Hockey's Historic Highlights

Auston Matthews: Liberator or Lemon?

Hockey's Historic Highlights

Glen R. Goodhand

Auston Matthews: Liberator or Lemon?

Posted October 14, 2016

Viewed 2365 times

Auston MAtthews (Jeffrey T. Barnes / Getty Images Sport / Getty)Auston Matthews (Jeffrey T. Barnes / Getty Images Sport / Getty)

    About Auston Matthews, Elite Hockey Prospects opines:  “A high octane dynamo, who is a complete offensive forward, constantly boasts quick hands, feet, and thinking at both ends of the ice. A naturally nimble skater who accelerates to top speed quickly. An unwavering confidence on fine-tuning elements of his own goals, facilitate confidence and competence in his young, but mature mind. His prolific goal scoring ability, means he doesn’t wait for opportunities to show themselves…….All in all, a generational talent who has the potential to develop into a top flight franchise centre!”

   Coach Mike Babcock said virtually the same thing, albeit in a condensed fashion: “He’s going to be a dominant number one centre in the NHL! The fact that he displayed those predicted skills in his NHL debut on October 12, with his four goals against Ottawa, only adds to the hype.

    Accolades like that, front cover appearances, and headlines in virtually every publication covering hockey, place this young man in a very precarious position. Like every number one NHL draft pick in the last five decades, this tribe shares a vulnerability with other pro shinny novices—those who have won the Calder Trophy as the league’s “rookie-of-the-year.”

   They didn’t ask for it. But a combination of raw talent plus a modern media force which has a pendent for sensationalizing, places them dead centre in a spotlight that is second to none in the world of sports.

  There is a negative option affirmed from facts which emanate from this great game’s history; and it prompts this question: “At the end of the 2016-17 campaign—or even the 2018-19 season, will all the hype and hopes match the realities etched in the stats records buried deeply in the data files in the loop’s head office?

  Why the overtones of pessimism? I prefer to think of it as pragmatism—practicality. Again history raises its ugly head, reminding us Auston Matthews is not necessarily immune to the perils experienced by numerous highly-touted hockey prospects. They have either failed to reach their projected potential, or they have mysteriously run out of gas after impressive flash-in-the-pan performances. 

   For instance, before the June draft was introduced in 1963, it was Calder Trophy winners who were thrust into this spotlight.

  Kilby MacDonald finished 20th in NHL scoring in 1939-40; his points total being 28, compared with scoring champion Milt Schmidt’s 52. Granted, the first year crop of recruits was rather sparse that season, and Toronto’s whiz kid defenseman, Wally Stanowski, was his only serious threat in Calder Trophy voting. However, he did sign with the New York Rangers with the reputation as “the brightest young player in the NHL”.

  But season number two saw a real dip in his production. He managed only five goals and six assists. This earned him a trip to the farm. He was granted two more opportunities following his years in military service. But he was never the same again as a player. 16 and 15 points respectively represented his efforts in his big league swan song.

   Ten years later a bright young cage cop by the name of Jack Gelineau burst on the scene of the Big Time. He had an impressive quartet of seasons with the McGill Redmen, during which time he was the first recipient of the Forbes Trophy, emblematic of McGill’s Male Athlete of the Year. When the Bruins’ Frank Brimsek was injured in late 1949, the Toronto native received the call to fill the gap. He shone during his four-game stint with the Beantowners, prompting the big club to sign him to a contract for the following campaign, ousting “Mr. Zero” from his post in the process. He played all but three of the 70-game schedule with Boston, and was awarded the Calder Trophy.

   Surprisingly, even though he followed up with a solid performance in 1950-51, it would be his last final full-time job at that level of shinny. When he didn’t see eye-to-eye with Mr. Adams in the fall of 1951, he ended up standing behind the pipes of the Quebec Aces of the Quebec Senior League—where he remained for the next four seasons.

   Perhaps the all-time eye-opener relating to this high-profile performer was his finale in the NHL.

Strapping on the pads for the Blackhawks for two games, he allowed 18 goals to bulge the twine behind him, etching a 9.0 goals-against average in his resume.

    Thirteen full compliments of calendar pages had flipped by before still another enigmatic puckster burst upon the NHL scene when granted his first opportunity—but gradually petered out of the big league spotlight. Kent Douglas had made waves during his Junior tenure. But in the “Original 6” era it was a rare thing to jump straight to the Big Time. In fact, he spent six seasons on the farm, four of them with Eddie Shore’s Springfield aggregation, before his big chance materialized.

  Tutored by the old master Eddie Shore himself, he was awarded the AHL’s Best Defenseman Trophy (Eddie Shore Award) in 1962. His performance was enough to prompt the Toronto’s Leafs to pull a five for one deal to gain his services in the fall of 1962. They were rewarded by his stellar efforts in that rookie campaign, and he was rewarded by winning the Calder Trophy. But his play waned in his sophomore season, and he was demoted to Rochester for 27 games. Splitting time between the Major league sextets and Minor league rosters spelled out the story of the bulk of his remaining hockey days. In fact, after half a dozen schedules had gone into hockey history, he was out of the world’s premier loop for good.

   The mystery of this up-again, down-again cycle, may well have been summed up by Punch Imlach:

“No doubt he could fill the bill if he put his mind to the task. He has enough talent for the job—but his problem is attitude. He never was the defenseman everybody knew he could be!”

   The plight of number one picks in the NHL draft has invited enough ink over the years to print an unabridged dictionary. Systematically major media vehicles like Sportsnet, The Hockey News, The Bleacher Report, and NHL.Com scrutinized both the teams who picked them, and the shortfalls of players themselves. Whether poor scouting, the incompatibility of the venue into which they were thrust, overconfidence (or too little) or a simple failure to adjust to the life at the top, these hopefuls failed to live up to their exaggerated billing.

  Because their profiles have saturated the 5th Estate at one level or another, passing comments will be sufficient to illustrate why treading lightly is prudent regarding Mr. Matthews chances of fulfilling the prognostications which have abounded over the last several months. The number of numero uno picks who have fallen short of expectations abounds—so we will limit this expose to five who have especially been what several hockeyists term — “busts”.

   Greg Joly was snapped up by the struggling Washington Capitals in June 1974. A rushing defenseman in Junior hockey, he was hailed as the “next Bobby Orr”.  As one shinny scribe put it, “he was also portrayed at a messiah to deliver them from NHL evils.”  Perhaps he was too judgmental in tagging him a “flop” in Arlington. After all, the Caps were then being acknowledged as the NHL’s worst team, and only an army of “messiahs” could have lifted them out of the doldrums. 

   He was hampered by the coach Tom McVie’s system, which hobbled his most publicized talents. The fact that he was expected to be the all-in-all in sparking the first-year sextet to respectability, was, as the prolific Joe Pelletier put it: “There is no rookie in history that could not have wilted under those circumstances”—namely, being a franchise player. When he was traded to Detroit in 1976, he had been labouring the AHL. Even there he couldn’t live up to his press releases.

  Brian Lawton has the distinction of being the first American-born first overall pick in the NHL draft. In 1983 the Minnesota North Stars were so impressed by the high school superstar that they passed over Sylvain Turgeon, Pat LaFontaine, and (ouch) Steve Yzerman to funnel him into the Twin City coral. It was this series of omissions which accents the faux pas, more than his failing to live up to the reputation as a first-overall choice. 

   Only the second skater to be plucked from the U.S. high school hockey system his shortcomings became obvious in this second year with major league club. Barry Meisel, who covered the team’s comings and goings during that era, wrote: “Mario Lemieux collected goals and assists. Brian Lawton collected frequent flyer coupons.”

    He went on to elaborate about his taking round trip flights between Minnesota and Springfield four times that season, meaning “some major airline could make the 19-year-old centre its public spokesman!”

   He changed NHL togs six times over his 10-year pro career, with several stops in the AHL and IHL interspersed between temporary sojourns.

    New York Islanders General Manager, Mike Milbury, spoke of the reasons he felt it worthwhile to dispose of Roberto Luongo, shipping him to Florida, in order to be able to snatch Rick DiPietro as the first draft pick in 2000: “…. unusually strong puck handling skills, his aggressive style, plus his leadership and confidence”. These were the key factors in rating him so highly and making the choice they did. So convinced was he of his potential move that he had a 15-year, $67.5-million contract all sealed and delivered, just waiting to be signed at the appropriate moment.

   As one correspondent opined: “It may not have been the worst pick in history, but it was the most expensive!” Thirteen years later, when the Isles bought out his contract, in hindsight it was said: “A fluke combination of hype, unbelievable expectations, and non-stop injuries” spelled out a sub-par career.” During only four of those years could his duration between the Long Island uprights be considered “full time”. 

   At age 32, he was cut from a pro try-out with the Charlotte Checkers, the AHL affiliate of the Carolina Hurricanes—his pay-for-play tenure finished.

    But it’s hard not to conclude that the epitome of failed expectations emanates from the roller-coaster ride evidenced by the career of one Alexandre Daigle, who was the primary prize chosen by the Ottawa Senators in 1993. Touted as “the next French-Canadian superstar”, and a “can’t miss project”, the Quebec Nordiques offered Peter Forsberg as bait to get him into one of their powder blue shirts. He was signed for an unprecedented $12.15 million over 15 seasons, the most for a first year skater at the time.

He had burned up the QMJHL with 247 points in two seasons as a member of the Victoriaville club, and it seemed that any monetary plumb was not out of the question.

   His initial two campaigns were respectable; but his performance fell far short of the hype which had accompanied his much-publicized introduction to the NHL.  In 616 games he never exceeded 51 points, and his minus 137, even with a weak contingent, was anything but impressive.

  By the time five seasons had gone into the history books, he knew what it was to be a “healthy scratch”, and trade talks abounded hockey circles. Talk turned to action and he was shifted to Philadelphia. The Hockey News commented on his exit with: “He came as ‘Alexander the Great’—he left as ‘Alexander the Grate’” (As time passed that latter tag seemed appropriate. One coach said he was “fed up with his work ethic and attitude!”)

   All did NOT go well in the City of Brotherly Love. In short order Manager Bob Clarke was moaning that he didn’t know what was wrong with Daigle. That dilemma was only intensified when it came to contract time, as he chose to sit out rather take the money offered. Apparently he still hadn’t “opened his eyes to see the bear”.

  With his third club, Tampa Bay, they were soon ready give up on him. In fact they wouldn’t even bother to demote him to their farm club.

   When he went north to the Big Apple he seemed to catch on that this just may have been his last chance—and the raised level of his game was very gratifying to fourth landing place. But, before the season ended he was in Hartford with the Ranger’s minor league squad.

   In September 2000, he reported that he wasn’t sure he wanted to play anymore, resulting a two-year sabbatical. But he then decided he’d like one more kick at the shinny can, and was embraced by the Penguin organization. Half of that campaign was spent with the Wilkes-Baron AHL club.

  Before bidding a final farewell to the NHL he caught on with the Minnesota Wild. Season number one was decent enough—for a good player—but not for a number one draft pick. Before season number two was completed he was riding the AHL buses again.

   Probably he couldn’t see past his own ego; so that what should have been an incidental in his tenure in the Big Time, became perhaps his signature moment: “I’m glad I was drafted first, because nobody remembers number two!”

   There is a third classification of future hopefuls, which very closely duplicates the route which Auston Matthews has taken to this topflight level of the ice game. That one of them won the Calder Trophy is almost incidental. Rather than graduating from the college ranks, or climbing the usual steps through the QMJHL, OHL, or WHL, these two apprenticed in elite European hockey ranks, sojourned in North American Minor Leagues, then donned the garb of an NHL sextet. Both took these steps amidst a great deal of fanfare. But like the aforementioned pucksters they fell short of their elevated


  Radek Bonk more than held his own in the crack Czech loop at age 16. A great deal of hoopla accompanied his unconventional initial step to the Big Time, when he signed with the Las Vegas Thunder of the IHL. If the highlights of his career were recorded in the form of a diary, it would read this way:

   September 3, 1993: “It’s a gamble for all involved, but Radek Bonk will try his luck at the age of 17…. he will become the youngest player ever to play in the IHL.”

   March 18, 1994: “One general manager calls the choice of Radek Bonk a slam dunk.” (Ottawa took him 3rd overall).

   September 2, 1994: “Ottawa Senator’s Radek Bonk compares himself to Eric Lindros, and claims he’ll make as big an impact. “I’ll be better!’”, Bonk said. (Journalist’s comment: “Not on this planet, my friend.”)

   December 15, 1995: “Left winger Radek Bonk was scratched for the third time this season for a November game against the New York Islanders….”

   December 12, 1997: “Ottawa’s Radek Bonk scratched after failing to register a point in 16 consecutive games.

    February 20, 1998: “Centre Radek Bonk, who had seven goals in 55 games, was a healthy scratch.        February 4 in New Jersey. “GM Pierre Gauthier has tried to trade Bonk, but hasn’t found any takers.”

    March 27, 1998: “Radek Bonk was scratched four straight games and the club was trying to trade him.”

   April 10, 1998: “Radek Bonk, the Ottawa Senator’s third overall draft pick had 42 goals for Los Vegas Thunder of the IHL in his draft year. In four NHL season, including this one, the centre has 31 goals in 230 games. He was scratched in 10 straight games!”

   January 28, 2000: “Not long ago Radek Bonk was considered one of the Ottawa Senators biggest mistakes. Today he’s one of their biggest stars. While he has been through a lot in his first five years in the league, he finally arrived when he was chosen to play in the NHL All Star Game Feb. 6 in Toronto.”

   February 28, 2006: “Montreal must be wondering what it was thinking signing 2-goal scorer, Radek Bonk for nearly $2.7 million.”

    September 28, 2015: “Radek Bonk is currently playing at a more low-key level—in the Ottawa Travelers Hockey League Division 8 (an amateur men’s circuit)”

   Such a compilation seems to major in the negatives rather than the pluses. No argument there. Bonk did have some good seasons—but no great ones. His best totals were 25 goals and 70 points—not exactly record-breaking. Because of the world-class expectations attached to his NHL debut, enhanced by his own blatant boasting, the media pounced upon his blunders, acknowledging that any positive element should have been the norm—not news!

   In many ways, Sergei Samsonov’s profile duplicates the above.  Like Bonk he jumped from top drawer shinny in his native Russia to the Detroit Vipers of the IHL in 1996. Up to that point he had been a “name” in his own bailiwick, a standout in world Junior competition. But suddenly, it was “adios home”, “hello Motown”. He took the league by storm and was voted IHL rookie of the year. 

   So it was no surprise when the Bruins made him their second choice after Joe Thornton, 8th overall, in 1997. The Hockey Newsopined: “There’s no telling how good Samsonov will be … the last Russian they took was an utter failure……But the prospects for the diminutive Samsonov, and by extension, the Bruins, are much brighter.”

   That prediction proved to have emanated from a totally clear crystal ball.  He tallied 47 points, 40 more than Thornton (first overall) and captured to Calder Trophy as the best first-year skater. He continued apace for four more campaigns, peaking in 2000-01 with 75 points. But then the slow slide began. He was shipped off to Edmonton, where, after a brief flurry, he was picked up by the Canadians as a free agent. In the hot bed of Montreal he proved to be a disappointment, too often a healthy scratch by Coach Guy Carbonneau. During the 2006-07 season he endured a 19-game goalless streak, earning him “the game’s most disappointing player” honour. 

   His next stop was Chicago, where, during 23 games he managed only four assists. Demoted to the Hawk’s farm team, his contract was salvaged by Carolina. Over four seasons he averaged an ordinary 15 markers—so he was on the move again—this time to Florida. His quick start there quickly fizzled, with only 3 goals in 20 games. When he was put on waivers, 29 teams passed on his services. 

   How the mighty have fallen! Neither of these competitors were complete busts. Like the Calder winners, and first-overall draft picks, they had their shining moments. But the final landing place of them all relates the sad tale. Is it possible that Auston Matthews could fall into that same pattern? It would be an anti-climax if he did. Only time will tell.

   Back in April of 1958 Vince Lunny headlined the lead article in the Hockey Blueline magazine with a feature about the Leafs’ rookie winger, Frank Mahovlich. He was well on his way to earning the Calder Trophy for that season.  Lunny lead off the article with: “The good citizens of Toronto refer to Frank Mahovolich as Moses. They call him that because they think he is the man who will lead them out of the wilderness, beyond the dark frontiers of frustration…”

   At that time the “wilderness” had included a half decade of failure to continue a Blue and White tradition of winning the Stanley Cup. The season before they had even missed the post-season altogether, and would finish dead last in the “Big M’s” initial campaign.

   And did he succeed? Well, within four years the treasured trophy was back on the mantel in the Queen City. He had a big part in that success story.

   The “wilderness” in which the Leaf Nation finds itself now is much more sobering! Multiply that 11-year drought by five, and you have the hump over which Auston Matthews is expected to drag the dreadfully bogged down Toronto Maple Leafs, in order to restore the oft-repeated glory of the World Championship.

  Of course Frank Mahovlich didn’t do it all by himself. Likewise, it is impossible for this past summer’s number draft choice to lead the charge to hockey’s jackpot.  But what is vital is that he starts strong, and is still going strong when all the pieces are finally put in place to arrange a ticker-tape parade down Bay Street, like in the good old days.

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