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Mark Masters

SPORTSCENTRE Reporter

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Early in Toronto Maple Leafs training camp it’s become abundantly clear that Auston Matthews is back to being Auston Matthews. The centre didn’t produce as he had hoped in a playoff series loss to the Boston Bruins last spring and looks eager to put that setback way, way back in the rearview mirror. 

“The biggest difference to me is skating,” said Leafs head coach Mike Babcock. “He’s skating at another level.”

“Auston looks like he’s found another step,” added winger Connor Brown

“He looks powerful in his stride,” observed goalie Frederik Andersen. “He’s fast and a great player already so it’s nice to see how much he’s focused on his own game to get that better.”

With a big chunk of the media core in Lucan, Ont., for Toronto's pre-season opener against the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday night, Matthews met with a smaller-than-usual scrum after practice at the MasterCard Centre where the non-playing group worked out. The 21-year-old used the intimate setting to outline how he went about improving his skating in the summer with the help of the team’s skating development consultant Barb Underhill​, who competed for Canada in figure skating at the 1980 and 1984 Olympics. 

Here's an edited transcript of the exchange: 

Q: People were saying in Niagara Falls (where the first three practices and scrimmages of training camp took place) that you look like you've reached another level. How do you feel about yourself right now? 

AM: "I feel good. I think I put a lot of work into this off-season to go into this season as prepared as possible. I feel good on the ice skating-wise, working on that a bit on that this summer, explosiveness, and yeah, I just feel like I'm in pretty good shape."

Q: Do you feel like you're just back to where you were before the injuries last season or do you feel that skating-wise that's an area where you've gotten even more explosive? 

AM: "I think I made progress in the summer. I was here for a week in July working with Barb just kind of on mechanics and stuff. Over the course of the summer, that was a big focus for myself, just being more explosive, kind of getting a step up on the opponent, getting that quicker step and I think it paid off. I mean, I feel good out here. I’ve got to keep pushing and go into the season with a full head of steam.”

Q: How did you go about trying to get more explosive? 

AM: "Just kind of working with my trainer and I then I think a lot of it had to do with mechanics. Barb really helped me out with that, broke it down on video for me so I could get a clear perspective on what she’s seeing and what I can work on and just kind of went from there."

Q: In layman's terms, is there any adjustment you made that you can talk about? 

AM: "Honestly, I'd have to sit here and talk to you for five to 10 minutes but, it’s just mechanical stuff. It’s little things, but they make a big difference. You get a couple little things you can work on and fine-tune and all of the sudden that gives you another step or two on the ice." 

Q: What impresses you about Barb as a teacher? 

AM: “She’s really smart. She demos drills out here and pretty much does it better than anyone else. She knows what she’s talking about. It’s a pleasure working with her. She helped me out quite a bit this summer. And even before the season gets going it’d be nice to work with her again and get everything fine-tuned for the start of the regular season."

Q: Had you worked with her before?

AM: "I worked with her a little bit at development camp a couple years back, here and there in the summers, but this summer was the first week I kind of spent three, four, five days with her and every day on the ice so it was good."

Q: Does she show you video of how other guys skate and you try and duplicate that? 

AM: "She’ll record you skating and then she'll, maybe I'm not doing something right or she wants you to do something different, and she'll show somebody that does it way better than you."

Q: Is there an example of who that would be? 

AM: "You know what. I don't remember who it was."

Q: Is there someone you watch in the league and you say, 'I'd like to skate more like that,' maybe?

AM: "I think you'd like to skate like (Connor) McDavid, but I don't think that's just going to happen overnight. I mean, there's quite a bit of guys that can obviously skate well and have extremely good mechanics with their upper body, lower body and all that stuff (coming) together really smoothly so I think that was her main focus with me this summer."

Q: Is it like first-step acceleration, is it agility? 

AM: "Yeah, first step and that kind of stuff and just mechanics. (Laughs) I don't know how many more times I have to say it. Skating up and down making sure everything is symmetrical and you're getting the maximum push and everything."

Q: Does it become like muscle memory? You repeat it so it becomes automatic? 

AM: ​"A little bit. You get your reps in with her and over time you kind of want it to get in your head, especially in the summer, it's a good time to practice that stuff. Going into practices and skates even without her you focus on two, three things you want to accomplish in the practice whether it's your skating or certain things, you just put it in your head and go from there."

Q: Is this the first time you talked to a figure skater about how to skate? It seems like they know the technique a little bit differently than hockey players do. 

AM: "Yeah, I think so. I mean, you watch her demo the drills and she's always right above her feet, right under them, just her mechanics, body posture is unbelievable. I liked working with her a lot. She shared a lot of videos with me even weeks after I skated with her and just making sure that stuff stays with you so you can engrave it into your head and use it all the time."

Q: How is it different for you playing with Patrick Marleau on your left wing instead of Zach Hyman

AM: "It's different. They're completely different players, but, I mean, they both work extremely hard. Patty, obviously, has that speed and has always had that knack for scoring. I mean, he's scored 500 goals in the NHL so there's no question he can put the puck in the net. So, for myself, it's nice playing with a guy like that. He's different. He can really create space for myself and (Tyler) Ennis right now or Willie (Nylander) or whoever he's playing with because he's got that speed and guys really have to be aware of him."