago, hoping the Stanley Cup and Olympic gold-winning coach could make a difference.

Last year, he did not as the Maple Leafs finished last in the league.

This season, Babcock is expecting much better results.

"We're way better," Babcock said in an interview with The Associated Press while leading Canada to a World Cup of Hockey title. "We got kids, but we got skill. It's a way different program than a year ago. We now have a team.

"We're like a fast-climbing stock. You want to buy. Last year, you didn't want to buy."

Here are some things to watch as Toronto prepares to play at Ottawa on Oct. 12 in the NHL's first regular season game:


Toronto's hopes of reviving its beloved hockey franchise rest with Matthews, its first No. 1 pick overall since selecting Wendel Clark a little more than three decades ago.

Matthews showed the world his talent as a key player for the North America's 23-and-younger team, scoring once against Sweden and Russia and having an assist against Finland. He also very much belonged on the ice in his preseason debut against Montreal after playing in the World Cup.

"I felt really good," Matthews said.

The 6-foot-3, 216-pound center looked good, too, flashing his rare blend of size, speed and skill. He was born in California and lived in Arizona before going to Switzerland last year to prepare to play in the NHL. Matthews had 24 goals and 22 assists in 36 games for the Zurich Lions.

"Lots of skill," Babcock said after coaching Matthews for the first time in a game. "He'll figure it out."


Babcock bristled at the notion Toronto didn't make a splash in the summer to improve their team, pointing to picks the team gave up to acquire Frederik Andersen from Anaheim.

"We traded a first and a second to get a goalie who could win games," he said.

The Maple Leafs also dealt goalie Jonathan Bernier as part of the deal.

Andersen signed a five-year, $25 million contract with the Maple Leafs, cashing in on his 77-26-12 record over three seasons while competing for playing time with the Ducks.


James van Riemsdyk got a chance to get into game shape during the World Cup, playing three games and having one assist for the U.S.

The 27-year-old forward played in just 40 games last year before his season ended due to a broken left foot.

"It's huge to have him healthy," Babcock said. "We think he's a high-end player. The more skill we have around him, the better off we'll be.

"I think JVR is going to have the best year of his career."

So far, the 2013-14 season was his best when he had 30 goals and 31 assists.


Babcock was busy with Canada's World Cup team, giving assistant coaches Jim Hiller, D.J. Smith and Andrew Brewer a chance to lead the team during training camp and early in the preseason.

"It was a great to give those guys an opportunity to run the program," Babcock said. "They probably enjoyed it."


The Maple Leafs are planning a season of celebrations to commemorate their centennial. The highlight may be when Toronto hosts the Detroit Red Wings at BMO Field, home of the Canadian Football League's Argonauts, in the league's annual outdoor game on New Year's Day.