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Frank Seravalli

TSN Senior Hockey Reporter


CHICAGO — Auston Matthews’ mustache was the talk of the NHL Player Media Tour.

His favourite comparison so far is Pablo Escobar from the Narcos show on Netflix.

“It looks pretty identical – without the beer belly,” Matthews said. “I figured why not try this mustache thing. It got a little greasy and I’ve just stuck with it.”

Before heading back to Toronto for informal skates and the start of training camp, the Maple Leafs’ star riffed on a whole host of subjects in his first full-length media availability since the end of last season.

He touched on Mitch Marner (they run a fantasy football team together, and yes, they drafted newsworthy Raiders receiver Antonio Brown), he spoke about GM Kyle Dubas’ big summer (“I’m a big Tyson Barrie fan”), and his player rating in EA Sports’ NHL 20 video game (“It was pretty generous”).

Matthews also doubled down on his personal goal ahead of his fourth NHL season.

“I just want to stay healthy for a full season,” Matthews said Friday. “I think I’ve gotten off to pretty good starts in all three years, and then it was kind of derailed by injuries or an injury. It kind of sucks, you can’t get back to how you felt before the injury.”

It’s probably not a stretch to say Matthews was the best player in the NHL last October before it all came to a screeching halt. Ten goals in his first six games. Sixteen points in his first 10 games. Then 31 days on the injury list.

Matthews, who turns 22 on Sept. 17, has missed 34 games over the past two seasons – more than 20 per cent of the schedule.

He finished with 37 goals and 36 assists for a career-best 76 points. But those numbers, which equate to 44 goals and 88 points over a full season, could have been even better with sustained momentum. It takes time to get back into rhythm.

The rest of the NHL knows what Matthews does, that time on the shelf is the only thing that has kept him from staying at that next level in the league, breathing the rarified air in the 50-goal or 100-point club. 

Bruins sniper David Pastrnak picked Matthews last month to win the Hart Trophy this season: “The biggest thing is for him to be healthy,” Pastrnak told reporters. “He’s an unbelievable player.”

The question is: How exactly does Matthews guard against injury when his injuries really haven’t been related? Being on the end of an awkward check isn’t necessarily something under his control.

“Yeah, it’s a little bit of bad luck,” he said. “It just kind of catches you in a weird angle. Sometimes that’s the way it goes. You’ve got to play the cards you’re dealt. …It’s obviously frustrating when you go through that as a player because you want to be out there the whole time – especially when you’re playing well. Then you’ve got to come back and it’s not easy.”

Matthews underwent a procedure on May 2 to remove hardware from a 2014 surgery. There was some thought that the hardware was potentially contributing to some lower-back pain, but Matthews downplayed the potential impact.

“It was just kind of a nagging thing,” Matthews said. “I’ve had them in there since I was 16. I just figured take care of it. It wasn’t something that was affecting me; it was just kind of nagging me. It was a real minor procedure. I walked out of the surgery and I was golfing the next week. It wasn’t really anything major.”

One thing is for certain: Matthews doesn’t see “load management,” a major storyline in the Raptors’ championship run, playing a factor in terms of his push to play the full slate of games. He wants more minutes from coach Mike Babcock.

Matthews averaged 18:43 in ice time in the 67 games he finished, which ranked 58th among forwards in the NHL. For perspective, Connor McDavid averaged 22:50.

“Tight game, comeback game, I’d like to see myself out there more,” Matthews said. “I don’t see myself needing to play 23 minutes a night. But I think it’s mostly situational, depending on the game. Again, I’m not the one deploying myself. It’s kind of just a back-and-forth [with Babcock], to find that sweet spot.”

Matthews also said there’s “definitely a lot of progress that can be made” with regard to his attention to detail in the defensive zone when asked about his other personal goal.

As for the Maple Leafs’ team goals, those are simpler.

“We need to take a step forward,” Matthews said. “That first round has been the Achilles heel for us, just trying to get over that hump. For us, it’s been frustrating – same team [in the Bruins], same result. For us, [the goal is] just making sure everyone is focused and dialled in, getting ready to get over that hump.”

That hump may be even bigger to get over considering the Habs, Panthers and Sabres all seemed to improve in the Atlantic Division over the summer. Then there is the uncertainty of Marner’s status looming over everyone: “I think you hope it doesn’t. My focus isn’t on anyone else. Mitch is a big part of our team, we want him there and we want him there as soon as possible,” Matthews said.

Set to embark on a five-year, $58 million deal that was signed back in February, Matthews is glad that’s “not weighing over” him.

The only thing he’s visualizing is a Leafs’ version of the Raptors parade he watched in June.

“It’s tough not to, especially with how wild it was,” Matthews said. “That’s our ultimate goal in the long run, is to get there and to bring a championship to the city.”

Contact Frank Seravalli on Twitter: @frank_seravalli​