“I don’t think I can really say I’ve figured this guy out,” the Toronto Maple Leafs center said. “I don’t think anybody has or will.”
Matthews and his teammates will have plenty of opportunities to try.
Toronto and Edmonton play at Scotiabank Arena on Wednesday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVAS) in the first of nine games this season between the two teams and two of the top players in the NHL. It’s a delicious rivalry that has the hockey world buzzing.
“The fact that we get to see these two face off nine times is great for the game, great for hockey fans, and great for a rivalry that’s only going to get more heated,” former Oilers and Maple Leafs goalie Curtis Joseph said. “Seeing these two on the ice at the same time for this many times should be special for all of us associated with the sport.”
To Joseph’s point: Matthews and McDavid each scored a goal in their most recent matchup, a 6-4 Edmonton victory in Toronto on Jan. 6, 2020, that featured an end-to-end goal by McDavid, who also had three assists.
“He brought me out of my seat,” Wayne Gretzky said after McDavid’s goal.
Matthews, 23, and McDavid, 24, each was selected No. 1 in the NHL Draft; McDavid by the Oilers in 2015, Matthews by the Maple Leafs the following year. In the four seasons since Matthews joined the NHL, McDavid leads all players in points with 426 (149 goals, 277 assists), and Matthews is second in goals (159) to Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, who has 182.
With the NHL realigning its divisions this season, in part because of travel concerns surrounding COVID-19, the Maple Leafs and Oilers are each in the Scotia North Division, which consists of the seven NHL teams based in Canada playing each other nine or 10 times.
The nine games this season between the Maple Leafs and Oilers are two more than McDavid and Matthews have combined to play against each other in the past four seasons. In their seven head-to-head NHL matchups, McDavid has scored 10 points (three goals, seven assists), and Matthews has scored five (three goals, two assists).
The potential fireworks when the two are on the ice is intriguing for players, coaches and fans.
“They’re similar in that they’re both elite but they have different skill sets, McDavid with the speed and Auston with the shot and goal-scoring ability,” Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. “But I think both players, they’re older now and as they got more experience in the League, they’re adding different layers and pieces to the game.”
Winnipeg Jets forward Mark Scheifele said Matthews-McDavid was the best rivalry created by realignment. In past seasons, Toronto and Edmonton would play twice because they were in separate conferences.
Former NHL forward Shane Doan said he was amazed by their talent when he was on the ice with Matthews and McDavid while running offseason workouts in Phoenix.
“After what I got to see firsthand with Auston and Connor, I’ll tell you this: their skills are ridiculous,” said Doan, who was hired as director of hockey operations by the Arizona Coyotes on Jan. 11. “And they are as competitive as you’ll find.”
The practices ran from mid-November through mid-December and included Matthews, McDavid, Chicago Blackhawks forward Jonathan Toews, Minnesota Wild defenseman Matt Dumba and Florida Panthers forward Anthony Duclair.
“It started out as a place where junior players like my son, Josh, could work out,” Doan said. “They didn’t really have places to play. When some of them started leaving, the NHLers came in.”
Matthews grew up in the Phoenix area and idolized Doan, who began his NHL career with the Winnipeg Jets but played 20 seasons with the Coyotes after the Jets relocated to Arizona before the 1996-97 season. Matthews has become friends with Doan, which is how he became aware of the available ice time.
McDavid was looking for a way to stay sharp, and his agent, Jeff Jackson, suggested heading to Arizona. McDavid and Matthews are represented by the same agency, Wasserman Sports & Entertainment.
Judd Moldaver, Matthews’ agent, said it was easy to bring together two of the top players in hockey.
“They knew each other dating back to the 2016 World Cup of Hockey when they were teammates with Team North America,” Moldaver said. “I wouldn’t call them besties, but they’re good friends and they had a great time. There were rounds of golf, dinners and, of course, the time on the ice.”
They drove each other relentlessly to make each other better. In McDavid’s case, one of the focal points was learning about Matthews’ quick release.
“Everyone’s a good player,” McDavid said. “You’ve got to be always growing your own game. I definitely worked on my shot. Being able to spend time in Arizona was something I valued a lot, and I definitely learned.”
Matthews said, “It’s no secret that he is a special player. He’s the best player in the League for a reason, so I thought it was great being able to spend some time with him, being on the ice. Just being around him, he’s a great guy. We really enjoyed ourselves.”
So did Doan.
“I was in the NHL a long time, and to see Connor skate full speed and stick-handle the way he can, to see the way Auston can shoot, well, to say it was impressive was an understatement,” he said. “And they pushed each other. They competed hard against each other in every drill and were trying to absorb information from each other. Very, very special players.”
Maple Leafs defenseman Travis Dermott has firsthand knowledge of each player.
Dermott grew up with McDavid in Newmarket, a city 35 miles north of Toronto, and played minor hockey with him. Practicing against McDavid as a kid, and against Matthews with the Maple Leafs, Dermott is an expert on just how skilled each of them can be.
“When I was younger, I’d always wanted to go against Connor because I knew that it was going to make me better,” Dermott said. “When you are going against the best player out there, you’re always learning things about your game. The same goes with going against Matthews. I know every time I’m going against them I’m getting better.”
Dermott said the Toronto forwards will have to help slow McDavid before he gets into high gear because his elite speed is difficult to handle.
“Both of those guys can be exciting to watch, especially this season with how many times we get to play each other,” he said. “I think it’s going to be pretty special for fans.”
Joseph, who played 943 NHL games, knows McDavid well from when he was a linemate of Joseph’s son, Tristan, in minor hockey and lacrosse. The boys often played shinny at the custom-made rink Joseph had inside a barn at his ranch north of Toronto.
Joseph is now an ambassador with the Maple Leafs and also well acquainted with Matthews’ talents.
“Connor’s always been a Houdini with the puck,” Joseph said. “He was a phenom the moment I saw him. He was always a special talent, two or three years ahead of his age group. And Auston (6-foot-3, 220 pounds) is just such a physical specimen, a combination of size, strength and skill. Impressive.”
It’s the type of elite matchup that has Keefe intrigued, even with having to devise a game plan to try to slow McDavid down.
“They are special talents,” Keefe said. “It’s fun, in our case, to coach Auston. But just to be behind the bench for these games is great.”